BRUCE HILL: The Pacific Islands Forum annual conference has opened in the Cook Islands' capital, Rarotonga.
Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles is there with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
He has attended a series of meetings ahead of the official opening which has just wrapped up. Richard Marles is on the line now.
RICHARD MARLES: It's very exciting here. There's much dancing and Polynesian hip swinging and everyone is excited. We watched all the leaders being led into the Opening Ceremony on chairs, on people's shoulders, so it's been quite an opening ceremony. What definitely stole the show was Prime Minister Sir Henry Puna, serenading the opening. He performed the song himself, so a pretty special performance which sets the bar high for every other Forum going forward.
BRUCE HILL: I've seen Henry Puna sing. He's actually not bad.
RICHARD MARLES: He's not bad. He sang a duet and I could see all the leaders who're vying to hold the Forum next year get a little bit shy at the idea they might need to sing as well.
BRUCE HILL: That could be a new qualification to host the Forum, a good singing voice from the Prime Minister?
RICHARD MARLES: Indeed, indeed. I did mention to our Prime Minister that John Key didn't do this last year. We were wondering what was wrong with him.
BRUCE HILL: Well maybe Julia Gillard and John Key could do a duet or maybe that's something we'd pay good money to avoid perhaps.
RICHARD MARLES: Now, that is a bridge too far, I think Bruce.
BRUCE HILL: Well, look Rarotonga, I've been to Rarotonga a few times. It's quite a small place and the Forum can be quite a large gathering. How is Rarotonga holding out in terms of infrastructure, a lot of people there?
RICHARD MARLES: There are a lot of people here, but there's an enormous sense of excitement. This is a really big moment for the Cook Islands and for Rarotonga. The Forum Opening Ceremony has been held in a basketball stadium here in Avarua. It's a place which has a good tourist industry so there are lots of hotel facilities. I think it's holding up pretty well. There'll be another step up, of course, later in the week when Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State, arrives with her entourage but, so far, Rarotonga has been doing a sterling job and there's just an enormous sense of excitement about the annual gathering of Pacific families.
BRUCE HILL: Now, we can turn to the business of the Forum. Now there's already been some talk I think from Nauru and a couple of other places about the possible readmission of Fiji, What's Australia's view on that?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, Fiji's readmission to the Forum is appropriate to occur when democracy has returned to Fiji and, as we stand here today, we can't say that. But, having made that point, it is right that there has been progress in Fiji. We've witnessed the constitutional process having been shared by Professor Yash Ghai, who's a very credible internationalist who's performed these functions in the past. We are looking very closely at what's occurred there and we welcome the progress that's been made. But, there is progress still to go, in terms of human rights and in terms of the freedom of the media. I think what is likely to happen is the Ministerial Contact Group of the Pacific Island Forum, which has been seized of this issue, will continue to look at what's happening in Fiji, continue to monitor events there and, if circumstances change in the future, there'll be recommendations from the Ministerial Contact Group accordingly.
BRUCE HILL: What if the situation of Fiji doesn't change? I mean we just heard an academic expert earlier in the program say that Fiji can't be kept out of the Forum indefinitely regardless of what happens. I mean if they don't return to democracy, could Fiji be kept out indefinitely, are they against the wishes of a lot of other Forum countries do you think?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, I'd make two points about that. Firstly, and before I make that, no one is talking about doing anything against the wishes of the Forum countries. The Forum countries themselves determine the outcomes here. But, democracy is a deeply held value of the Pacific family and it's a deeply held value of the Pacific Island Forum. That said, Fiji has made commitments on numerous occasions that they are going to hold elections in the next couple of years. They have a constitutional process in place which they assure us will lead to a set of free and fair elections in the next couple of years, where we do see restoration of human rights and where we do see a free press. Now, the challenge for all of us is to work with Fiji to see that happen and that's what we're doing. When Fiji has achieved a situation of being democratic, that's the right time to readmit Fiji to what is essentially a fundamentally democratic Forum.
BRUCE HILL: Now speaking of the way the Forum operates. There was a review of the Forum Secretariat which has been leaked now which says basically that the organisation is ineffective and overly dominated by Australia and New Zealand and that this needs to change. From your perspective, do you think Australia and New Zealand are too dominant, need to pull back a little bit from the workings of the Forum?
RICHARD MARLES: No, I wouldn't say that. The Forum is the pre-eminent body of all the Pacific Island countries and having now visited many of the island regions of the world, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, the Forum has much that it can be proud of in terms in the way in which it gives rise to regionalism, pools resources and makes life possible in a part of the world where you have very small populations that are geographically isolated. In those circumstances, regionalism is a really important goal to pursue and through the environmental agency, through the University of the South Pacific, through the Forum Fisheries Agency and through many other institutions, the Forum is doing good work and I don't think that's overly dominated by Australia and New Zealand. We, of course, want to make sure that we play our part, but we very much do that, not as dominators of this region, but rather as partners in the region with all of the other Forum Island countries.
BRUCE HILL: OK, well it sounds like things are still in full swing there, so I'll let you get back to it. Are you having a good time for the moment?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, I'm very much enjoying it. I mean there is a definite sense of celebration about a gathering of the Pacific family, which we see with the Pacific Islands Forum. We saw it last year in Auckland and we're seeing it again here tonight in Rarotonga. For me, doing the role I do representing Australia within the Pacific, this is really one of the most special moments of the year. It is hard not to walk around with a smile on your face. You are just reminded about how wonderful and special this part of the world really is.
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