Leaders attending the Pacific Islands Forum have now arrived in Port Vila but it’s the absentees that are the hot topic at the four-day talkfest in Vanuatu.
A fleet of black limousines delivered Pacific nations’ representatives to the opening of the 41st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) at Independence Park in Port Vila on Wednesday.
Local schoolchildren waved national flags as Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith – standing in for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who missed the PIF due to election commitments – handed over the chairmanship of the forum to the host nation’s leader, Prime Minister Edward Natapei.
Mr Smith echoed NZ Prime Minister John Key, and other regional leaders, in saying that Ms Gillard’s absence at the 41st annual PIF was understandable.
“Other than Fiji, of course, the Pacific island leaders are all democrats and they all understand the nature of elections,” Mr Smith told reporters gathered at Le Lagon resort on Wednesday.
Election commitments also prevented the leaders of the tiny atoll of Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands – where an election was held on Wednesday – from attending the PIF.
“Citizens of the Pacific value (elections) very much, and we want to see it exercised in a full and free and timely way for all citizens of the Pacific, including Fijians,” Mr Smith said.
Fiji’s flag flew alongside 15 others in Port Vila but the troubled nation was suspended unanimously from the regional organisation in 2009 for failing to hold elections by a deadline set by the PIF.
On the eve of Wednesday’s official opening, Fiji’s self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he didn’t want to be part of a group dominated by Australia and NZ – nations which he didn’t think should be geographically considered part of the Pacific islands.
Mr Smith said he wasn’t surprised by Commodore Bainimarama’s criticisms of Australia and NZ, and Mr Key said his harsh comments were “ridiculous”.
The topic of Fiji is tabled for discussion at a leaders’ retreat at Havana Bay on Thursday, and both trans-Tasman representatives believe Fiji’s suspension will be continued.
“Until Fiji returns to democracy there is unanimity of view that Fiji cannot sit, at ministerial level, around the forum councils,” Mr Smith said.
“We’d like very much to have a dialogue with Frank Bainimarama but it’s very hard to have a one-way dialogue.”
Also missing on the roll call was Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, who told reporters he wasn’t attending due to personal reasons.
Mr Smith touched down in Port Vila early on Wednesday morning and spent the day in bilateral meetings with NZ, among others, and signed Pacific Partnerships for Development with the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Marshall Islands.
Mr Key said he and Mr Smith touched on issues including Fiji, the proposed regional processing centre for asylum seekers and Pacer Plus Pacific trade talks, NZPA reported.
Mr Smith also signed Pacific Security Partnerships with Kiribati and Samoa, taking Australia’s total of Pacific partnerships to 11.
With these partnerships, Australia promised to offer developmental assistance such as access to clean water, better education, improved economic infrastructure and enhanced security.
Mr Smith has more bilateral meetings lined up before he flies out of Port Vila on Thursday evening.
NZPA also reported that a trilateral meeting between the United States, Australia and New Zealand would be held on the sidelines of the forum on Thursday.
The PIF will conclude on Friday with a post-forum discussion.