Stakes High For Key's First Forum Meeting
Sunday, 25 January 2009 - 1:00pm
By Maggie Tait of NZPA
Wellington, Jan 25 NZPA - Prime Minister John Key says unless the Pacific Islands Forum shows leadership by sending a strong message to Fiji on the need for democracy, another body will have to step up.
Stakes are high at Mr Key's first meeting with forum leaders in Papua New Guinea on Tuesday as the regional body discusses whether to take the groundbreaking step of suspending a member or imposing other sanctions on Fiji over self-appointed Prime Minister Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama's failure to take steps towards reinstating democracy.
Suspension would be a first for the forum's 16 member states, and is unlikely but discussions will be intense.
The forum, which is based in Fiji, has no formal process for suspension and it will be up to leaders to thrash out measures they can take. It could be that Fiji is banned from participation in certain programmes, for example.
Forum nations are disappointed at the lack of progress towards elections since the December 2006 bloodless coup and over Commodore Bainimarama's decision not to attend the meeting because of domestic flooding.
PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare on Friday said he had delayed the meet to allow Cdre Bainimarama to attend but Sir Michael's office was forced to back down after chairing nation Niue overruled the decision yesterday.
Cdre Bainimarama is expected to send attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, in his place to the Port Moresby gathering.
The meeting was called after Cdre Bainimarama reneged on a pledge he made to a forum meeting in Tonga in 2007 to hold elections this March. He says electoral reform is needed first. The group will consider recommendations in a ministerial contact group report to be presented to leaders.
Mr Key said the forum was the right group to send a message to Cdre Bainimarama that he needed to put his country on a pathway to democracy.
"There needs to a recognition that if this group fails to send that message then it weakens the group over all and leaves that responsibility to another body," Mr Key told NZPA.
Mr Key said he had a view on what action would be taken but would not prejudge the outcome of talks.
Mr Key said the forum was only as strong as its weakest link.
"We need to demonstrate the leadership that's required. That doesn't mean there's not flexibility and we're not sympathetic to some of the issues, particularly the flooding, nor should we be heavy handed but we do need to see progress.
Pacific academic Dr Jon Fraenkel has said external pressures would not lead Fiji back to democracy because elections would mean Cdre Bainimarama would lose his hold on power.
Mr Key agreed that political willingness was needed for change but said the forum was not impotent.
"In the end Frank Bainimarama will look to at least some of the Pacific Island leaders for support for his position and if that support's not forthcoming that will have some impact on him.
"I am more optimistic than some commentators that the Pacific Islands Forum can achieve a good outcome but I am also conscious of the fact that won't occur unless there's a willingness on Bainimarama's part to see that occur."
The coup culture in Fiji was hurting the country.
"What we can be sure of is an interim illegitimate government in a country which has been dominated by coups is not a recipe for economic success in the Pacific."
Cdre Bainimarama was not commenting on how he feels about the possibility of further sanctions or suspension.
"That's for them to decide, not me. It's their call," he told AAP.
Australia and New Zealand have imposed sanctions, including a ban on Government members, officials or their families getting travel visas, and last year New Zealand's acting high commissioner was expelled.
Fiji has accused New Zealand of being heavy handed but Mr Key said New Zealand was not trying to bully the nation.
"This isn't a matter of Australia and New Zealand acting out of sync with the rest of the Pacific leaders."
Cdre Bainimarama has also accused New Zealand and Australia of being callous for expecting him to front up when floods claimed 11 lives in his country.
He failed to attend a meeting in Niue last year and Mr Key doubted the commodore would have attended in any event.
Melanesian countries are reluctant to act against Fiji but they want to hear from the interim Prime Minister.
Last week PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare said he did not want to see Fiji suspended from the forum or Commonwealth.
"I think with our own Melanesian senses we should be able to get him talking to us."
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