Pacific Predictions — 2016

Kava preparation, SW Bay, Malekula (Flickr/Austronesian Expeditions)
Written by Tess Newton Cain

Kava preparation, SW Bay, Malekula (Flickr/Austronesian Expeditions)

Further to Pacific Predictions for 2012-2015 (see here, here, here and here), here are my thoughts on what 2016 will hold for my part of the world.

Elections

There are a number of countries that will hold general elections this year and it all gets off to a very early start with a snap general election in Vanuatu on January 22. This follows a prolonged period of extreme (even by Vanuatu standards) political uncertainty, culminating in the dissolution of Parliament by the President late last year. These elections will be different from previous elections for a number of reasons. One is their timing; January is not a usual time of year for elections in Vanuatu and there are concerns that this may lead to a lower than usual voter turnout. Another is that a significant number of key players (including leaders of parties and previous ministers) are ineligible to stand by virtue of them having been convicted and sentenced for bribery during 2014, and subsequently barred from standing for office for a period of 10 years. The electoral office will declare the official number of candidates on January 5 with the expectation that it will be in excess of 300 (to contest 52 parliamentary seats). Whether the 2016 elections prove to be a ‘critical juncture’ for politics and governance in Vanuatu remains to be seen.

The people of Nauru will also go to the polls this year, with elections scheduled for August. However, there have been some indications that the current government, led by Baron Waqa, will seek to go to the polls earlier than that. The nature of politics in Nauru is highly personal and there are no political parties. There are a number of structural issues that are of concern in Nauru in the lead up to general elections, including the continuing suspension of five members of the current opposition, and apparent interference in the rule of law and due process by members of the Executive. In addition, ongoing media restrictions (both domestic and international) are likely to contribute to concerns [in French] as to whether elections in that country can be considered free and fair.

Elections will also be held in Samoa on March 4. Much has been made in some quarters of the great strides taken in Samoa to introduce temporary special measures (TSM) that will apply for the first time during these elections, which will ensure that women make up 10 per cent of the new Parliament. This is certainly significant. However, it is important to put this within the wider context; in Samoa only people who hold a matai title are eligible to stand for election to the parliament, regardless of their gender. So there remains some way to go before universal suffrage is achieved within the country.

Pacific diplomacy

Renewed Pacific diplomacy (on which, see the new collected volume The New Pacific Diplomacy) has been a feature of recent times and we can expect there to be more of it in 2016 and beyond.

Further to the big global agreements of 2015 – the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change – this year will see the beginning of the huge tasks associated with the implementation of these agreements. The countries of our region certainly punched above their diplomatic weight during 2014 and this renewed vigour will be required to ensure that the Pacific plays its part in operationalising some very lofty goals. We can expect to see continuing assertiveness on the part of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group at the UN, with Fiji seeking to lead in that arena.

Closer to home, there will be continuing accommodation of the changing regional architecture. The Pacific Islands Development Forum has a new Secretary-General and expects to be granted observer status at the UN during the coming year, further establishing its credentials. As we saw in 2015, the space it provided for the small island states to caucus ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum meeting presaged a level of engagement and assertiveness on the part of leaders that has long been missing. There are likely to be further tensions around the membership of the Pacific Islands Forum, although it remains unlikely that Fiji will be able to garner much support for its contention that Australia and New Zealand should leave. That is not to say that our metropolitan neighbours can rest easy in terms of their relationships with individual Pacific island countries or the region more generally. One of the most striking aspects of the 2015 meeting of Forum leaders was that the issues that generated the most discussion (and proved the most contentious) were those where Pacific countries were seeking political cohesion rather than finance or technical assistance.

The torturous process that is PACER plus is scheduled for conclusion in 2016. Whilst Australia has, in recent times, devoted a great deal of energy to speedy conclusions of bilateral free trade agreements, the same degree of enthusiasm does not appear to be present in relation to concluding trading arrangements with our region. By the same token, there is little to indicate that PACER Plus rates highly on the priority list of many of the Pacific island countries, leaving its proposed conclusion somewhat in doubt.

Tess Newton Cain is a Visiting Fellow to the Development Policy Centre and is a citizen of Vanuatu, where she is currently based.

Tess Newton Cain

Dr Tess Newton Cain is the principal of TNC Pacific Consulting and is a Visiting Fellow to the Development Policy Centre. She is a citizen of Vanuatu where she lived for almost 20 years and is now based in Brisbane. Tess is a specialist in Pacific regionalism and sub-regionalism, with a particular interest in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. She is a regular contributor to the Devpolicy blog, where she often co-writes with Matthew Dornan. She is the co-ordinator of the 'Pacific Conversations' series in which she discusses politics and policy with established and emerging leaders from the Pacific island region.

5 Comments

  • Some of us above the Equator almost always hardly pay attention to the Pacific politics in the South Pacific region, thus I couldn’t be sure whether it has to do with our closer ties with the United States or just that our media rarely cover or promote politics below the Equator. At any rate, I’d like to complement your views as expressed above and in addition question the issue of Fiji being once considered as a militant country due the coup few years back. Has it being relieved yet of the political rhetoric labeling which to me is part chaotic since Fiji has been served as a very contributive country in the Pacific. Also, Fiji is offering solution to the sinking Kiribati and perhaps other low lying Pacific countries.

    Yes, our FSM country and state of Pohnpei have just wrapped their election last year and hopefully we should be ready to launch our new administrations with strategic development goals which may addressed the three major areas in agriculture, tourism and fisheries, plus of course our anticipated termination of financial assistance in our Compact of Free Association with the USA in 2023. We once had the case of impeachment in Pohnpei, but fortunately the official in effect has resigned and thus giving our current and soon to become new administration all the political and economic leverages to push forth. Again, thank you for sharing your views above.

    • Thanks for your feedback and contribution. Fiji plays a very significant role within the region and managed to maintain a degree of influence even when considered a ‘pariah’ state by some, including by establishing the PIDF and taking on a larger role within the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Since the elections in 2014 global powers have sought to re-establish ties with Suva including military ties. However, in the 8 years of military rule, new friendships have been established and so the landscape has changed quite a bit.

  • . . .

    “Further to the big global agreements of 2015 – the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change – this year will see the beginning of the huge tasks associated with the implementation of these agreements.”

    Huge tasks, indeed.

    Translating global rhetoric into local realities, however, demands an almost equally huge investment, long, long over-due, in participatory mechanisms, starting with informing citizens.

    From the perspective of PFF, the Pacific Freedom Forum, that requires member governments to recognise the centrality of news media, especially in the delivery of our most fundamental human right, freedoms of expression, and, more especially these days with the open data revolution, access to information.

    We outline those centralities in our 2015 end of year review, and look ahead for 2016 here.

    Completely separate from my role as PFF editor, is my own project as founder of JA2025, the Journalism Agenda 2025.

    JA2025 envisions an adaptation of #globalgoals under SDGs towards the 4th Estate. This would see 0.7% of all aid targets firewalled off into independent trusts for a global 4th Estate, over the next decade. Concurrently, JA2025 will campaign for that same formula to be applied throughout the public sector by NGOs, and, eventually, the private sector, as well.

    Still in the blue-sky-pie stage, or pre-alpha-draft-exploratory-concept-phase to use the jargon, JA2025 is already been followed globally by leading United Nations development experts.

    Those interested can get an overview of JA2025 at our participatory forum here.

    Meantime, one comment on the above, relating to there being “some way to go before universal suffrage is achieved” within Samoa.

    As something of a ground breaker for the English-speaking parts of the Pacific (French territories already well ahead on this path), Samoa is treading carefully, wisely in my view. Such is the power of corruption, even the best intentioned initiatives, such as gender equality, can be subverted to interests other than those of the public general. Outside of this aspect, the matai system is an ancient form of democracy that needs to be seen as an enabler rather an obstacle to equality.

    Primarily, by serving as an almost impregnable barrier that has acted as an efficient block to exploitation by foreign sources, and their hand-picked lackeys, including some well-known rugby players, among others. In the matai, and other traditional leadership systems across the region, we have a form of chaos-theory guardianship that slows things down.

    Having seen what has happened at home in my adoptive Cook Islands, where traditional leadership is extremely weak, and tourism wipe out indigenous language use in little over a generation, I think other countries are wise to go slow, for development to be socially and environmentally sustainable, as well as economically sustained.

    Sorry for these long wordy sentences, just some off-the-cuff comments in response to another excellent overview from Tess, via DevPolicy.

    Super valuable for us all.

    . . .

    • Thanks Jason for this and especially for your thoughts on the intersection between the Matai system and democracy in Samoa

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