Prime Minister Dr Robert Woonton occupied centre stage at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Auckland this week.
As chairman of the Small Island States group, it was left to the prime minister to comment on the reaction of smaller Pacific nations to efforts by Australia to establish a leadership role in the region.
On Wednesday (CI time), commenting on an Australian Senate committee recommendation that the South Pacific should move toward an economic and political bloc similar to the European Union and had suggested the establishment of a common currency based on the Australian dollar, Dr Woonton said his fellow leaders had expressed concern at the idea.
“The question of sovereignty is one that we will have to address if Australia intends to bring in…one currency,” he said.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard had earlier urged the leaders of the six smaller Forum members to do more to fight corruption or risk losing Australian aid.
Taking an aggressive stance on Australia’s role in the region, he strongly promoted the idea of smaller islands sharing their resources in areas like policing and aviation to ensure more efficient services. Howard also unveiled a $15 million police training scheme for the region, based in Fiji.
However Dr Woonton’s comments made it clear that the smaller nations are wary about a stronger Australian role in the region, especially after the deployment of an Australian-led intervention force to the Solomon Islands.
Any future missions in the region should be based on a multilateral rather than a unilateral force, he said.
The prime minister also made it clear that the smaller island states did not favour the idea of former Australian diplomat Greg Irwin being appointed secretary-general of the forum, in spite of a year of intensive lobbying from Australia.
“The question of the SG – the leaders also are agreed that the choice of Secretary General, the best interests of the Pacific will be served by somebody from the Pacific,” Dr Woonton said.
“I can't go any further than that other than to say that the consensus has been reached that we would prefer somebody from the Pacific serving as the Secretary General of the Pacific Island Forum.”
The smaller island states made it known that they were disappointed at the lack of urgency on the longstanding issue of climate change, which particularly affects low-lying atolls.
Overseas media including the high-circulation New Zealand Herald interpreted this as another dig at Mr Howard, who has long sided with the United States in refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol.
Dr Woonton’s comments were featured in many leading Australian and New Zealand newspapers during the week. He featured in numerous Radio Australia reports and appeared in Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Television One coverage of the forum, including the leaders’ retreat which considered some of the most important issues facing Pacific Forum countries. – Govmedia/Overseas news reports