July 22, 2009

By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press

Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, The Hon Duncan Kerr SC MP (Senior Counsel Member of Parliament) visited the FSM on July 10-12 and met with FSM's President Mori and Cabinet members to discuss issues important to both countries. This is the first visit of an Australian dignitary of such high rank in a number of years. His position is equivalent to that of a US Undersecretary of State.

His visit precedes the 40th Pacific Islands Forum meetings that will be hosted by Australia in Cairns from August 4-7 of this year. A post dialogue forum will begin immediately following the meetings.

Kerr, who hails from Tasmania, has represented Denison in the Parliament since 1987. In 1993 he served as the Attorney General of Australia on an interim basis. He was Australia's Minister of Justice from 1993 through 1996. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Kerr to the position of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs after the victory of the Australian Labor Party in the November 2007 election.

Secretary Kerr sat down with The Kaselehlie Press on July 10 at the residence in Pohnpei of Australian Ambassador to the FSM Susan Cox. He commented on the beautiful view from the veranda of Pohnpei's lagoon, loosened his tie, leaned back in a comfortable chair and engagingly talked with us for over 30 minutes.

Kerr: ...the Leaders Forum in Cairns (is) very much a practical get together focused on the global economic crisis, the issues of climate change which are so important for the Pacific Islands, and to initiate approval for beginning discussions on free trade arrangements in the Pacific to build on PACER, the PACER Plus negotiations.

We're also seeking to have leaders to reinvigorate what's been a decliningly relevant Post Forum Dialogue process. After the leaders' retreat and the decisions of the Forum are made, what has occurred is that friends of the Pacific, Forum partners, who are not members of the. Forum have come together for what is called the Post Forum Dialogue. But contrary to the idea of the Dialogue it's been a Post Forum Monologue with each country essentially delivering its position statements and with very little interchange. (The dialogue) has become increasingly seen as peripheral and hard to engage the attention of Pacific Island leaders. We knew it had to be reinvigorated.

I've been running past the leaders of the Northern Pacific Islands Australia's intentions to put to the leaders an idea of reinvigorating that Post Forum Dialogue and bringing in not just the normal Post Forum Dialogue partners but also the international financial institutions: The World Bank, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), and the ADB (Asian Development Bank), with a view to building on the effectiveness of the discussions on the global financial crisis, looking at best practice on development assistance, better coordination and approaches for development assistance, and to continue after this forum to use the Post Forum Dialogue to bring in these larger numbers of players to have informal but practical discussions that move the agenda forward rather than simply make speeches.

KPress: And how is that going to work. How are you going to make this happen?

Kerr: Our Prime Minister and I have been encouraging in discussions with the very senior representation for the international financial institutions to be present in Cairns and we've had a pretty good reception. We think that institutions like the ADB, the IMF, and the World Bank are likely to be represented at quite a high level, some at their leadership level.

We're trying to encourage post dialogue partners like Japan, the United States, and all the other countries, (including) the EU to be represented at senior levels. Assuming that occurs and the leaders agree it will be ready to happen. The right people will be there.

I mean there's no shortage of focus because everyone's conversation has been dominated by the way in which the global downturn will affect their local economy. That's as true of the Northern Pacific as it is anywhere else. I think it will be a very useful vehicle for exchange of opinion.

Australia has commissioned some high level research on the impact of global economic downturn on the Pacific. That will be shared with all leaders beforehand so I think the opportunity to make some serious ground in integrating our thinking is there.

And of course, the other reason, if I can be just very straightforward about it, the other reason for being out here is to build on our already existing commitment of really trying to treat the Pacific with greater respect. We came to office determined to reinvigorate our relationship with the Pacific.

I visited the North Pacific once for President Toribiong's inauguration in Palau. I wasn't able at that stage to make a round trip of it but I think this a starting of a process that is not going to be completed quickly. It's a process of rebuilding relationships which were very strong in the early years of post independence governments in the Northern Pacific because the Forum in Australia had taken the lead on speaking up for these countries to get recognition in the United Nations as independent sovereign countries against some resistance from other parts of the world at the time. So there was a lot of closeness then. Re-establishing that closeness is something that we put some weight on.

KPress: I wish I'd had a chance to get a copy of the book that you published in 2001 (Elect the Ambassador; Building Democracy in a Globalised World) at what was really the beginning of the recognition of reality of globalization. The Pacific hasn't really come to terms with the whole concept of globalizationů

Kerr: Well no one has truly. I mean, the book is very much, uh, I found it a little bit ahead of my time. I've always had the misfortune of being clever before my contemporaries and they don't like it and I'm unpopular but there is a growing movement now.

There's an international group of parliamentarians that has been established looking at global governance, the idea to establish some kind of parliamentary forum in the United Nations. Increasingly, I think it's a live issue for debate.

Interestingly I was listening to "Talk Back Radio" on a local channel in Australia before I came (to the FSM) and issues that I've written about over a decade ago were being spoken of by call in listeners. So it was very curious.

I don't think it's broadly enough based yet but the reality is that we're having to come to terms with the idea that the most important decisions are taken at the national level is increasingly under challenged. Increasingly now, we have some of the most important decisions that affect the lives of millions of people are being taken at the transnational level. We have not yet effectively developed institutional structures of democracy that reach through those levels and enable those levels to be subject to the idea of accountable, responsible government like we have for national systems.

It's a big challenge. It doesn't lend itself to easy solutions. The book was an attempt to grapple with some of those ideas.

KPress: The FSM is loosely confederated and so this subject would probably be even more important in the FSM than anywhere else where governance is all state run and the national government has a coordinating role.

How did your visit go today with the Secretaries and the President?

Kerr: Ah, very well. I'd met the President and the Secretary (of Foreign Affairs, Lorin Robert) at the inauguration of President Toribiong so it wasn't a surprise for them who I was or how I interreact. It's always "breaking that ice" that's the most difficult part of any meeting and we'd already done that so I thought it was a pretty relaxed discussion around a serious set of agendas that are coming up at the Forum and raising some of the bilateral issues that we're both concerned about: our commitment through the patrol boat program, the fisheries program; the work we're assisting with, the Transnational Crime Unit, it's not really bilateral but it's an assistance in a multilateral agency across the Pacific. Appreciation was expressed about our work in lots of little levels.

There wasn't anything that I'd say was contentious. It wasn't just a conversation about how much we liked each other. It was a conversation about trying to build on a good base but not one as robust as we would wish it to be. We both acknowledged that we could make this relationship stronger.

KPress: So nothing groundbreaking, nothing new but mostly you talked in terms of rehashing where you are?

Kerr: Nothing that I can talk to you about.

KPress: Good for you! Touche!

I spoke with someone a few weeks ago during the Association of Pacific Island Leaders conference held here who was from Tasmania, where you're from. He said that Tasmania has some very similar issues to island nations. In terms of the politics and some of the development issues there are some similarities aren't there? Can you think of any?

Kerr: The thing that Tasmania grapples with is that Tasmania continually educates its young people and then finds that the most adventurous of them leave. What we hope is that the cleverest of them come back. We can't and shouldn't trap young people in an island environment and say that they can't leave. It doesn't work.

We have to invest in education. We have to invest in opportunities. But we've also got to recognize that at least half of our young people are going to seek their fortune outside of Tasmania, and then we hope they come back.

We've got to find pathways for them to return.

KPress: Is it an economic development pathway?

Kerr: It's an economic development pathway. It's a social pathway. It's a lifestyle pathway and a lot of people are coming back to the state for lifestyle. It's a very nice place to live.

Modern communications should mean that it's easier to business from the periphery but one of the interesting things is that the myth of technology exploding the advantages of metropolitan space seems to have not been proved to be true. The centrifugal pull of places which have large existing skill bases remains as strong as ever. And probably the shift towards urbanization has increased over the last 15 years despite what, on its face we thought was going to be a technology that would enable you to work from home in Tasmania just as easily and be connected with the rest of the world. But in practice people still seem to need face to face time with the business peers that they're working with.

That means that people do have to go out there, cut their teeth in the larger world and once they've got those connections, and experience, and confidence they can build their industries back home. But without that first confidence building people don't seem to be able to do it.

KPress: I suppose there might be one very pointed question I might ask. Why is Australia interested in the North Pacific?

Kerr: We see ourselves as partly responsible for reinvigorating a relationship that was allowed to deteriorate a bit in years past with the Pacific as a whole.

I think it's fair to say that there was a degree of frustration with the previous government with its relations with the Pacific. I don't want to be critical but Solomon Islands emerged as a real crisis. That absorbed a huge amount of attention from within the Pacific.

There were some tensions with our relationship with Papua New Guinea.

We came into government able to make a fresh start. Always that opportunity to have a fresh start gives you the opportunity to have a look at everything again and we saw that we need to really reinvigorate, renew our relationship with the whole of the Pacific.

My appointment as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs has reflected that.

My visits to the Northern Pacific and also visits to the French collectivities are engaging with parts of the Pacific which, because of geography and psychology, have not always been central to people's thinking.

We're saying that we can't really be honest about our engagement with the Pacific unless we engage the whole of the Pacific.

It's a two way process. We need to encourage a positive response to that. So far I'm very pleased because each of the President's I've talked to said that "Yes, we're going to make it to Australia."

Well, firstly I think all of them said that they were going to New Caledonia for the French Summit which I think is a good thing, and then they're going on to the leader's forum in Cairns. They're all, at least contemplating staying for the Post Forum Dialogue. I did stress how important it will be.

These are small steps toward reengaging in a way that will be more than rhetorical.

With a bit of luck we'll see a lot more Australians in my kind of role coming through here in the next few years.

KPress: My own perception has been that Australia has focused mainly on the South Pacific, is that a function of "the squeaky wheel" or is there something else that might have caused this.

Kerr: I think it's both a function of geography and psychology. I mean, our most immediate and largest Pacific island country is Papua New Guinea: 6 million people, right on our doorstep, 700 languages, huge development challenges. You can swim from Cape York to the Western Province in PNG. That is always going to be right in focus of our attention inevitably.

And then we've had the collapse of the Solomon Islands. There's been political disagreement on the coups in Fiji.

It's not surprising that our attention is often directed to these events.

But don't underestimate the effort we're going to make to include the Northern Pacific now and also to reengage our relationship with the French collectivities.

They're emerging either to greater autonomy or independence depending on their choices down the track. Whatever they are, autonomous or independent we want to see them as playing a greater role in the Pacific.

That's a psychological thing. They speak French. They don't necessarily feel as engaged with the Pacific and yet, in Vanuatu, French is a second language. So there's no reason for that.

We need to overcome that problem and it's not a problem of distance. It's two hours between Australia and New Caledonia, and lots of people (from Australia) holiday there but the governments of New Caledonia have not engaged very greatly and we've not very greatly engaged with them, even though the SPC (South Pacific Commission) is headquartered there.

With the Northern Pacific it's a bit of distance. There's a physical issue.

Everywhere I've travelled people have been raising, "Can we improve transport links?"

Certainly I don't have a magic wand about that.

I think that some of these things may flow naturally. For example, if tourism increases into the Northern Pacific from Australia so too will the economics start to change. And there are, our Ambassador was pointing out, quite a number of Australians visiting as tourists to each of the countries of the region. So, maybe over time I think you'll see a more "knitted together" Pacific. That's what we hope anyway.

KPress: When Prime Minister Rudd was elected he brought with him a different Australian attitude toward global warming. What changes have taken place in terms of that problem since Prime Minister Rudd took office?

Kerr: Of course, one of the first things we did was to sign the Kyoto Protocol which John Howard had had singularly declined to do.

We have legislation proposed in our Parliament. It is not certain whether it will pass.

Our opposition parties have indicated they'd prefer further delay before its consideration. We want to be able to go to the negotiations for the successor agreement to Kyoto, not only to say that we have an aspiration and an objective but also that we have legislated and have an already established carbon trading mechanism put in place.

Whether we'll be able to do that will depend on our parliamentary process. But certainly we've got legislation in the Parliament now which we hope to be passed before those meetings.

Sadly at the moment I'm not able to give you the assurance that you would have wished because we're not in a position to control what the other members of the Parliament do.

Our system can sometimes give a government control of these things. John Howard had control of both chambers of Parliament for a period of time but we don't. We have a majority in the House of Representatives but no certain control of the Senate.

At the moment, the parties that are able to control the majority of the Senate are denying us the opportunity to get our legislation through.

We're trying at least.