Pacific leaders leery of joining single market


Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 11

South Pacific leaders meeting in Samoa were wary of having a single market foisted on them by an overly ambitious Australia and New Zealand, officials were quoted as saying yesterday.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele told the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum yesterday that there were concerns national sovereignty would be lost in a headlong rush to integrate their economies.

"Is unrestricted access to each other's investment and labor markets an ultimate objective?" he was quoted by Australia's ABC Radio as saying.

"Is travel within the forum region, perhaps via a forum visa, at some point a realistic goal?" he was quoted as saying.

Samoa is the host of this year's meeting, at which Australia and New Zealand are pushing a "Pacific Plan" to rationalize the smaller economies of the region.

The Pacific Islands Forum is made up of Australia, Fiji, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who is in the Samoan capital Apia for the three-day meeting, is basking in the glow of a successful Canberra-led intervention to restore law and order in the Solomon Islands.

"Everybody is now taking the Pacific Island Forum far more seriously because they have seen what has been achieved in the Solomon Islands," he said prior to his departure for Apia.

"If the Pacific countries work together in a cooperative way they can achieve a lot," Howard said.

A year ago Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and other Pacific Forum countries sent in soldiers to separate and disarm militias that had brought chaos to the country.

Howard said that small South Pacific nations recognized that they must pool their resources in order to survive.

The Pacific Plan formulated in Canberra is to have a single currency based on the Australian dollar, a single police force and a single airline.

An immediate project is to assemble a combined South Pacific rugby team that would play internationals and field against clubs in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Howard is a late convert to the worth of the Pacific Forum, having been absent most years since his election to office in 1996. But he was a player at last year's summit in Auckland and managed to have Australia's candidate, veteran diplomat Greg Urwin, installed as the Pacific Forum's secretary-general. He's the first Australian to fill the post.

Urwin's first test is ensuring a future for the 15,000 people of Nauru, once the richest people in the South Pacific but now reduced to begging from Australia.

Nauru has blown billions of dollars earned from mining the deposits of seabirds. With phosphate running out, and no alternative income, there are proposals that the 21km speck be abandoned and its residents move to Australia or another Pacific Forum country.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Robert Wooton said it was imperative Nauru was bailed out.

"If we don't lend a helping hand in assisting Nauru, we will be facing another failed state," Wooton said.

In June a US financial institution owed A$244 million (US$170 million) evicted the Nauruans from their consulate in Melbourne after their government pleaded penury.

The parlous state of Nauru's economy was underlined this week when President Ludwig Scotty had to ask for a lift to Apia because Air Nauru's planes are grounded by financial disputes.

Earlier this year Australia doubled its annual aid budget for the region to A$383 million, of which A$102 million dollars was earmarked for Papua New Guinea, the region's biggest country.

During the past 30 years the region has received A$20 billion in Australian aid.

Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon, who is in Apia for the meeting, praised Canberra's "paradigm shift" on regional matters.

"Australia took a major sea-change in its foreign policy a year or so ago by its very high involvement in the Solomons," McKinnon said.

"These are five- to 10-year processes," he said.