Australia ‘drifting’ from Pacific region

As South Pacific nations bond at a two-day talkfest in Fiji, the meeting’s only absentees, Australia and New Zealand, drift further away from the region, a spokeswoman for Fiji’s interim government says.

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As day two of the Engaging Fiji meeting got under way in Nadi on Friday, a spokeswoman for Fiji’s government, Sharon Smith Johns, told AAP Australia isn’t interested in the affairs of the South Pacific.

“The Pacific doesn’t seem to be as important as it used to be,” said Ms Smith Johns, Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Information.

“Australia keeps moving further away from Fiji and so does New Zealand.

“Australia always thinks it knows best, especially when they’re dealing with small island nations.”

Australia and NZ declined an invitation to attend Engaging Fiji – held in lieu of a deferred meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

On Thursday, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith stood by his absence, saying the event undermined next month’s meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) – a group which Fiji is suspended from.

Ms Smith Johns said Australia was “naive” and was “missing out” on forging solidarity within the South Pacific.

“Stephen Smith can say what he likes but until he sits down and he starts the dialogue with Fiji he doesn’t know what’s going on,” she said on Friday.

“They’re throwing cheap shots at us but where are they at these meetings? Where’s the representation to hear our side of it? It’s armchair politics in Canberra.

“It’s like they want one size fits all, and one size doesn’t fit all.

“What’s good for Australia is not going to be always good for Fiji.”

South Pacific ties would be further tarnished if Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard fails to show up for PIF talks in Vanuatu in August, which is a distinct possibility, Ms Smith Johns said.

Australia and Fiji became embroiled in a bitter spat over whether a meeting of the MSG should proceed in Fiji – the row saw Australia’s acting high commissioner to Fiji expelled.

On Thursday, Fiji’s self-appointed Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama said Australia had “egg on its face” and had been embarrassed because so many nations had attended Engaging Fiji.

During Thursday’s meeting, regional leaders, including representatives from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, were given an update on Fiji’s progress towards democracy and elections slated for 2014.

“Laws have been drafted and legislations put in place to weed out corruptions and ill-practices so government can deliver a best platform forward for this nation in the 2014 elections,” said Commodore Bainimarama, the nation’s military leader who seized power in a 2006 coup.

On day one regional leaders also discussed climate change, with Fiji suggesting the need for the South Pacific to work together and have “one voice” to seek solutions to environmental concerns.

Ms Smith Johns said closed-door “leader sessions” and bilateral discussions were on the cards for Friday, with a focus on a “Pacific bridge to global wealth”. She said the vibe among the leaders was “very positive”.

“By the end of this meeting we’ll start to see some changes in the way the South Pacific are talking and more talks need to happen.”