29 Apr 2013

Concept of a Pacific parliament gains currency

6:18 pm on 29 April 2013

A recent gathering of leaders from around the region at New Zealand's parliament has drawn attention to the idea of a regional parliament in the Pacific.

More than 60 MPs or political figures from 18 Pacific nations or territories spent much of the five-day inaugural Pacific Parliamentary and Political Leaders Forum in the New Zealand parliament, debating issues of common interest.

Johnny Blades reports:

Apart from a 1982 book by New Zealand's former Prime Minister Mike Moore envisaging a Pacific regional political and economic union, there have been few concerted attempts to propose a Pacific Parliament.

But dissatisfaction with the region's pre-eminent organisation, the Pacific Islands Forum, could be the catalyst for such a body.

Unhappiness with the Pacific Forum was evident among the regional MPs at the Wellington event, as expressed by a Solomon Islands MP, Peter Shanel.

"Well, if you were to emulate what the European Union did, I don't know. But we have the forums there and, as you know, the forum doesn't work at the moment. Well, it's working, but in my view it's not representing the members of the island nations' wishes. But it's something that we can talk about, look at and discuss."

The event's organiser, New Zealand government MP John Hayes, says there's a need to address a lack of regional cohesion as the Pacific Islands Forum has lost some of its original focus.

The opposition's Foreign Affairs spokesman, Phil Goff, says the Forum has an important role to play but does not necessarily represent the elected representatives of member countries.

There are real benefits to be gained by having the region come together and look at problems that cross national borders and work out how we can work together to resolve those problems. The challenge of the Pacific is that we're a region of big oceans and small countries, huge diversity in language and culture and ethnicity. But we do have things in common. We live in the same region. The ocean of the Pacific laps on the shores of all of our countries. And you can't solve things like global warming as an individual country. You need to do it collectively. You can't ensure peace and harmony in the region individually. We need to come together and work together to do that.

A Pacific governance specialist, Graham Hassall from Victoria University's School of Government, says he thinks it's inevitable that there will be some form of Pacific regionalism beyond the mainly bureaucratic context of the Pacific Islands Forum.

He says although the form it will take is yet to be properly explored, it should be geared toward making a more coherent region and bringing some standardisation to policy in the region.

One of the first questions that have to be asked is if there were to be a legislative body, if we're talking about a parliament as a legislative body, what level of legislation is required at a regional level, as compared to those that are required at a national level. And that type of discussion needs to be promoted and understood. Sometimes those types of decisions are to do with the boundaries of the Pacific region. It could be to do with rights to travel, it could be the rights of Pacific citizens inasmuch as citizens of individual states.

He says other key questions which need to be asked before a Pacific parliament could be established include what powers the parliament would have and to what extent would the small islands states accept those powers.

Because if you give powers to a regional parliamentary assembly, by definition you won't have those same rules being made at national level. And the current Pacific states jealously guard their current levels of sovereignty, they feel that they're quite small as they are. They don't want that sovereignty to be eroded in any way. So you need a regional body that actually consolidates the effectiveness of the member countries, rather than dilutes it.

It's felt some small island states may be reluctant to enter into a regional parliament if representation is on a proportional basis.

However, delegates from small Micronesian states in particular were effusive about the benefits from regional co-operation that the Wellington forum demonstrated.

The Northern Marianas senator Jolita Taimanao says the idea of a Pacific parliament has merit.

I am in support of and I see that there is a potential positive impact. For myself specifically, I say that there should be a follow-up conference or forum just so that each Pacific entity will assess the progress based on the findings that we all work very hard to all agree on motions to work for our people in each of our entities. And within that follow-up conference or forum will be a sharing of how much progress would benefit the people of our region.

The Solomon Islands MP Samuel Manetoali sees great potential in the way that the forum was a cross-party event.

This is a very useful forum because parliament members of the Pacific, Melanesian countries, Micronesian countries, Polynesian countries, all of us are here. And it is a good idea that we have these kind of representatives where some ministers, some backbenchers, some opposition members, so long as you are a member of parliament, it's very good to have a forum like this one.

While fundamental principles behind the creation of a regional parliament are yet to be addressed, Professor Hassall says the next question is: who are the visionaries for the Pacific region?

What is the vision for the future of the Pacific, as compared to the individual nations? That type of leadership hasn't emerged yet. Most leaders in the Pacific are focussed on their own country and sometimes on a smaller part of that country, the part that they come from personally. So the challenge is for some thinkers in the Pacific, some visionaries, whether they're in politics or in business or somewhere else, to articulate that vision of the future of a united Pacific. And there's the relationship of that Pacific region to countries around the region.

While Pacific islands all have their own unique challenges, there is a lot of common ground too, and it may be a question of when, not if, the Pacific peoples decide to join the growing ranks of regions around the world that create a regional parliament.