The Pacific way and what it implies for our way

It has been an international month. But don’t mistake that for distant.

South Korea’s President dropped in and pumped up a free trade agreement — tellingly using some arguments put by Phil Goff in Seoul in October on agriculture and trade diversion.

George Bush’s fanciful mission to democratise the Middle East collapsed. Iraq is “grave” and deteriorating, his father’s friend James Baker told him. Sensible minds are bending to fix the damage he has done to us all. Which should teach Bush that humility, not hubris, is Christianity’s essence.

Closer to home, Australia rejected a Bush request to “embed” troops with Iraqi units, a federal parliamentary committee fantasised about trans-Tasman union and the federal Labor party elected a “new-generation” leader, Kevin Rudd, who is already (like John Key here) recasting policy. Clark will be studying the techniques John Howard uses to undermine Rudd.

At home Annette King averted a serious trans-Tasman breach by the skin of her teeth when she at last got the agreed joint Australia-New Zealand therapeutics agency into legislative form in Parliament. The agency’s one-vote-for each-country governance is an important advance and a valuable pointer for future such technical cooperation.

Now the ball is in Key’s court, fresh back from red-carpet treatment in Canberra at which Howard is said to have raised the matter. Will he favour the trans-Tasman single market over domestic lobbies?

Up north, Fiji’s army junked democracy and the constitution and even defied the chiefs. Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama had justifiable gripes about corruption and an amnesty for the coupsters of 2000 but also a less noble motive of stopping an inquiry into the beating of some soldiers to death.

Fiji’s drama came on the heels of renewed upheaval in the Solomons and Tonga’s destructive riots.

The Pacific way is not pacific. That we have learnt, lesson by lesson, since Fiji in 1987.

Most of Polynesia to our north-east seems to get by. Behind the scenes Tonga has been building a professional public service which should see it right in time.

But Melanesia to our north and northwest is a scattering of mini-tribes herded into nations which lack most of the glue that holds nations together.

Fiji at least has a capable, professional public service, even if not a stable constitution to underpin elected governments. So Fiji is a functioning state under its fractious politics. Most of the others don’t have comparable state machinery. Where the governments are also unstable, economic outlooks are bleak.

Melanesia’s population is set to explode over the next 20 years. On present indications, few will have real paying jobs at home. They will need work in Australia and New Zealand. Australia says no. New Zealand is more accommodating but still sees jobs for Pacific men essentially as filling gaps in our workforce.

Jobless young men get up to no good. So expect crime and violence in these territories and thus even bigger barriers to durable jobs. Add that to transnational crime, drug trafficking, people smuggling, terrorism and competition for influence by Asian and European states.

And register that those activities will be close by us, threatening to spill over our borders.

Unless New Zealand and Australia become much more involved and much more inventive in that involvement (easy to say, hard to do), we are up for endless patchups of armed peacekeepers, police, “governance” aid, rescue aid and development aid.

The challenge is to find opportunity amidst the problems. If we don’t manage to influence the Pacific way in the Pacific, the trouble will turn up here.

In fact, the Pacific way is already here. Phillip Field’s travails illustrate the difficulties of accommodating Samoan custom within Westminster political and fiscal management disciplines.

So also with whanaungatanga. Tariana Turia got into difficulties as Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector. Te Waananga o Aotearoa had a similar bother.

One way to deal with this is to stick strictly to Westminster dictums and require Maori and Pasifika MPs, public servants and agencies to conform. And indeed, Luamanuvao Winnie Laban seems to be handling the community and voluntary sector portfolio without mishap. But is strict Westminster now a realistic option?

The other way is to craft respectable rules that marry some Pacific custom into Westminster disciplines. That will require considerable imagination and skill (easy to say, hard to do).

And, looking outwards, how are we to deal with island nations? By expecting them to telescope our centuries of experimentation and social development into decades and conform to advanced Westminster democratic practices, as we have demanded of Fiji? Or by finding a way of living with new systems as they evolve, as we did with well-managed Singapore?

There is no easy answer. But if we can’t get the Pacific right, at home and in the islands, can we deal confidently with the world at large?