Published in Future Times May 2009

The last decade or so has seen numerous difficulties in the Pacific Islands Countries (PICs) – the serious fighting in Bougainville; the sustained disturbances in the Solomon Islands which led to the RAMSI force, which is still there; rioting in Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital; and military coups in Fiji, which is still under military rule. Talk of "failing states" spread amongst outside commentators.

The standard view of the Pacific is that each country is different and these various crises we deal with are deeply different too. At one level that is patently true. Protesters railing against a feudal monarchy and demanding more democracy in one state do not have much in common with the military overthrowing an elected government in another. The conditions that lead to RAMSI in the Solomon Islands are very different again.

But if we step back and take a long view we can see underlying trends and commonalities. All of the island states are undergoing great transitions, from customary traditions in law and governance to elections, democracy and western-type human rights, and from subsistence agriculture to commercial development. Some social anthropologists regard the transition from a kinship based society to a democracy as the most difficult transition a society can make – compared, perhaps, with other transitions such as Russia's from communism to democracy or Western Europe's from feudalism or monarchy to democracy.

Even wider than these transitions are the pervasive pressures of globalisation and modernisation, in all their cultural, technological and other forms. Some more specific problems common to many PICs include their inheritance of inappropriate institutions from the colonial period, particularly in the Melanesian states; their weak capabilities in many of the needs of a modern state; and demographic changes with bulging youth populations. One could add slow or negligible economic growth, the threat of rising sea levels, and unsustainable resource exploitation, of fisheries and forests in particular.

A long view of the overarching political and social transition, from customary to Western practices, will remind us that these sorts of changes took centuries to work through in the West. In England think Magna Carta, the execution of Charles I and the military interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, rotten boroughs in Parliament and the like. We are expecting the PICs to make such a transformation in just a couple of generations or less – there was an expectation it could happen more or less instantly on independence in some cases.

There is of course no need to expect the PICs to repeat the Western experience. That would be to deny all sorts of newer circumstances: huge international assistance, an ability to learn from the mistakes of others, the availability of technology to short-cut many processes, and so on. Cromwell does not justify Bainimarama. Never-the-less the long view perspective suggests it is certain that the changes will be drawn-out and evolutionary in the Pacific as elsewhere, and that there will on the way be setbacks to progress as we see it. Riots, coups and the like are most unwelcome but should not be unexpected.

The outcome of the process will be different too. Even when an endpoint seems to be reached, the political and social structures are unlikely to look like ours. Samoa's constitution provides something of a model. It was carefully negotiated before independence (in 1961), unlike the parliamentary systems dumped, almost, by departing colonial powers on the Melanesian states.

Samoa's provided for an elected parliament empowered to enact laws, a Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a Head of State. But only the family or village chiefs, Matai, could stand for Parliament or vote. This arrangement proved to be a workable blend of traditional and western systems, but was hardly a "one person-one vote" democracy. Years later the Electoral Act was amended to permit popular voting, but retaining the matai requirement for being an MP. Many  observers feel it is inevitable that in time this requirement too will be democratised, and note that in the meantime there has been a quite dramatic increase in the number of Samoans being given matai titles, leading to a de facto dilution of the traditional system.

It is a model not in its detail, which is Samoa-specific, but in its underpinning of a blended systems approach. There has been quite intensive research, mainly in Australian universities, about the merits and characteristics of desirable "hybrid systems" for the Pacific, which needs to be absorbed more widely. In New Zealand the NZ Law Commission produced an interesting report in 2006 entitled Custom and Human Rights in the Pacific which seriously shows that many aspects of customary practice and human rights can be harmonised.

A long view needs also to be applied to New Zealand's interests in the Pacific. On the one hand, these interests are clearly important and enduring, moulded in the first instance by geography and now much strengthened, and complicated, by social and ethnic connections.

On the other hand they are at risk of erosion. There has been a marked growth of external interest in the Pacific over recent years, most obviously as a result of rivalry for influence and to an extent for resources between China and Taiwan, but in other ways too. There is every reason to expect  international interest to be sustained in various desirable and less desirable (eg "cheque-book diplomacy") forms, meaning that New Zealand will have to work wisely and sure-footedly to avoid a long-run dilution of its role.

These long views strongly suggest that New Zealand should have understanding of and insights into the long-run pressures on the PICs as underpinnings of its policies. The implementation of policies will need to show patience and support, and develop relationships at many levels of society. Doctrinal positions, say about democracy or trade liberalisation, will always need to be leavened by the realities of the PICs.

In the same vein, policies also need to be revised by new information and not stuck with past attitudes. There is much recent writing – by Paul Collier for instance - documenting that democracy does not easily take hold until other conditions – a level of economic wellbeing, the rule of law – are ripe for it, and that elections that push democracy ahead of these conditions will more likely cause disruptions which slow rather than enhance economic and political progress. There are certainly endless cases around the world of elections causing setbacks: the appalling deaths in Kenya last year are a recent example, and the events leading to RAMSI in the Solomon Islands provide a South Pacific example.

The current high-profile challenge to New Zealand's policy in the Pacific is the military regime in Fiji. There will be multiple views on whether the current policy, of demanding early elections under the existing constitution and of imposing quite extensive sanctions, represents a response consistent with the long view or not, but it is not obviously so. Doubts about holding elections under existing law seem to be taking hold, which is consistent with the research noted in the previous paragraph. The definitions of who is associated with the regime, for sanctions purposes, are wide and hinder the need for people-to-people linkages to be maintained even when governments are at loggerheads. These sanctions have prevented sports teams from visiting New Zealand, because of the most tenuous connections with the regime, and the temporary employment scheme for seasonal workers from applying to Fiji.

Our Fijian and other Pacific policies are now under much wider media reporting and public scrutiny than before, which is a welcome trend. Our academics and commentators, our public opinion, and our politicians and their advisers, all need to engage with the long view of PIC wishes and capabilities, and New Zealand's interests, front of mind.

Neil Plimmer is a former New Zealand diplomat who served in Western Samoa and who has recently retired as Chairman of the Pacific Cooperation Foundation.

< Back to Pacific overview