NUKUALOFA, Tonga - Prime Minister Helen Clark has lashed out at Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon for his wine and dine invite to Fijian military ruler Commodore Frank Bainimarama.
Miss Clark arrived in Tonga yesterday to news Mr McKinnon - a former New Zealand foreign minister - had invited Cmdr Bainimarama to dine with leaders ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum, which officially opens today.
Miss Clark decided against the dinner in favour of holding bilateral meetings with Tonga's prime minister Fred Sevele and Papua New Guinea's Sir Michael Somare last night.
Her flight, by air force Orion, was also an hour late arriving in Tonga's capital Nukualofa, which she said was another reason she would not attend the dinner.
Asked whether it was appropriate for Mr McKinnon to invite the commodore, given that Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth, Miss Clark was blunt.
"I would have thought suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth included suspension from the dinner parties."
She had not planned to attend the dinner because she had other arrangements, she said.
Asked about Mr McKinnon's role in mediation with Fiji, Miss Clark said if Fiji could not sit at the Commonwealth table in Uganda - where the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is to be held next month - he should not sit at it in Tonga.
She said this was a matter for Mr McKinnon to "square off with his constituency".
Mr McKinnon earlier told journalists he would hold talks with Cmdr Bainimarama, and that his office had invited the self-appointed Fijian prime minister to the dinner.
Miss Clark had previously warned that Cmdr Bainimarama could face a frosty reception at the forum.
Fiji was set to be a key issue at the gathering as it was the first forum since the last December's coup.
Miss Clark had predicted Cmdr Bainimarama would be treated "something like a leper" if he showed up at the meeting.
That prompted Cmdr Bainimarama to promise he would go to the forum and he retorted Miss Clark was about to self-destruct.
Miss Clark is not planning a meeting with Cmdr Bainimarama, but they will be in the same room together.
Mr McKinnon said it could happen that leaders who disagreed with each other had to rub shoulders in the same room at international meetings.
"This happens. You can be in these situations, and talking about these things is always useful," he said.
He said it would be his last forum as he was getting out of politics soon and he wanted to host the dinner to reciprocate "some of the hospitality" he had been shown in nearly 17 years of attending forum meetings.
He said it was up to individual leaders how they addressed their country's relationship with Fiji.
"... I think all of us, no matter who we are, what we do want to see is a return to democracy in Fiji and do want to see a definitive timeline to get back to democracy," he said.
"When the Commonwealth suspends a member country, as was done with Fiji, the secretary general has a responsibility to get into dialogue with the leader of that (country) and encourage them to come back onto the democratic train and back into a full democracy.
"It's appropriate for me to have a meeting with him. I have not met (Bainimarama) probably since a couple of years ago before (the coup)."
AFP reported that Cmdr Bainimarama had turned down the invitation to the dinner. There were reports he had another engagement.
Today's official opening was set to involve around 900 school children performing for the leaders. With Tongan royalty present, women were told to cover their shoulders and knees.
Tight protocol arrangements were in place - once at the two-hour long ceremony there was to be no moving around.