Positive moves on jobs, petrol price, even rugby

By Claire Trevett

The issue of Fiji dominated much of the Pacific Islands Forum. But behind all the tough talking on that country and the discovery of Australian officials' media briefing notes showing what they really thought of Helen Clark, a lot of work went on in other areas. The Herald looks at the progress:

Jobs

Prime Minister Helen Clark announced plans to make it cheaper to send money back to the Pacific Islands, saying that under the present system, the cost of doing so was from 15 to 25 per cent - "a huge clipping of the ticket".

She hoped to have a new regulation in by next month which would reduce that to about 5 to 7 per cent.

She also announced a pilot scheme to include education in the seasonal employers' scheme, under which employers can recruit a total of 5000 Pacific Islanders to work in horticulture and viticulture in New Zealand.

Australia followed New Zealand's example, announcing a pilot scheme for 2500 workers to go to Australia to pick fruit and vegetables, despite some public opposition at home caused by fears that it would result in an increase in overstayers.

Helen Clark admits there have been problems under the scheme, but says it is closely monitored.

"We are working to get it at a much better standard across the board. But overwhelmingly it's been positive.

"I'm getting good reports about people being able to go back to villages and home countries and provide a better home for their children."

Petrol

After prevaricating over the issue for years, the soaring cost in fuel over the past year ensured a more urgent response to plans for island countries to group together to bulk-buy fuel.

In their communique, the leaders said urgent action was needed and it hoped to have a completed deal at next year's forum meeting.

New Zealand will pay for a meeting of experts to help design the scheme, and its recommendations will be considered by forum economic ministers in October.

Helen Clark said some islands were paying 70 to 140 per cent more than the Singapore wholesale price for petroleum.

Bulk purchasing could reduce that amount.

Climate change

Forum leaders signed the Niue Declaration on climate change, urging leaders to raise the plight of Pacific Islands when acting in other international organisations and push major greenhouse gas emitting countries to reduce emissions and offer help to vulnerable countries.

The declaration noted that although the islands were among the lowest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, they were most vulnerable to its effects.

The forum leaders called for a more practical approach within the islands, including "Pacific-tailored" solutions. This would focus on the resources in plentiful supply for Pacific states - sun and coconuts. Many Pacific islands want more alternative energy supplies, such as solar power, because of high fuel costs and climate change. The prospect of developing biofuels from coconuts was also popular. New Zealand and Australia announced funding for climate change projects, and the states will also be hoping for more from partners such as the European Union.

Development

A joint plan between New Zealand, Australia, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank will give up to A$200 million ($245 million) for infrastructure in the Pacific Islands over the next four years, concentrating on Kiribati, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

It will focus on ports, roads, transport links, energy, communications and improving water, waste and sanitation.

Solomon Islands

Former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare boycotted the forum last year over the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands - and was deposed in October in a vote of no confidence. His successor, Dr Derek Sikua, promptly expressed his support for the regional assistance mission - and received the rewards for doing so at the forum. Outgoing chairman Fred Sevele noted relations had improved enormously since the change of government in Honiara, and thanked Dr Sikua.

Helen Clark also acknowledged Dr Sikua was a factor in extending the seasonal workers' "kick-start" scheme to include the Solomons, saying "it's a sign of confidence in the way the Solomons is going ahead that we can do this".

Last, but not least, rugby

The Pacific leaders joined those wanting rugby to become an Olympic sport and agreed to support the proposal and encourage their national Olympics committees to do the same. They also called for the inclusion of Pacific Islands teams in the Super 14 and Tri-Nations rugby tournaments, saying it would give the players a higher profile.

- NZ Herald

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