McCully scores with his A-list forum

Foreign Minister Murray McCully. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Foreign Minister Murray McCully. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Something has been conspicuously absent from the Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland this week - a crisis.

No Fiji crisis, no civil unrest somewhere in the Pacific hogging the headlines, no immediate crisis over climate change, no dummy-spitting by any leader. That has meant that much of the outside interest has been on who came.

In that respect there has been no Pacific Islands Forum like it.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully more than met his goal of creating global interest in the Forum, not just with the leaders of the United Nations and the European Commission but other senior visitors such as the Foreign Ministers of France and Indonesia.

The aim is that the interest in the forum will not be a one-off.

Attracting A-listers has been part of a strategy of adding muscle to the bones of a once puny regional body in a once neglected but increasingly important part of the world.

The US used the forum to symbolically re-assert itself into the region. Its huge delegation was headed by one of the most important men in diplomacy - the guy who controls the State Department's purse-strings, former Morgan Stanley chief operating officer Thomas Nides. It also brought in US ambassadors from around the region. It won formal status for three of its territories as forum observers and announced plans to set up a USAid base in Papua New Guinea - where China is showing a lot of interest.

Despite having no crisis to contend with, and under-delivering on advances to climate change funding and donor co-ordination, it would be a mistake to think the Auckland forum achieved nothing. It marked a shift, very much in sync with the New Zealand Government's approach to development issues; the encouragement of private sector involvement that is expected to continue in future forums.

New Zealand's preference is for the private sector or selected non-Government organisations to work with the Governments of developing countries rather than give straight hand-outs to Government. McCully set the tone on Tuesday announcing that the state-owned enterprise Meridian Energy would enter a deal with the Tongan Government and Tonga Power to build a solar power plant.

The diplomatic corps has been wildly complimentary about the forum. "Spectacular" one described it yesterday - both in terms of organisation and diplomatic opportunities.

McCully has been up to his elbows in the detail of organisation, making Helen Clarks' micro-management style look like neglect. Yesterday he was still at it, arranging for a New Zealand rugby expert to sit next to China's Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai at the opening World Cup game to explain the oddities of the game.

His plan of merging the Pacific Islands Forum into the Rugby World Cup has had one downside, namely that local profile of the Pacific summit domestically has been overshadowed by the rugby.

That won't worry McCully and Prime Minister John Key too much. Their hopes are firmly fixed on the longer memories of international players.

- NZ Herald

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