Speech by outgoing Forum Chair -opening of 39th PIF, Niue
Speech by the Outgoing Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Honourable Dr Feleti Vaka’uta Sevele, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tonga at the Opening of the 39th Pacific Islands Forum

Alofi, Niue, 19th August 2008

Fakaue fakamua kehe Matua Fakafekau Rev Jackson kehe hana tau kupu fakamafana kehe magaaho nei.

Fakalofa lahi atu kehe higoa he ha tautolu a Atua ha he lagi.
Kehe tau lilifu oti ha Niue Fekai – Fakalofa lahi atu.

Honourable Toke Talagi, Premier of Niue
Chiefs, Ministers, Members of Parliament and the People of Niue
Fellow Forum Leaders
The Presidents of New Caledonia and French Polynesia
Acting Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat
CROP Heads and Representatives
Representatives of the Forum Observers
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Last week we lost a pillar of strength with the passing away of our late Secretary General, Mr. Greg Urwin. He was a capable and effective Secretary-General, and a truly regional public servant.

Mr Urwin’s appointment in 2003 coincided with a period when the Pacific Islands Forum and the Region had to face a series of difficult challenges that tested the Forum’s capabilities, strength and relevance.

We were most fortunate in having his excellent leadership to guide the Secretariat and to implement the Leaders’ directives during those trying times, and I, on behalf of the Leaders here today, wish to place on record our sincere gratitude to him and our heartfelt condolences to his widow and family. I now ask you all to kindly rise and join me in a minute of silent prayer and reflection in tribute to the late Greg Urwin. Thank you!

Hon Premier, Toke Talagi, it is indeed a pleasure to be here in Niue for this, the 39th meeting of Forum Leaders.

For some of us this is not our first time here, but for many of us it is our first visit. Let me offer, on behalf of us all visiting Leaders, our congratulations to you, Premier, on your successful election to Office and also thank you, your Chiefs, and your Government and the People of Niue for the splendid arrangements for the Forum, and the warm welcome you have accorded us since we arrived. In the same vein, I, on behalf of all the Forum Leaders, thank the former Premier, Honourable Young Vivian, for his contributions to the work of the Forum during his term as Premier of Niue and for offering Niue as host for this Forum.

Likewise, may I also congratulate and welcome those Leaders who are attending the Forum for the first time. I’m sure the Forum will gain from your leadership just as we look forward to the continued wisdom of our returning Leaders to enhance our collective work in pursuit of our common goals for our peoples.

The past year has been challenging for the region on many fronts. Despite the challenges, good progress was made in advancing the implementation of some the objectives of the Pacific Plan. The Pacific Plan has benefited from steady national Government support as well as growing support by our international partners, and energetic efforts by the Secretariat and by CROP agencies. There is, however, much that needs to be addressed with greater urgency, with more focus and with greater resources. In this connection, I wish merely to underline two crucial issues: Climate Change, Energy and Rising prices of fuel.

What are we to do about these to bring about more quickly the necessary remedial measures? We have been talking about these for the past few years; Tuvalu has been crying out about the dire effects of climate change and rising sea-levels, but nothing concrete/tangible has been done to mitigate the problems they encounter as a result. In this regard, I thank the Government of Niue for choosing climate change as the theme for this year’s Forum, and its slogan – Tu Tokanga!

To counter the crippling effects of rising fuel prices on the economies, especially of the smaller member states, the issue of bulk purchasing of petroleum has been on the Forum agenda for quite some time and given what is happening now, we need as a region, to be more decisive and be ‘outcomes-oriented’. It is important that concerted effort is mobilized to bring about a resolution of this critically important subject – one way or other. I suggest Hon Leaders that we simply direct the incoming Secretary-General that we want this issue sorted out within six months of his assuming office.

The same hard-nosed approach should also be applied to the issues of climate change adaptation measures and renewable energy. What are the most important aspects of these issues that we need to address right now and which we can as a region do something positive about, by ourselves and/or in conjunction with the wider international community.

That of devoting immediate action-oriented initiatives to renewable energy is an urgent priority. Genuine and lasting poverty reduction and economic development throughout most of the Pacific Islands Countries cannot be achieved without sustainable renewable energy sources. So much has been said and written on this subject, but unfortunately little by way of practical solutions has emerged especially for the smaller, more vulnerable member states. Those few member countries who are prepared to move forward with feasible renewable energy projects should be given all our possible support by us all Forum countries and including other donors and multilateral agencies.

We wish to acknowledge how pleased we are that the NZ Recognised Seasonal Employers Scheme is working well and already generating tangible benefits to the Forum Island workers involved and their respective families and national economies. We again wish to place on record our gratitude to Hon Prime Minister Clark and her Government for taking this initiative.

Now that the Australian Government has publicly announced its positive decision to trial a similar work-scheme in Australia, I wish, on behalf of the Forum Island countries, to extend our gratitude to Hon Prime Minister Rudd and his Government for that decision. No doubt we will hear later the details of the proposed scheme.

This work scheme is a clear manifestation of the relevance and value to the Forum to the Region – allowing our unskilled people opportunities to be employed and to earn much-needed cash income, and at the same time, meeting the labour needs of the NZ and Australian farmers.

On the political front and regional peace and stability, the news is unfortunately one of a mixed nature. At the Forum in Tonga last year, the Solomon Islands Government decided to be absent from the Forum by their Prime Minister not attending, because of differences between the Solomon Islands Government and the Forum over RAMSI. The stability of the Solomon Islands was in question, and the continued presence of RAMSI was being challenged. But, fortunately for the region, relations have improved enormously since the change of Government in Honiara in December. And for this, I wish to place on record the Forum Leaders’ appreciation to you Hon Prime Minister Sikua for your leadership and understanding, and we pledge our continuing support to your country through RAMSI and other Forum assistance programmes.

Unfortunately, the Forum’s relationship with the Interim Government of Fiji has now deteriorated from the apparent, promising situation at the Forum last year in Tonga, to one of disappointment and of an uncertain future. As Forum Leaders, we are all extremely disappointed at the Interim Prime Minister’s decision not to attend this Forum Meeting.

As Chair of last year’s Forum Meeting in Tonga and Chair of the last 12 months, let me place on record that fact that the commitments that Commodore Bainimarama made at the Leaders’ Retreat were not forced on him, as has been claimed. He agreed with and accepted the 7-point communiqué on Fiji, and so told all the Leaders present at the Retreat. Sir Michael Somare and I certainly did not pressure him into making those commitments. We, and all the Leaders, were, and are, keen on helping Fiji move forward, but Fiji has to play its due part. The Interim Prime Minister has an obligation to explain in person to the Forum Leaders as to why he could not fulfill those commitments, and we were all looking forward to his doing this at this Forum in Niue. That he chose not to do this is most unfortunate and most disappointing.

Where to now with Fiji? This is the question that we shall address tomorrow together with the Report of the Ministerial Contact Group.

Looking at the work programme of the Secretariat since I became Chair of the Forum, I am inclined to believe that the Secretariat is spreading its limited resources rather thinly over too many areas. One of the consequences of this is that it has not been able to properly address the more crucial and important issues according to its mandates such as those to which I had already referred to.

I note in our meeting papers that there is now a new agenda item on land management and conflict minimization, with a long list of guiding principles recommended to be adopted by the Forum. I wonder if this is really something for the Forum as a regional body to take on. Land tenure as we all know, and management, and related issues, is one of the most delicate, difficult subjects in all of the Pacific islands countries. Given the vast diversity of land tenure systems throughout the region, it is definitely, I would have thought, one of a national, local, domestic character, and one best dealt with by each country within its own borders and within its own culture and traditions. Perhaps, with the emphasis on perhaps, we should tread with caution on this newly-introduced agenda item.

As I handover the Chairmanship to Premier Toke Talagi, we pledge our support to you, Honourable Premier Talagi, we pledge our support to you in your stewardship of the Forum. It’s a responsibility that confers honour and service and we wish you the best over the next 12 months.

I also take this opportunity to thank the Acting Secretary General, and all his staff very, very much for keeping the Secretariat functional during a difficult year especially during Mr. Urwin’s illness. I have to say that in those trying circumstances, you’ve done very well in servicing the responsibilities of the Chair and, more importantly, in continuing to service the needs of the member countries. Thank you very much!

As my term as Forum Chair comes to an end, I would like to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to all Forum Leaders, for their support during my term as Chair. It has been an honour and a privilege for me and my country to have served in this eminent regional role, and I thank all of you for affording us the opportunity and for the excellent support and cooperation you have given me and my country.
Thank you! Fakaue lahi atu! and Malo ‘aupito!