Sam The Koala More Interesting Than The Pacific

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It’s the opening ceremony for the 40th Pacific Islands Forum and the assembled leaders from the region (with the notable exception of the Fijian leader Voreqe Bainimarama) are entertained by a range of Indigenous performers. After welcome to country, soprano Deborah Cheetham sings the national anthem, Seaman Dan growls his ‘TI Blues’ and Jessica Mauboy carols ‘My Island Home’.

In his opening speech, Kevin Rudd calls climate change "the great challenge of our time" and outgoing forum Chair, Toke Talagi of Niue, muses about whether it’s time for the forum to start discussing the resettlement of people displaced by the problem.

Then a school choir sings ‘I Love a Sunburnt Country’. It’s a not so subtle reminder that Australia — the land of drought and flooding rains — faces a similar climate threat to our island neighbours.

Welcome to Cairns and the life of a journalist at the Pacific Islands Forum.

After the formal opening, it’s a quick dash outside the Cairns Convention Centre and across the main highway, where a small group of Indigenous protesters are gathered under the watchful eye of Queensland police and assorted plainclothes narks with earpieces.

Have I got time before the next press conference with the World Bank to talk to the Fijian democracy protesters gathered round the kava bowl? There’s a contingent of West Papuans flying the Morning Star flag and Aboriginal activists hammering Anna Bligh over wild rivers. To top it off, the strident voice on the megaphone calling for the independence of the Torres Strait Islands turns out to be maverick Queensland MP Bob Katter.

For the 150-strong accredited media contingent at the forum, it’s a somewhat surreal experience. The media are housed in a cavernous hall at one end of the convention centre, with all the ambience of a converted sports stadium. The Pacific leaders and delegates are at the other end, protected by a checkpoint with security staff that would have done East Berlin proud.

I’ve been to several forum meetings in the islands where protocol reigns supreme but where security is a bit more relaxed and you can bump into the odd prime minister or president in the corridors. In Cairns, with a system of colour coded security passes and media liaison officers, you’re subtly discouraged from actually talking to people.

Most of the media are there to follow Kevin Rudd and NZ Prime Minister John Key and report the key themes of each day. They do a valiant job with limited background on the issues, but have different priorities to the courageous band of Fijian reporters. It’s tough sending off your work every night then checking the website next morning to see how much has got past the military censors (Answer: not much).

As a freelancer with a commission to write for a monthly magazine in the Pacific, I have the luxury of a 15 August deadline. Pity my radio and TV colleagues who have to feed the beast three times a day, filing for the breakfast show, lunchtime news and the evening bulletin. I sit translating my interview with the head of the New Caledonia delegation, surrounded by photographers debating the best camera angles for the leaders’ traditional funny shirt photo. (You’ll be pleased to know they chose a rather muted blue RM Williams outfit, instead of a lurid Hawaiian number).

The organisers have printed up a helpful list with pictures of each of the island leaders, but when Solomon Islands Prime Minister Derek Sikua strolls into the media centre without the usual screen of minders, not many people notice. The small group of Pacific journalists leap up to quiz him on the Melanesian Spearhead Group attitude to the Australian push for a regional free trade agreement.

Later, you can hear the screams of the TV crews on deadline for the six o’clock news, when Kevin Rudd appears at a 3pm press conference to launch a major new policy of regional engagement on climate change. The next day, Penny Wong makes a splash announcing the next $50 million tranche of Australia’s $150 million International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative. But most journalists have missed the pre-forum meeting of the Small Island States — tiny atoll nations like Tuvalu, Kiribati, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia — whose leaders have highlighted their difficulties in accessing climate adaptation funds.

At the final press conference, we get two handouts on the central themes of the government’s agenda: the Pacific Leaders’ Call to Action on Climate Change and the Cairns Compact on Strengthening Development Co-ordination in the Pacific. In the rush to file, there’s little time to see that Pacific leaders have dropped some of their tough positions advocated as members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which links island nations in the Caribbean, Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans.

Then you have to wait another hour or more — after many people have finished their stories — to get the official forum communiqué, with the actual text of what the leaders have agreed to do about Fiji, the regional free trade agreement and other topics. It’s a treasure trove of detail on the range of issues that concern the island states — fisheries, renewable energy, bulk procurement of petroleum, sexual violence against women — but the caravan has moved on.

The final press conference is a once in a generation chance for many journos to question the leaders of the region. This is the first time in 15 years that Australia has hosted the forum meeting and it won’t happen again for at least another decade. Most news rooms won’t have the budget to send people to Port Vila next year.

But with Kevin Rudd flanked by the assembled island leaders (all dressed in their muted blue shirts), a third of the questions are on domestic Australian issues: the terror plot, Turnbull, Utegate and the latest unemployment figures. Forum media officer Johnson Honimae actually intervenes to ask for some questions about the Pacific.

For the press gallery, it’s their job to chase the issues of the day but I think it was the question to Rudd about his reaction to the tragic death of Sam the Koala — an iconic beast burnt in the Victorian bushfires — that tipped the balance into Alice in Wonderland territory.

Afterwards, I tried to explain to my horrified island counterparts that this question was a subtle attempt to subvert the media agenda, and highlight the way bushfires in Australia parallel rising sea-levels in the Pacific. Forget displaced people in Tuvalu and Kiribati — the burnt Koala could be the perfect icon for the Pacific region to carry to Copenhagen!

Somehow, I don’t think they agreed with me.

New Matilda

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