Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands Forum: A Critical Review

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When the idea of a regional organization oriented to political issues concerning the Pacific islands was first mooted almost half a century ago, it was thought that the participation of Australia and New Zealand would be essential to its success, although there was also a certain wariness about the possibility of their dominance. Certainly, there have been tensions within the Pacific Islands Forum since its inception that are attributable to perceived neo-colonial attitudes, especially surrounding governance issues and support for democratic processes. This seminar paper reviews the relationship between island leaders and the region’s ‘bigger brothers’ from a broad historical perspective, examining their role as both colonial and neo-colonial powers. In this context, it also assesses the success or otherwise of the Forum as a body founded for the purpose of pursuing a political agenda. At the same time the paper considers aspects of the trans-Tasman relationship, certain tensions among island countries, the rise of sub-regionalism, and the extent to which a simple political divide between Australia and New Zealand on the one hand, and the island states on the other, can be maintained.

Stephanie Lawson is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, Sydney, Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and Honorary Professor with the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia project at the Australian National University. She has previously held teaching and research positions at the University of New England, the Australian National University, the University of East Anglia, and the University of Birmingham. She is a past president of the Australian Political Studies Association and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. She is also the current President of the Pacific Islands Political Studies Association. Her publications span the fields of comparative and international politics, normative theory, and Asia-Pacific studies on issues ranging from nationalism and ethnic politics to the theorization of democracy and human rights in cross-cultural settings. She has written extensively on politics in the Southwest Pacific more generally and is currently engaged on a research project on regional politics in Oceania funded by the Australian Research Council.

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