Outgoing P.I.F. Secretary-General's fond farewell
After six years, the Pacific Islands Forum’s first woman leader is returning home to Papua New Guinea with pride in the legacy she imprinted on the region's top inter-governmental grouping.
And while her final press conference as Secretary-General was overwhelmed with the twin dramas of the Micronesian exit-threats and Fiji’s unilateral actions at the University of the South Pacific, Dame Meg Taylor made sure to close her two-term tenure with grace.
Speaking at the end of the virtual press conference, Dame Meg said she is proud of the legacies she is leaving behind, including making the Forum more financially sustainable and taking a firm, educated stance on climate change.
“Perhaps a legacy I leave that I am proud of is that when I first came here people used to say to me you work for an institution that is controlled by Australia because that is who puts the money in,” she said.
Now Australia and New Zealand make up 49 per cent of the budget, while the island member countries contribute 51 per cent, she said, balancing out the books somewhat.
“The sustainable finance strategy is a major breakthrough and the forum island countries now contribute the major component and I am very pleased about that. I think it means it is taking the responsibility and ownership of the regional organisation.”
Dame Meg's final Special Leaders Retreat in her role was held entirely over Zoom, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. It focused tightly on electing her successor, the pandemic, and the Pacific vaccine rollout.
She said among the hardest things the region has to face is how to open up tourism-dependent economies safely.
With the Forum’s work on fisheries however, economies are not solely hanging on their visitors for survival, she said.
“There are other aspects of our economies, particularly fisheries, and [I commend] the work done with F.F.A. (Forum Fisheries Agency) and the P.N.A. (Parties to the Nauru Agreement) in terms of shipments and safety of people on those vessels.
Dame Meg also highlighted her team’s effort to secure maritime boundaries in the region against sea level rise, which she believes is paramount to securing sovereign security.
The Forum and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (S.P.C.) established a regional maritime project to help member states firm up their exclusive economic zones, especially where shared boundaries are concerned.
The project is also occupied with the legal ramifications of climate change effects on national borders.
“If we don’t secure our boundaries and in time, if we have to leave our islands we will always have those boundaries where there are resources we can draw from. That is very, very important for the future,” Dame Meg said.
On climate change, Dame Meg had one biting piece of advice for not only the region but its donors and partners. She said too often, flights for international negotiations are booked too tightly and take Pacific negotiators away from meetings too early.
Pacific Foreign Ministers have already asked the Secretariat to deal with this problem.
“We need to get leadership at a senior level […] to be in the negotiating room right through until the end of the negotiations.
“If there is anywhere we are at a disadvantage, […] what happens is tickets are paid for, for us to come to these meetings particularly by international organisations, and then when the meeting is over people have to get on a plane and leave. Then a meeting is called the day after where a lot of the trading goes on. We cannot allow that to happen going further.
“We have to secure senior persons or emissaries who will be in the negotiating room to discuss all these aspects that are going to be important for us, particularly now major countries like the [United States] are back in the Paris Agreement, and to secure the financing that will be needed for adaptation in this region.”
And outside of border security, she said she is especially proud of the work under her tenure on expanding the definition of security under the Boe Declaration, which was used in 2020 as the framework for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in a regional way.
Under that security declaration, the Forum was able to establish the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway, she explained.
“A lot of people may not have paid attention to this but this has been very important in terms of the protocols that were negotiated by all 18 countries so we were able to move people, move medicines, move cargo, supplies, right through to the countries that needed it, and it helped to secure the safety of our people across the Pacific.
She said the Forum remains focused on cyber security and drug trafficking in the region, and that Police Commissioners are important partners in this area.
The Forum’s 2050 strategy is still being developed, and Dame Meg hopes that it will be ready for the August meeting in Fiji.
“The Kainaki Declaration is still the most important document the forum has released on climate change and climate issues. That is the document we use to set the boundaries for key issues we have raised on temperature, on the transition from fossil fuels, on the [nationally determined contributions].
“Does that mean other groupings like the Pacific Small Island Developing States are not important, absolutely not. There will be groupings that will push harder on the climate issues because they are the issues that are important for the very survival of the region.”
Dame Meg said one of her priorities set by the leaders was to bring politics into the centre of Forum life, and for regionalism to be a “political principle.”
Former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, the late Sir Mekere Morauta led a 2012 review into the then Pacific Plan, and in 2013 told leaders that regionalism is needed more than ever before.
“…the future of the Pacific Plan should be as “a framework for advancing the political principle of regionalism through a robust, inclusive processes of political dialogue, the expression of political values about regionalism and sovereignty, and the decisive implementation of key, game-changing, drivers of regional integration,” he said at the time.
“My job was to bring the politics back in,” Dame Meg said.
“Those of us who were in Tuvalu saw that, particularly around the climate issues, the debate that went on with the leaders for almost 12 hours on the Kainaki [II] Declaration was very much around the politics coming back into the region.”
She said part of that is to deepen Pacific regionalism under the idea of the Blue Pacific, and that getting there will come with challenges.
“But we find a way forward, and one of the things we have tried to do is to have the Blue Pacific narrative. It’s not just words. It’s about our identity and who we are as peoples, where we come from, and our obligations to one another, even through times when we have differences.
Dame Meg was first elected in 2014, after a long career across law, diplomacy and finance. As well as Secretary-General, she is the Pacific Ocean Commissioner.
During her tenure, she advocated for more autonomy for the Pacific amongst the ongoing tensions between geopolitical parties, and challenged Pacific partners on their climate change actions.
She helped develop the idea of the Blue Pacific narrative which was intended to closely bind together the member states with shared goals for an autonomous ocean continent.
She was Papua New Guinea’s Ambassador to the United States, Mexico and Canada from 1989 to 1994, and was Vice President and Compliance Advisor Ombudsman for several international finance institutions.
And before all that, she represented Papua New Guinea in the 1941 South Pacific Games in the pentathlon and 4x100 metre relay, where she came second and third.
She said she had few regrets about her tenure as Secretary-General, but that she hopes the region will continue to focus on improving life for women and girls, and on education.
“From a personal point of view, a regret I have is I don’t think I put enough into youth and women. My job took me travelling so much around the region. I got to cover many issues but as Secretary-General you want to sometimes dive deep and that is hard, because there are so many issues that we are all managing.
“The issues I think that are really important for us all is to really invest in the education of our young people, but not just going to school and university but be critical thinkers, to learn, to be inquisitive, to explore and of course to serve.
“If we can inspire younger people to be able to do that we will have accomplished something.”
In her congratulatory message to incoming Secretary-General Henry Puna, New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta thanked Dame Meg for her work.
“I thank Dame Meg Taylor, for her strong leadership during her tenure. She advocated tirelessly for our ‘Blue Pacific’ region, [including] the issues of climate action, gender equality and indigenous rights.”
Dame Meg will spend one more month with the Forum, and then take a holiday around Fiji before heading home to Papua New Guinea, she said.