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Australia's influence slips as Pacific Forum begins to fall apart

Politics

Australia’s regional influence could be dealt a blow following the splintering of the influential Pacific Islands Forum.

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Five Micronesian presidents have officially quit the forum following a bitter leadership contest.

The leaders are furious former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna won a ballot to become the new secretary-general, edging out their candidate, Gerald Zackios from the Marshall Islands.

They insist it was their turn to select a secretary-general under a “gentleman’s agreement”.

Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia will all withdraw from the forum.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne was hoping they would decide to stay, despite the outcome of the “robust” leadership ballot.

“Our absolute priority in the Pacific at this stage – in such complex times, and in such challenging times given COVID-19 – absolutely needs to be to protect unity,” she told ABC radio.

“I absolutely appreciate the disappointment that representatives of governments across Micronesia have with that outcome, but I do very much hope that they decide to remain engaged with the forum.”

Payne said Australia’s partnerships with Pacific nations would continue, regardless of the decision made by Micronesian leaders.

“We will continue to work very closely with members of the Pacific Islands Forum and its leadership, we will work closely with the new secretary-general,” she said.

“And if there is a decision taken – I don’t really want to speculate on hypotheticals – but we will always work closely with those Micronesian members across the region.

“The whole blue Pacific is important to us, they are part of the Pacific family, and Australia maintains that absolute commitment.”

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