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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Recolonization of the Pacific? 

The Head Heeb notes a rather amazing development in Nauru:
Nauru's new Finance Secretary is an Australian. Peter Depta, an Australian treasury official, took office today, just days after the Nauru parliament passed legisiation (sic) allowing foreigners to hold cabinet-level offices. He will head a team of Australian technocrats who will effectively take over Nauru's finances under an agreement between Nauruan President Ludwig Scotty and the Australian foreign ministry.

Depta's appointment arguably represents a new step in the recolonization of the Pacific. Pacific Island nations have frequently recruited foreign judges and civil-service technocrats, but cabinet-level positions have been almost entirely reserved for citizens... There have been exceptions; in Micronesia, the Secretary of Justice has historically been American (and has even been advertised for in an American legal job bank), and Palau's Justice Minister Michael Rosenthal is likewise an American citizen.

Even these, however, don't compare to Nauru. Both Palau and Micronesia follow the American rather than the Westminster model of government; cabinet officials aren't constitutionally required to be legislators and are essentially viewed as high-level civil servants. Nauru is a Westminster state - and, until last week, its constitution required ministers to be members of Parliament. Even more to the point, Palau and Micronesia appointed foreign nationals through free choice, while Depta's appointment to the Nauru government was imposed.

The takeover of Nauru's finance is also consistent with right-wing Australian think-tanks' increasing promotion of a greater role for Australia in Pacific governments in order to prevent them from squandering aid money. Nauru's current financial crisis, which has brought the once-rich nation to the verge of bankruptcy, has served as a wedge for Australia to take unprecedented financial control. Depending on the results of Depta's tenure as Finance Secretary, Australia may follow up by trying to take control of the purse strings in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and other countries in its historic sphere of influence.
It's just as tough to understand why the Australians would ask to have one of their own citizens installed as a minister as it is to understand why Nauru would accept Australia's demand. Why not just insist on the appointment of your guy as the senior public servant? If you're worried that your guy's advice will be dismissed by the Finance Minister, why not give him personal authority over aid flows? Either way, Australia ensures that its favored policies are enacted and that its technocrats have the kind of insider access they need to choose and implement their policy strategies.

It's particularly confusing given that, as Jonathan noted, the new Minister will not be a Member of Parliament, and thus cannot take part in government and caucus meetings, or participate in a vote of no confidence. Presumably the Prime Minister retains the option of dismissing members of his cabinet; furthermore, if the government falls to a no-confidence vote or in an election, the Australians' golden boy presumably goes with it. This is a real possibility in Nauru's highly-volatile political atmosphere, as you can read about here.

At first glance, then, if this is recolonization it's striking how far the Australians have gone to ensure that the process is subject to democratic accountability with the Nauruans. Unless I'm missing something, and I almost certainly am, there are policy-imposition means much less susceptible to political risk than the one the Australians have opted for here.

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