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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 4488


Senator PAYNE (7:20 PM) —I rise tonight to pay tribute to a great Australian, a great diplomat and a great man of the Pacific, Greg Urwin. Pacific Island nations, along with Australia, New Zealand and international donor nations, will together mourn the loss of Greg Urwin, a man who has had a substantial impact on the development of Pacific Island nations. Greg died in Samoa on 9 August this year. He made an outstanding contribution to Australia’s involvement in and understanding of the Pacific region. His first diplomatic appointment to the Pacific region was to Apia, Samoa, in 1977, at a time when some Pacific countries were still emerging as independent nations and others were yet to do so. In the ensuing 30 years, his commitment to the region and importantly to its people never wavered.

Of his pending appointment as the first Australian Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2004, Greg said, ‘Once I’m the Secretary General, I’m not an Australian, I’m an international civil servant and I’ll be the servant of all the members of the forum.’ This approach underlined his uncompromising attitude toward pursuing the interests of the Pacific. Greg did not shy away from elements of disquiet and controversy that surrounded the appointment of an Australian to the role as head of the forum. He recognised that the election of an Australian to head the forum may cause concern, but his appointment was fully endorsed when he was returned to serve a second term as Secretary-General from October 2006.

His achievements included playing a very important role in drafting the Biketawa Declaration. The Biketawa Declaration was adopted by forum leaders in 2000. It was a declaration which recognised that at times the internal affairs of a forum member might be of such gravity that they represented a legitimate concern to the other forum members—that a problem for one member was a problem for all. This was a crucial step in developing procedures for dealing with difficulties that arose in the Pacific, including conflict-prevention measures. It particularly enabled the formation of the subsequent Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands in 2003, a milestone for collaborative and cooperative action in the Pacific. Greg also saw in the Biketawa Declaration important recognition of Indigenous rights and cultural values—recognition that those issues could not be divorced from other, broader issues like the upholding of democratic processes and good governance.

Both RAMSI and the Enhanced Cooperation Program in Papua New Guinea were seen by Mr Urwin as examples of an Australian approach to Pacific policy which was a departure from earlier policy in that they were direct and active engagements designed to confront a range of issues and problems. In many ways, I think Greg saw this as the only practical option for Australia. He recognised that accusations of neo-colonialism and ambivalence about Australia would inevitably accompany Australian or Australian-led initiatives in the Pacific, but he also acknowledged that such less favourable views of Australia ought not to be defining concerns for us, and he wrote of this in an editorial piece in the Australian Financial Review around that time.

He was interested in sustainable outcomes and benefits, and he was an advocate for the Pacific as a whole. The Pacific Plan, which was endorsed by forum leaders in 2005, was another project in which Mr Urwin had a very significant involvement. The plan is constituted around four pillars on which initiatives were then developed: economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security. It is that type of complete, holistic approach which characterised Greg’s vision, born out of decades of experience and a particularly keen understanding of the region’s history. The vision of the region as a whole—thinking of the entity of the Pacific—is the basis of what now really drives Australian policy in the Pacific. He saw the Pacific Plan—I am advised that it was a title to which he laughingly referred as a bit of a worry occasionally, saying, ‘It sounds like Joseph Stalin’—as something that would be a ‘living, ongoing thing’, as he was reported as saying. He obviously knew that no prescriptive, one-off document or plan could possibly hope to be of meaningful value in countering the broad range of problems which would inevitably arise in the Pacific region. He viewed the Pacific Plan as, if you like, an entry point for discussions related to Pacific cooperation, development and integration.

Greg saw Australia’s future as being in part dependent on the long-term relationship it could establish with our immediate region and worked throughout his professional life on establishing and developing these relations. Although he was, of course, born in Australia, Greg was often referred to as a ‘son of the Pacific’, including recently by the Prime Minister of Tonga, the Hon. Feleti Sevele, in his tribute to Mr Urwin. Journalist Graeme Dobell—well known to many of us, particularly those with an interest in international relations and foreign affairs—wrote of Urwin:

He’d drunk kava—

of which he was a renowned connoisseur—

at one time or another with just about everyone who plays for power in the Pacific.

That is certainly a feat I would not like to try and emulate! As well as his diplomatic appointments to the Pacific, including posts as head of mission in Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa, Greg worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra. His knowledge and comprehension of the region proved invaluable in DFAT—and I know many of his fellow officers would acknowledge that at the drop of a feather—most particularly during the Bougainville crisis in Papua New Guinea, which early tested Australian-PNG relations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade publication The Bougainville crisis: an Australian perspective makes clear its recognition of Greg Urwin’s contribution.

In spite of the sometime preponderance of negative comment on the Pacific in the Australian media and elsewhere, Greg was keen to highlight that not all was bad in the region. He contrasted the problems that had occasionally been experienced on the national level in a number of nations with more positive developments at the communal level: strong clan and family life, the role of the church across a number of the Pacific nations, voluntary organisations and sport. I know that every single member of parliament who has the opportunity to visit the Pacific, almost no matter where they go, can also make those observations as they meet with communities and community leaders and see those strengths of value and community.

He had an uncanny ability to delve beneath the obvious and to envisage a manner in which the different requirements and demands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia could be met. He ventured that a common thread in all of these cases would:

… be about finding the appropriate accommodation between modern national methods of governance and older priorities and practices.

These are words which we would do well to reflect upon today. He was aware that the imposition of systems could not be effective and durable unless all stakeholders and people had an important role to play. His contribution was recognised with the award of the Public Service Medal in 2001 for outstanding contribution to Australia’s relations with the Pacific and again in 2003 with the award of the Centenary Medal for outstanding public service for his efforts in advancing Australia’s interests in the Pacific.

I met with Greg most recently in Suva in late 2006 to discuss the inquiry then being conducted by the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on Australia’s aid program in the Pacific. I was then, as ever, grateful for his advice, his professionalism and the very important role that he was playing in the Pacific then as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. I also reflected, as I was reading a number of obituaries and words written and spoken about Greg after his death, on his sense of humour, his infectious laugh—which was widely reported—and those very many aspects of his personality which endeared him to so many people.

His understanding of the Pacific region as a whole and of many of the individual nations and communities, I believe, remains unmatched, and he will be greatly missed as a great Australian and a diplomat in every sense of the word. In concluding this evening, I wish to extend my sympathies to his family—his wife and their sons—and to his very many friends and colleagues who mark the passing of a consummate professional.