WE SAY ‘There is little doubt that Australia has lost its Pacific focus. The Rudd administration, though it started out pompously on the note that broken relations needed to be mended after the Howard regime’s exit, is poised to leave a far poorer legacy in the Pacific than its precedessor’
The past decade bears witness to the two ANZAC nations’ slow drift away from their century old allies in the neighbourhood—the small nations of the southern Pacific Ocean—toward emerging geopolitical alignments in Asia.
Not surprisingly, these emerging Asian powers—China being the biggest and most powerful of them all—have been forging and strengthening their own links in the Pacific Islands region at a pace that has clearly been faster than that of the ANZAC nations’ drift away from them.
A mixture of apathy, an attitude of superciliousness and a ‘talking down’ approach have marked recent political and diplomatic relations between Australia and New Zealand on one side, and the Pacific Islands, on the other.
As a consequence, aid has ballooned to an extent it is no longer sustainable while trade has been skewed to such an extent that there are billion-dollar trade deficits between the ANZAC nations and the islands countries.
It’s as if the Pacific Islands, long considered the backyard of these two industrial neighbours, have been taken for granted. Recent development, however, certainly point towards a greater drift away from each other. And this comes at a time when Australia occupies the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.
One of the earliest appointments of the Kevin Rudd administration after it took the reins of power in Australia was Duncan Kerr, who was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs. The appointment of Kerr, a former dean of the law faculty at the University of Papua New Guinea, and a minister in a previous Labor government, was largely welcomed around the Pacific. It was seen as a positive development after the long and troubled relationship that the former Howard administration had with Pacific leaders, particularly the Melanesian nations.
In fact, Rudd had alluded to this deterioration in the relationships with Pacific Islands states: “I would suggest having a dedicated parliamentary secretary, and someone with such extensive experience as Duncan, charged with that responsibility, will help rebuild the fabric of personal and political relationships with the governments of the South Pacific,” he had said on the occasion.
Soon after his appointment, Kerr followed up with a whistle-stop tour of a representation of Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian countries gauging the pulse of the region before accompanying Rudd to Papua New Guinea on his first Pacific islands visit. It was during that visit in Port Moresby that Rudd unveiled Australia’s new Pacific Partnerships Framework. The policy—which has come to be known as the Port Moresby Declaration—has important differences from previous years’ approach to the islands, which was more in the manner of ‘one size fits all’. It acknowledged that each island had its own set of unique problems while identifying common ones that link them and the larger region and even the world.
Kerr’s co-ordination with New Zealand over its successful recognised seasonal employer scheme resulted in Australia trialling its own seasonal worker scheme, which has been plagued by many false starts and has all but proved to be a dud compared to New Zealand’s far more successful programme.
But initiatives like those—however badly planned and implemented they may have been—seem clearly less important to the Rudd administration now than when it formed the government some two years ago. Even four months after Kerr’s resignation in October last year, the government has not thought it fit to appoint a replacement. What is more, another long-time Pacific Islands acolyte, Bob McMullan, Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance has announced his wish to retire.
Acknowledging the contribution of Kerr and McMullan, Rudd said, “Both Duncan Kerr and Bob McMullan have made important contributions to our reinvigorated relationship with the Pacific islands countries.”
But that is little more than lip service. The Rudd administration has done next to nothing to fill Kerr’s void and has scarcely indicated who will replace McMullan. Eventually someone will, but would that person have the feel for the Pacific that McMullan had? Going by the Rudd administration’s lackadaisical attitude that does not seem to be something that matters.
Meanwhile, the islands have begun to feel the effects of the absence of an important functionary who had a feel for their problems and understood their needs. Some weeks back, Samoa’s high commissioner to Australia, seasoned diplomat Lemalu Tate Simi and his Papua New Guinean counterpart in Canberra, Charles Lepani, asked why it has taken so long to replace him. The clamour has begun to spill out of diplomatic circles as well. The director of the Myer Foundation Melanesia Programme at the Lowy Institute, Jenny Hayward-Jones was reported as saying, “The Rudd government’s failure to appoint a new parliamentary secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs sends a negative signal to the Pacific Islands region at a time when Australia should be demonstrating leadership and even closer links to the region, as chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.”
There is little doubt that Australia has lost its Pacific focus. The Rudd administration, though it started out pompously on the note that broken relations needed to be mended after the Howard regime’s exit, is poised to leave a far poorer legacy in the Pacific than its predecessor.
If it is indeed serious of its intentions for the Pacific Islands, it would have followed through meaningfully on several of the programmes initiated during the previous regime—the Pacific Plan, regional trade processes and of course RAMSI—with the help of a talented bunch of officials who understood Pacific dynamics and empathised with its people.
Instead, the Rudd administration seems more disposed towards letting Pacific Islands relationships languish with neither a demonstrable plan nor the right people anywhere in sight to take on the onerous roles of navigating the regional behemoth’s political and economic relations with the tiny but no longer insignificant neighbourhood.
As it concentrates on its Asian relationship, it must realise that those same Asian entities are building progressively strengthening relationships with the islands.
See also Islands Business