The Australian Federal Election and the South Pacific

Scott MacWilliam
Visiting Fellow
State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program

Prior to the September 7 election, there were some, even high, hopes that the anticipated victory of the conservative Liberal-National Party Coalition would bring major welcome changes to Australian foreign policy toward the South Pacific. These changes included a reversal of the stance toward Fiji’s military regime initiated by the previous conservative government headed by John Howard and maintained during the six years of centre-left Labor Party headed coalition rule.

Indeed shortly before the election the shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop signalled an intention to more closely engage with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s government, easing sanctions in the run-up to the promised 2014 elections in Fiji. Soon after the Australian elections, NZ’s conservative government welcomed the release of the new Fiji constitution and also announced that some sanctions would be eased, while planning for the elections continued. Change looked to be in the wind.

However the experienced and astute Fiji foreign minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola immediately placed the significance of the proposed ANZ shift in context. In an interview Kukuabola indicated that, 'while Fiji welcomed the incremental changes in the New Zealand stance, it was regrettable they were of little impact at this late stage of Fiji’s progress towards a return to democracy'.1 Expect much the same once the now foreign minister Bishop is sworn in and makes a similar pronouncement to that coming from NZ Minister McCully.

Kubuabola has been around long enough to know the long-term drivers of ANZ foreign policies towards Fiji and other South Pacific countries. He would be well aware that soon after Bishop trumpeted her greater sensitivity to the region at a conference in Fiji, the conservative treasurer-to-be Joe Hockey announced a AUD4.5 billion cut over the next four years to the aid budget. For reasons outlined below, I expect this to be only the first such cut. AusAID for Fiji, which has increased substantially since 2006, is unlikely to be spared major reductions UNLESS the government feels it can be used to exert further leverage on the military regime.

Kubuabola would also know that a central if not publicly stated plank of the Australian foreign policy toward Fiji is the re-installation of the former SDL (Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua) party, now SODELPA (Social Democratic Liberal Party) in government. 

On a recent visit to Fiji, I was informed by a normally reliable source that the Liberal Party in Australia had provided for two SODELPA officials to watch how that party conducted its election campaign. While I have not seen written evidence to this effect, it did not surprise as AusAID support has previously been forthcoming for the training of SDL and Fiji Labour Party officials at the ANU’s Centre for Democratic Institutions.

The opportunistic United Front which consists of SODELPA, the Fiji Labour Party and the National Federation Party is likely to also receive support from Australia in the form of assistance for the FLP

That is, Kubuabola and the regime would know that lifting sanctions is code for back to the future. Propping up the bloc that led to the military takeover is aimed specifically at whatever party PM Bainimarama establishes to run in the elections. When the PM’s bitter opponent ex-PM Laisenia Qarase is the principal adviser to SODELPA, which currently has a largely token figure at its head, the domestic Fiji battle lines are becoming sharper each day. What Australian foreign policy hopes to achieve is equally transparent.

While much has been made of the previous ALP-Greens-Independents coalition government’s internal divisions, there is now a pronounced campaign under way in Australia to claim that the conservative Coalition is a united team. Indeed so consistent have been the efforts by senior party figures to proclaim a cautious, common front as was shown when in opposition that this suggests divisions needing to be glossed over. Already there have been the much publicised attacks on the presence of only woman, Bishop, in the Cabinet. Less noted have been the very public criticisms of proposed policies in areas which point to the inherent tensions between the Liberal and National parties.2 Similarly the handing of Trade and Investment, the former traditionally a National Party sinecure, to a Victorian Liberal who previously held the shadow Finance portfolio is likely to produce major disagreements between what might loosely be called the `economic nationalists’ or `agrarian populists’ and the `economic rationalists’. Resolving these disputes, with more funds poured into agriculture and rural infrastructure – both ministries held by National Party politicians – can be most easily resolved by further cutting foreign aid. Both sides are in agreement with this direction, with the new National Party agriculture minister being an especially vociferous critic of giving to others money which he believes is needed in Australia.

And then there are climate changes, the effects of which are so critical for nearly all South Pacific countries and highlighted at a recent regional conference. For all the attempts to suggest an incoming government which is trying to be get closer to the governments of other South Pacific countries, the new Australia one will be forever branded by two phrases. One of these is `climate change is crap’, with the second being `stop the boats’.

On the first, one of the earliest signs that denial is still a central belief of the new PM Tony Abbott is the appointment as consul-general in New York of former Senator Nick Minchin. A South Australian party hard man and extreme conservative, Minchin shares his leader’s view on the predominant scientific position regarding global warming. Minchin, an Abbott promoter in internal party tussles, is famous or infamous depending upon one’s respect for medical knowledge for proclaiming that the documented links between passive smoking and various illnesses are not proven. In the mid-1990s he was described as holding `troglodyte’ views on the subject and there is no evidence that he has changed since. So for the people of the South Pacific concerned with the effects of rising sea levels, don’t expect this government to bring climate science to the table in discussions on Australian foreign policy toward Pacific islanders.
On `stop the boats’ little more needs to be said except that the initial stance does not show any change from the heralded Opposition position. Don’t expect much greater sensitivity from the government or the foreign minister to the views of regional governments on this internationally difficult issue. The suggestion that Australia would buy boats which might be used for transporting asylum seekers and destroy them has not been given much credence. Bishop has already declared her position regarding Indonesian opposition to such proposed measures as paying informers to gather information about proposed people smuggling activities in Indonesia. To the critics who point to the possible implications for Indonesian sovereignty, Bishop has stated `"We're not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding". 3 Indonesia’s foreign minister almost immediately spoke against the payments proposal.4 Papua New Guinea’s PM Peter O’Neill too is clearly on the alert regarding attempts to redefine the deal signed with the previous Australian government.

Over-all, for those who looked forward to a change of government in Australia as one which would bring greater benefits to South Pacific countries, all the initial signs are for the need to be cautious rather than optimistic. Being in opposition allows grandiose promises: being in government of a relatively minor and not very important country in world affairs means having to bend to major storms which blow across the globe. An attempted muscular foreign policy from such a minor player is unlikely to convince too many in the region or elsewhere. Alternately, whether this government can instead sway and bend in its dealings with neighbours is yet to be tested.

1 Fiji Sun September 13, pp.1-2
2 `New Nats threaten to rebel over CSG’ (Coal Seam Gas) The Australian September 10 2013, p.5
3 `Julie Bishop says Coalition's policies would not breach Indonesia's sovereignty’ The Australian September 17.

4 `We will reject Abbott’s policy on asylum seekers: Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalagawa’ Sydney Morning Herald September 13


A Smooth Operator said…
Israel's shrewd and carefully-articulated Finance Minister, Yair Lipid, was interviewed on Amanpour CNN this morning.

"I like Low Expectations", he announced. "This is the Middle East, we should carry a Big Stick/Tomahawk along with the carrots".

"I like the new vocabulary". Well, yes. They were talking of Syria and its alleged 1000 tonnes (or something mega of that ilk)of Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Israel has lived with these risks since its foundation. So it chooses words with care: great care. But ministers like Lipid with their morbid sense of humour inspire confidence that an assessment of the reality and risks has been made: each and every day. Even an infinitesimal,nuanced change of "vocabulary" does not escape a 'factoring in'.

Our regional neighbours might do well to pay close attention to the 'Smooth Operator' Mr Yair Lipid. The risks are huge in the Middle East but they are looming larger daily on the Asia/Pacific doorstep. Get it wrong and the consequences will last a generation.
Anonymous said…
Scott MacWilliam either doesn't know what he's talking about or is too far from the action to realise what is going on. Julie Bishop is planning to visit Fiji after her other, more pressing engagements in the region and she and Ratu Inoke have formed a close relationship. The precondition for a better bilateral relationship is the lifting of all sanctions against Fiji, including the travel bans on military personnel. If that doesn't happen, there will be no change to the status quo. But if it does, a normalisation of relations will take place almost immediately. MacWilliam is completely wrong to allege that Australian policy continues to favour the return of the Qarase Government. It does not. Even the idiot Roman Catholic Archbishop of Suva has described that government as "racist and corrupt". MacWilliam refers to the fact that two SODELPA officials were invited to Australia to witness the conduct of the election as if this is some great revelation. It was fully publicised in the local media and means nothing. The official Registrar of Elections, Mohammed Saneem, also visited Australia around the same time. The Aussies are just being even handed, as well they should be. After all, SODELPA is registered to contest the 2014 election. MacWilliam needs to do his research more thoroughly before parading all this conjecture as if it is earth shatteringly new. It is not.
Anonymous said…
This rather inane article with its repetitive message that Australia is a 'baddy' and the human rights abusing Fiji military regime is a 'goody' that is hard done by, gives interesting insights into the quality of academics at ANU, and in particular the so called 'Melanesian' program at ANU? Perhaps it is about time we had some MELANESIANS as Melanesian experts and some females to boot!!!
Anonymous said…
Actually you are right: Australia is indeed a neocolonial bully and the military regime as managed to conduct an almost bloodless revolution. It now stands up against the bullies in the region and pushes for the welfare of all citizens of Fiji while Australia continues to abuse the human rights of asylum seekers and prospective immigrants from Fiji.
WHY? said…
What, precisely, is intended by use of the word 'bloodless'? Our suicide rate is now one of the highest in the entire world. Not factored that in yet? The rate of suicide and attempted suicide in Fiji has become a national, humanitarian embarrassment. As have our statistics on NCDs,STDs, hiv/AIDS, with associated drug-resistant TB, typhoid and cancers of increasing complexity. Indeed, they are now jointly akin to a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Yet, cancer diagnoses and treatments might be easily set in place were there the political will. Skin cancers should be treated by new techniques in Out-Patient clinics for the specific purpose. It is a matter of setting priorities and using the latest technology. While 'Curiosity' daily traverses Mars, we bury our dead without asking 'WHY'?
BULA MAI, Ben! said…
Ben Ryan may be assured that the desired 'class operators' will come his way once he has demonstrated his 'vaka viti' coaching style. Fiji is very fortunate to have attracted his attention and he will not be the first Loughborough graduate to have participated on a rugby field in Fiji. Look back to 1999 and the Front Row. Fiji Sevens may now look forward with hope after a doldrums of indifferent and inconsistent results. Our expectations are low but our aspirations are high for a turnaround. 'BULA MAI', Ben Ryan. Our hearts are with you and your Team!

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