Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 14:19 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 14:19 | SYDNEY

Australia: losing interest in the Pacific?


Danielle Cave


28 July 2010 13:24

Australia’s new Prime Minister Julia Gillard has had a tough introduction to regional foreign policy. While domestic politics is clearly ruling the roost leading up to the Australian Federal election on 21 August, this doesn’t need to come at the expense of, what had been, improving relations with our nearest neighbours.

After a period of re-engagement with the Pacific, it appears interest could again be about to wane and at a particularly bad time. The region is struggling to manage multiple challenges, all against a backdrop of ongoing instability that plagues several Melanesian countries.

There are prospects of electoral-related violence in the lead up to the August elections in Solomon Islands. Fiji is threatening to renege on its promise to hold elections in 2014 amidst a worsening relationship with Australia and the recent expulsion of Australia’s acting High Commissioner.

PNG’s 74 year old Prime Minister Michael Somare last week just survived a vote of no-confidence spurred on by his Deputy, and a host of other ministers, defecting to lead the opposition. His government is looking increasingly shaky and last week he threatened to kill opposition MP, Sam Basil, in Parliament and a few days later signalled his country might need a RAMSI-style force to maintain law and order.

Julia Gillard’s first major foreign policy announcement was to establish a regional processing facility for Australian asylum seekers in Timor-Leste, although this swiftly hatched plan proved flawed when it was revealed she had failed to consult Timor’s Prime Minister. Timor seemed baffled at the announcement, eventually declining the offer.

Having mishandled the Timor relationship, the government now has the Pacific Islands Forum on its radar. The Forum leaders meeting will be held in Port Vila next week with Australia as the outgoing chair handing over to the Prime Minister of Vanuatu.

Our Pacific island neighbours must feel as though they are being treated like a friend you don’t want to be seen in public with after it was revealed Gillard won’t be attending the leaders meeting and it is looking increasingly unlikely that Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, will either.

One minute, we are cosying up to our close friends and neighbours in the hope they will support our regional processing centre and the next we can’t even spare our Foreign Minister for a one-day, fly-in fly-out, 3.5 hour trip to Vanuatu.

Making Australia seem even more insincere, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key, this week outlined his plans to not only attend the entire forum but also the post-forum dialogue where he will have a chance to engage with non-member nations (ie Timor-Leste) and civil society.

With pressure mounting from the opposition and media here, here, here and here, Stephen Smith’s current stance seems strange and poorly thought through.

With the Forum attracting a small herd of Australian and regional media, he will have plenty of opportunity to remain focused on the election from sunny Vanuatu. One would think keeping on top of important foreign affairs issues, such as this one, could even facilitate his campaign. He will be showing the Australian public and his electorate he is doing his job  — and he’ll earn our sympathy and respect as he’ll be doing it while wearing a Hawaiian shirt and matching lae!.

Pointing to John Howard’s failure to attend the Pacific Islands Forum in 2001 and 2007 is a mistake. Not only did Howard have a tense relationship with the region but Labor’s slogan, after all, is ‘moving forward’.

It’s time to do just that. Before making the mistake of ignoring our region which will become the talk of next week’s Forum and set the tone for Pacific island relations for the coming year, the Australian Government needs to stop making excuses and book our Foreign Affairs Minister a return flight to Vanuatu. 

Photo by Flickr user afagen's photostream, used under a Creative Commons licence.