Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 12:15 | SYDNEY
Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 12:15 | SYDNEY

A fresh look at the Pacific


Fergus Hanson


14 December 2007 08:46

From: Fergus Hanson, Research Associate, Lowy Institute 

To: Hon. Stephen Smith, Minister for Foreign Affairs

Before you have too much time to settle into the new job, you can be almost certain a crisis will erupt in the neighbourhood. Will Fiji’s Commodore start backtracking on his commitment to hold elections by March 2009? Will riots erupt in Solomon Islands or East Timor again? With so much going on in the wider world the natural temptation will be to take a reactive approach. I would urge a thorough reassessment of the way we engage with the region, consistent with the promise of fresh ideas for the Pacific made by Prime Minister Rudd during a speech at the Lowy Institute in July. 

The Pacific is clearly not the centre of the universe: it will never be a hub of global power or trade, yet we give it a huge amount of our foreign policy attention. The biggest slice of our growing aid budget goes to the Pacific, around a quarter of our ADF personnel are stationed there as well as our biggest AFP deployments, and this comes during a lull in Pacific crises.

Clearly Australia still has interests and obligations in the Pacific that demand our attention. But we need to make a clear-headed assessment of how extensive these are and what our development objectives should be.

My advice is to set aside time to develop a coherent and structured approach to the Pacific. Convening a committee of experts on the Pacific to offer ideas, or even commissioning a White Paper, could allow you to formulate realistic goals around which to develop a long-term strategy.

One overarching model worth considering is an incentive-based approach to development similar to that used so successfully by the European Union for new and potential members. By offering access to gradual and steadily increasing rewards in return for implementing a set list of reasonable and transparent reforms, development could be driven by Pacific countries.

You have a strong arsenal of policy tools at your disposal. Australia is the largest power in the region by far, you hold the purse strings of one of the region's largest aid budgets, you have a public service, defence and police forces with a wealth of experience in the Pacific and you have two parliamentary secretaries to whom you can farm out the arduous duties of building genuine rapport with the many Pacific leaders.

Australia has made next to no progress throwing aid money at our neighbours: throwing more, without a plan, will have a similar result. The Pacific is one part of the world in which you can have a large impact, but as the Coalition found out, it won’t be easy. A successful policy approach requires just what your government has promised: fresh ideas.