Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 07:12 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 07:12 | SYDNEY

Ministering to the South Pacific


Graeme Dobell

31 March 2010 09:07

Previous posts in this series were on Australia's Pacific drift, the Pacific Islands Forum, the chance for big bang changes in Pacific policy and the need for an Aid Minister.

Australia has talked some wonderful talk about what needs to be done in the South Pacific.

Rudd came to power announcing closer and deeper interaction with the Islands. The Port Moresby Declaration offered 'a new era of cooperation' built around partnerships specific to each island. The Cairns Communique outlined a 'a new development compact' for the Pacific.

The trouble is, Canberra doesn't have a political post devoted to walking in support of that talk — the start of April marks five months since the post of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs was vacated.

Whether the Prime Minister resurrects the Pacific Secretary or, better still, creates a Pacific Minister, this Pacific politician (PacPol for short) needs to be out and about to meet, greet and entreat. The old joke about using lawyers instead of rats for scientific experiments posits that there are some things rats just won't do. Well, in the nicest possible way, there are some tasks beyond diplomats and aidies. These are the big tasks for PacPol.

First, Australia now faces a zero-sum game for influence with Fiji. The military regime in Suva has significant incentives to taunt or even thwart Australia's role in the region. At a minimum, Canberra needs to have an unwavering eye on its political and diplomatic relationships with every other member of the Pacific Islands Forum. Call in PacPol.

Beyond holding the line against Fiji, our Pacific grandee needs to kick some heads in the Canberra bureaucracy. The Pacific worker scheme is one of the big new things Australia has offered the region under Rudd, at last introducing some Pacific people to our Pacific policy. The idea took so long to be born, not least because because two departments, Employment and Immigration, saw it as nothing but a headache to administer. It's not their baby and they are not interested in feeding it. And neither DFAT nor AusAID have given the scheme much push or protection.

Death by careful administration looms. PacPol to the rescue.

The Pacific vizier should leave the agony of the Pacer-Plus free trade talks with the Islands to the Trade Minister. Imagine trying to construct a free trade pact with the European Union if France was barred from the negotiations, yet Paris was entitled to sit outside the talks and critique the process. This is precisely the bind that Pacer-Plus faces, with Fiji in the spoiler role.

The PacPol should take the structure offered by the Rudd promises for Pacific Partnerships and the Cairns Communique and go looking for some easy wins with bilateral deals. That approach gives Canberra the chance to to entice as well as entreat. Putting dollars and jobs on the table is an excellent way to demonstrate why Fiji's blandishments should be ignored.

To see what could be offered, look no further than the thoughts of one of the top economists working on the Pacific, Satish Chand. Dr Chand says Pacer-Plus is too big a step for the region:

Deepening of trade links like many other things in life proceeds in small steps. The move is in the right direction and between a small number of parties that over time balloons in size and depth. That is, the dynamics of regional integration are more akin to snowballing than to a massive-bang with everyone simultaneously breaking out in a hula.

To get individual islands dancing, he suggests that Australia and New Zealand should use the gifts inherent in the CER free trade zone the two countries have created over three decades. CER, one of the cleanest and broadest free trade agreements around, should open up to goods, services and workers from the Pacific Islands. Individual members of the Pacific Islands Forum would be given the chance to embrace CER on an opt-in/opt-out basis.

PIF members could choose to participate as and when they see fit. Such an approach is likely to be the least threatening to all parties and devoid of the need for multiple meetings and conductors to get the PIF-choir in tune. And a unilateral move by any member towards free trade would be consistent with PACER, so no complaints from that end either. Who knows, Fiji could opt-in for this route!

Sounds like an excellent task for a new PacPol from Canberra.

Photo by Flickr user oooh.oooh, used under a Creative Commons license.