The Rudd Government has begun to put Australia’s relations with the Pacific on a new and better footing since taking office. There is a sense of optimism and energy in the region. Our Pacific neighbours have sensed the change. They welcome our new commitment to work hand-in-hand to help realise the region’s considerable potential; to tackle some of the underlying social and economic challenges; and to develop joint approaches towards pressing global issues such as climate change.
A fresh start
Australia is serious about engaging more effectively with Pacific nations and working to effect shared development outcomes. In the few months since the election, we have undertaken an intense program of high-level contact with our Pacific neighbours, including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Nauru, Kiribati and Tonga.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Prime Minister’s first bilateral visit was to two key Pacific countries, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands. My first Pacific visit was to Solomon Islands for the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) Ministerial Review meeting. More recently I visited Auckland for the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Minister’s Meeting on Fiji. These have enabled me to conduct bilateral meetings with New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Niue and Samoa.
Our two experienced former ministers with Pacific responsibilities, Duncan Kerr as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and Bob McMullan as Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, have already visited Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Australia has also offered to host the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 – a symbol of our Pacific commitment.
From an Australian perspective, overcoming the economic and security challenges facing the Pacific is important for our own economic and security interests, and for the welfare of Australians in the region.
Our desire to assist goes well beyond a narrow definition of national interest. It is also a reflection of the values and expectations of the Australian people. Our energetic beginning reflects a strongly-held view that Australia has an abiding interest in helping Pacific nations secure a better future for themselves and our region. We share this neighbourhood and so together we face the same problems.
Australia wants to be a good international citizen and in our region that involves working both as a regional leader, and a good partner. More broadly, Australia’s renewed commitment to the Pacific is a reflection of the new Government’s desire to be much more robust and involved internationally, not just in our region but around the globe.
Facing up to the challenges
For all its potential, the Pacific region faces some deep-seated challenges. The development efforts of some Pacific nations are hampered by their small size and population, their remoteness, their limited resources and their environmental vulnerability.
Big or small Pacific nations alike face, to varying degrees, problems arising from rapidly growing youth population, urban drift, unemployment, health challenges and poor transport or communications links with the rest of the world. In some, the nation state itself is fragile and struggles to deliver basic services.
Brighter growth prospects
An objective listing of the region’s problems should not lead us to ignore many encouraging signs. The Australian Government’s 2008 Pacific Economic Survey, launched last month in Vanuatu by Mr McMullan and Mr Kerr, forecasts a stronger economic growth path for the Pacific in the years ahead. Improved economic management and political stability, as well as increased competition in aviation and telecommunications, are expected to spur the region’s economic expansion.
This is a welcome turn-around from the low growth that has characterised the past two decades. Indeed, if current growth rates in the most populous Pacific states of PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands were sustained, it would make a serious dent in poverty and improve living standards.
It is economic news of this kind that leads us to be optimistic about our neighbours’ prospects of developing their natural potential. In PNG, the Government has a unique opportunity to take advantage of the global commodity boom, and prospective minerals and petroleum resources revenue.
The nations of the Pacific have enormous tourism potential. But to make the most of their natural assets, some nations including Samoa, Cook Islands and Palau need to reduce their travel and communications costs. A return to democracy, respect for human rights and political stability would help Fiji recreate its status as a tourist destination.
The growth potential in other Pacific countries is less certain. The smallest and most remote Pacific nations will continue to struggle against the burdens of distance and geography. The Solomon Islands needs to cement social and political stability if it is to make further economic headway. The government of Dr Derek Sikua has made a very good start in this respect. We have been encouraged by the new Government’s commitment to work with the region and with Australia, both bilaterally and through RAMSI.