Features | Politics | Oceania

Pacific Power

The Rudd Government has begun to put Australia’s relations with the Pacific on a new and better footing since taking office.

By Stephen Smith for

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

A new policy dynamic

Under a new Government, Australia has embarked on a fresh approach for the Pacific, one based on mutual respect, shared goals and genuine partnership. This emphasis on shared goals, responsibilities and outcomes is at the heart of the Government’s new policy framework as set out in the Port Moresby Declaration by Prime Minister Rudd on March 6, 2008.

Central to this new approach is the concept of Pacific Development Partnerships. These partnerships will take the form of bilateral agreements with Pacific nations which specify how and to what end we will work together. The partnerships are yet to be negotiated, but, as outlined in the Declaration, Australia envisages that they will identify ways to jointly pursue common aspirations in areas such as economic infrastructure, employment, private sector development, education, health and governance. They will also be pursued in the context of achieving greater regional progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.

In Auckland, at meetings in the margins of the Forum Foreign Affairs Minister’s Meeting on Fiji, both PNG and Samoa agreed with Australia to commence negotiation on the first two Pacific Development Partnerships.

Pacific Development Partnerships present a new opportunity to sharpen the focus of bilateral cooperation, and build on the strong base of current development cooperation activities. Over time, Australia would be prepared to increase its investment in these partnerships in line with commitments by partners to improve development performance, to implement appropriate economic and governance reforms, as well as regional economic integration and trade liberalisation.

The guiding principle that underpins the partnership concept is Australian respect for the sovereignty, leadership and ultimate responsibility of Pacific nations for their own development. We will harmonise our own approach with the development strategies of our partner governments.

To do this, we will also work closely with other donors, especially New Zealand, whose long-term commitment and responsibility in the region aligns with our own. The desirability and the need for this close working relationship between Australia and New Zealand was the subject of constructive discussion with both Prime Minister Helen Clark and Foreign Minister Winston Peters on my recent visit to Auckland.

It is also important that the partnerships sit comfortably alongside and reinforce the Pacific Island Forum’s Pacific Plan, which sets out a comprehensive approach to economic reform, good governance, transport, energy, communications and security. Pacific Development Partnerships will, however, involve much more than just a traditional development assistance relationship.

Australia will strongly support reform processes that have as their goal the creation of robust economies in the Pacific. Getting the economic fundamentals of the Pacific right is crucial for long-term development and prosperity. The Pacific Development Partnerships concept sees us think about new areas of cooperation. We have identified five areas where this might occur.

First, Australia believes that there are range of additional education and training opportunities that could build the capacity of public servants and industry personnel in the region. Long-term efforts to build human capacities in both the public and private sectors is essential.

Australian officials are already working alongside and transferring skills to a range of Pacific government officials under the Enhanced Cooperation Program in Papua New Guinea, and as part of RAMSI. We are also supporting the delivery of basic education services in a number of countries, several regional education institutions, and a significant program of scholarships. But there is scope for greater cooperation. Much more can and must be done.

Second, labour mobility is of great interest to Pacific nations. They would like Australia to open its borders to short-term and seasonal Pacific workers, who would in turn send remittances home and thus help local economies.

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Australia is studying this complex issue carefully. We have been talking with the New Zealand Government about their own experiences and pilot program. We will be testing the demand for labour and the receptiveness to a pilot program before the Pacific Islands Forum in Niue in August.

Third, helping to boost trade opportunities in the Pacific is to be another key plank in Australia’s Pacific strategy. Australia would like to see Pacific nations sign up to the comprehensive regional free trade agreement, PACER Plus, as envisaged by Pacific Islands Forum leaders. The freer the flow of goods, services and investments, the deeper the Pacific integration with Australia, New Zealand and the global community, the better the prospect, in our view, of genuine, stable and long-term economic growth in the region. From our own national experience, we know liberalisation is not is an easy task in the short-term, but the long-term benefits are real and substantive. So Australia is ready to assist Pacific nations take advantage of these long-term opportunities while helping to cushion short-term discomfort.

Fourth, there is considerable scope to work jointly to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Low-lying Pacific nations are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events. If nothing is done, and current trends continue, rising seas could rob countries such as Tuvalu and Kiribati of fresh water and arable land within half a century, long before, as on some estimates, they are flooded.

In March 2008, Australia and PNG signed a Forest Carbon Partnership to reduce emissions from deforestation – an important first step to develop a model of climate change cooperation between developed and developing countries.

And fifth, our common devotion to sport opens up another useful avenue for cooperation. Sporting exchanges and events are an ideal way of engaging youth and creating closer people-to-people contact between our respective countries.

Our Pacific partners

Later this month, we will hold the first Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum since 2005, in Madang. It will provide the first opportunity for Australia and one of its key Pacific neighbours to endorse the parameters and content of our Partnership framework at a broad Ministerial level.

The Forum, to be attended by a large delegation of Australian ministers will give us the chance to address important issues such as climate change, the spread of HIV/AIDS in PNG, the future of the Kokoda Track and development cooperation.

It will take time to negotiate and conclude formal Pacific Development Partnership agreements. Pending this, and in the spirit of genuine partnership, we will continue to work shoulder-to-shoulder with smaller Micronesian and Polynesian states to pursue aid, trade and defence cooperation, as well as police cooperation in countries such as Vanuatu.

With respect to Fiji, Australia is working as part of the Pacific Islands Forum to encourage Fiji to return to democratic rule and put aside the culture of political instability that has so damaged its economy, community and international reputation over the past 20 years. We want Commodore Frank Bainimarama to honour his faithful undertaking to Pacific Forum Leaders in Tonga in 2007 to hold elections by March 2009. We will work with our Pacific partners and others to seek to hold him to that undertaking.

A new era

The Rudd Government’s new Pacific strategic approach has heralded a new era of cooperation. There is now renewed enthusiasm in the region to work with Australia to build a better future national and the region. While the challenges are significant we can tackle them together. We have the chance to make a fresh start. We plan to use it.

Stephen Smith is The Australian Foreign Minister