Australia’s New Pacific Minister

A new ministerial post is designed to a send a message to the Pacific region.

Australia’s New Pacific Minister
Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website

Among the changes that have taken place in the Australian government over the last two weeks ago, one appointment that has stayed somewhat under the radar is Steve Ciobo as minister for International Development and the Pacific.

He’s been promoted from parliamentary secretary and to what is a new position, one that is meant to send a serious message to the Pacific that Australia is serious about its engagement in that region. In a September 21 interview on Pacific Beat, an ABC radio show about the region, the newly minted minister used the word “engagement” repeatedly. The new position, and his role, was all about engagement: in the region, with other nations, on varied issues (like climate change).

And what of climate change? This is the issue most important to Pacific nations, as the recent Pacific Islands Forum showed. There was anger at both Australia and New Zealand over a perceived indifference to the smaller nations’ plight (such as Peter Dutton’s unfortunate comments) and disinterest in pursuing stronger climate policies. Does this signal policy change on climate change? In the short term, no. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made Australia’s position on climate change clear: There will be continuity with the previous PM and cabinet, nothing will change as yet under his rule. Much of what PIF nations wanted, they will not get, such as changes in emissions targets.

Jonathan Pryke, from the Lowy Institute, sees the ministerial position as a way for Australia to signal the importance of the Pacific and soften the tone used on climate change. Though the aid budget was previously slashed, the region remains the biggest recipient and Australia will work on mitigation and prevention efforts.

Ciobo says climate change is a “key priority area and renewed policy focus… (it) will reinforce the message that Australia wants to be a very good neighbor, that we have a responsibility to share the journey.” He did not mention PNG’s recent drought, nor inclement weather such as Cyclone Pam that hit Vanuatu earlier this year.

There will be a strong private sector focus and a focus on aid for trade. That is similar to his focus as parliamentary secretary. In a speech last year, after noting the value of investment, collaboration and trade between PNG and Australia, Ciobo pointed out that bilateral trade is worth A$7 billion ($4.9 billion) and Australian investment in PNG was A$19 billion – “more than double Indonesia’s.” A good part of that large-scale investment comes from mining projects, of course. He said, “Australia has recalibrated our aid program towards supporting the private sector, and building infrastructure, to stimulate economic growth.”

The minister will visit PNG and Fiji in the near future; the relationship with the latter has always suffered from a measure of instability and it will be interesting to see how Suva greets Ciobo’s enthusiastic but unspecific statements.