One step forward, two steps back in the Pacific

| June 27, 2019

In 2016, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed Australia’s commitment to a ‘step-change’ in its engagement with the Pacific Islands. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper sketched the skeleton of this ‘step-up’ but it wasn’t until 2018 that those bones were fleshed out.

While Australia is set to implement several meaningful labour mobility, security and diplomatic initiatives, simultaneously counterproductive domestically driven policies could undermine the ability of those programs to improve engagement with Pacific Island states.

The step-up involves significant support for infrastructure, including the creation of an AU$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific and an extra AU$1 billion (US$687 million) for the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation.

Alongside Japan, New Zealand and the United States, Australia also committed to the Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership, which aims to connect 70 per cent of Papua New Guinea to electricity by 2030.

While opinions about Australia’s approach to infrastructure investment are mixed, the country’s efforts to increase labour mobility have been widely welcomed as having potential developmental benefits.

The expanded Seasonal Worker Program, created in 2012, allows opportunities to work in Australia’s agriculture sector for up to nine months each year. In July 2018, the Pacific Labour Scheme was created for workers from selected Pacific Island states to work in low- and semi-skilled jobs for up to three years.

Labour mobility can help build vital people-to-people links between Australians and Pacific Islanders, as well as much-needed knowledge of the region in Australia. Intentions to enhance church partnerships and educational and sporting links may also help.

But Australia’s step-up isn’t just about development. There is also a strong security focus, reflecting Australia’s preoccupation with the potential for threats to come through the region.

Australia intends to commission a dedicated vessel for humanitarian and disaster-relief support, create an Australian Defence Force Pacific Mobile Training Team and create a Pacific Faculty of Policing at the Australian Institute of Police Management.

Australia is also planning to create a Pacific Fusion Centre to aid with sharing security-related information, and commission an Australia Pacific Security College to train and enhance cooperation between Pacific Islands’ security agencies.

Australia has committed to the expanded Pacific Maritime Security Program and to assistance focussed on threats to maritime and cyber security.

Australia is also redeveloping Fiji’s Blackrock Camp to train regional military forces engaged in peacekeeping activities, and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Papua New Guinea to redevelop the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island.

A new Office of the Pacific is overseeing implementation of the step-up. Its head, Ewen McDonald, gave a keynote speech at a workshop at the Australian National University on 6 and 7 June.

While the office is located in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it draws on representatives from a range of government departments, assisting the government to speak — in the words of McDonald — with a ‘common, respectful and coordinated voice’.

Significantly, McDonald emphasised that the office is prioritising listening to and involving Pacific Island states in informing Australia’s policies. He committed to spending as much time in the region as in Canberra. This will be facilitated by plans to ensure Australia’s diplomatic presence in every Pacific Islands Forum member.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also ‘walked the talk’, with his explicit recognition that ‘if you’re going to “step up”, you’ve got to show up’ — demonstrated by visits to Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon in 2019. These visits build on private ones made by virtue of his church links.

Another significant aspect of McDonald’s speech was his emphasis on the importance of the Boe Declaration, made at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in 2018. That declaration identified that ‘climate change remains the single greatest threat’ to the region and committed Forum members to ‘progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement’.

As Collin Beck, Permanent Secretary of the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, passionately outlined in his keynote at the workshop, climate change poses an existential threat to the region.

And this is where Australia’s step-up starts to falter. While Australia has committed to implementing the Paris Agreement, its domestic policy approach does not instil much confidence in the region.

Australia’s approach to broadcasting in the Pacific represents another step-back. After gutting the ABC’s Pacific radio and television broadcasting capacity, the government’s announcement that it will instead fund commercial television broadcasts in the region has been met with scepticism.

Similarly, Australia’s continued policy of processing and attempting to resettle refugees on Manus Island and Nauru undermines its stated desire to enhance democratic governance and the rule of law in the region.

These examples represent a perennial frustration: for every step forward that Australia takes to improve its approach in the Pacific Islands, it continues counterproductive policies that seem to constitute two steps back.

Those counterproductive policies are dictated primarily by what the government identifies that it can present domestically as being in the national interest.

But in an increasingly crowded and complex geopolitical environment, the government will hopefully soon realise that Australia’s national interest in maintaining or enhancing its influence in the Pacific Islands is best served by policies that also serve the national interests of Pacific Island states.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.