The newly elected Australian Government must give priority to our immediate region – the Pacific.
There is a temptation to see the regional challenge as simply how to counter China’s growing influence as most recently evidenced by the secret agreement between China and the Solomon Islands.
That would be a mistake, and we have to hope the new government avoids making it.
What is needed is a comprehensive reassessment of our relationship with all the countries in our region – and not just the Solomon Islands.
My hope is that we look beyond just providing more aid or development assistance in seeking to re-build our influence and standing in the region.
At the very heart of our reassessment should be how we can focus on stronger “people to people” relationships.
I hope the new government will seek to work more closely with New Zealand in re-building our regional relationships. New Zealand has a better association with, and understanding of, its own area of influence including Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, all of which have been subjected to China’s attention in recent years – admittedly with mixed success.
Australia needs to take the lead when it comes to our engagement with Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the diverse nations of the central and northern Pacific. But we also need to encourage New Zealand to be more pro-active in Papua New Guinea, especially in areas such as agriculture and forestry as well as alternate energy.
Australia also needs to work more closely with New Zealand in addressing the “climate change” agenda. There can be no doubt China has been very active in promoting an anti-Australian agenda in the region by undermining our climate change policies.
The new Labor Government, working with a Labour Government in New Zealand, is better placed to get this issue off the agenda – and especially China’s efforts to use it against us.
We cannot ignore the reality that many of our Pacific neighbours believe we are weak on reducing global emissions.
We have worked with our neighbours to provide financial support to key island nations to address the challenges caused by rising sea levels in particular. But we have to address the perceptions about emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.
When we address the perceptions, as well as the reality, when it comes to our climate change approach, we need to get the focus back to our main strength – and that is based on strong people-to-people relationships.
The Pacific workers scheme is a good policy – but there are clearly problems in its practical implementation. It needs urgent attention. It must be a major positive in our regional relationships rather than a negative.
Australia also needs to review its visa arrangements with the region. My own knowledge extends only to Papua New Guinea, but the difficulty citizens of PNG have in getting visas to visit Australia are just too restrictive.
The argument that PNG citizens might breach visa rules is simply not supported by the facts. Very few PNG citizens who visit Australia disobey their visa conditions
We need to treat our neighbours more maturely, and not with a “colonial mentality” that has existed for far too long.
Australia has substantial Samoan, Tongan and Fijian communities that together help maintain good relationships between peoples and communities across the region.
They can be built on, and new dimensions added to them. One area I have campaigned on has been education. We have capacity in the trade and vocational training areas that our neighbourhood needs. It has not been adequately developed and promoted.
If we are to be concerned about China’s influence, then it is via stronger and more diverse people to people relationships above all else.
Just tipping more aid money into the region in general just won’t make a difference. By cleverly using Belt and Road lending, China can more than match whatever we provide via increased aid.
The new Australian Government needs to consult well beyond the Canberra bureaucracy – and especially DFAT – when it undertakes a re-assessment of our regional links and standing.
It should talk to the various business councils, churches which also function in our region, and other sectors such as schools and universities which have various levels of engagement already and are keen to do even more.
In the case of neighbours such as Fiji and Vanuatu we should examine how we can assist with the development of their tourism sectors hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Papua New Guinea desperately needs support in re-building agriculture, managing its forestry sector, and expanding the on-shore processing of fisheries.
I have quite deliberately not sought to add thoughts on assistance to the Solomon Islands. I am pessimistic about any meaningful enhancement in engagement with the SI while the current SI regime is in place.
But elsewhere across the Pacific the opportunities are considerable. A new government in Canberra has unique opportunity to build and diversify them, not just counter China, but above all to strengthen the Australian strategic interest in our neighbourhood.