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Editorial

Editorial: New Australian government on the right Pacific track

Australia’s approach to the Pacific nations will not be that of colonists, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong has assured. Picture: Shalveen Chand

The new Australian Government led by Anthony Albanese has so far succeeded beyond expectations in terms of its engagement with the Pacific. That said, it was fortunate in that the timing couldn’t have been better for the newly elected prime minister.

It was not the fault of the previous Morrison Government that China’s moves into the region have recently become bolder. As New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern said a few days ago at Chatham House in London, China has been involved with Pacific nations for a very long time, so its actions should not be surprising.

In a previous editorial The Pacific Advocate took aim at comments by Mr Albanese and his foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong during the Australian election campaign when they blamed the Australian Government’s “foreign policy failure” for the Solomon Islands entering into a security pact with China.

We wrote at the time, “The message the Labor party is sending to the Pacific is that Australia should be controlling governments across the Pacific, and if regional nations don’t do what Australia demands, it’s a failure. There is no other way to read this. This is a message that does not sit well in this region.”

This was an opportunistic pitch used for domestic politics, and could have backfired. However the sudden Pacific tour by China and its effort to try and convince Pacific nations to enter into a regional agreement – with no prior discussion – helped the new Labor Government rectify their mistake.

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Mr Albanese and Ms Wong were presented with an opportunity to reset the relationship and genuinely engage with the Pacific in a respectful and equal manner. To their great credit they took it, and not all governments would have.

Ms Wong immediately jetted to not one Pacific nation but several, and it was noted that she had just returned from an international meeting which she attended days after the election. She was engaging and took time to speak to local media, even having a chat with the news editor of The Pacific Advocate. This contrasted with China’s stance of shutting out local media, an action that didn’t sit well.

Not only did Ms Wong turn up but her message was on point. For the first time in years an Australian Government cared about the most pressing issue in the region – climate change. For the first time in years an Australian foreign minister sent a message to the region that we are important and that the Pacific nations matter to Australia. We were no longer their “backyard”.

The former government did nothing wrong. The Pacific is greatly appreciative of its support in many areas. But the times are changing, and we commend the Albanese Government for bringing a real and positive change to the relationship. It’s early days but it’s a great start.

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