Australia’s approach to the Pacific nations will not be that of colonists, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong has assured.
Ms Wong looks sincere and genuine in her attempts to mend ties with the Pacific nations which were on shaky grounds with the previous Australian administration.
Academics from Australia had spoken out saying the colonist attitude needs to be dropped if Australia was to have a healthy relationship with the Pacific.
The Scott Morrison government would be guilty of this. The 2019 Forum Leaders meeting was where Mr Morrison came under fire from the Pacific when he wanted it on record how much money Australia was giving to the region.
His comments were labelled insulting.
Former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack was recorded saying people from Pacific countries threatened by climate change – like Tuvalu – would survive because ‘many of their workers come here and pick our fruit.’
Ms Wong said this was not the case and the Pacific was family.
“Well, I can tell you, I was born in Malaysia, and my grandmother was a servant of the British. So, I have a very, very personal understanding of what you’re talking about. And I hope I will not speak to you in that way,” Ms Wong said when questioned by the Pacific Advocate.
The Australian Labor Party won the election in Australia and was able to form majority government a little over a week ago.
On her fourth day in office Ms Wong was in the Pacific. When asked if her trip to the region was forced by the visit of the Chinese foreign delegation’s unprecedented tour of the Pacific, she said it was on her agenda.
“No, I was very keen to come to the Pacific as soon as I became Foreign Minister, and this is my first bilateral visit. I was a few days late because I had to go to Tokyo. You’ll forgive that, I’m sure,” Ms Wong said.
In her keynote address at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Ms Wong said the Australian government was going to listen and hear.
She said that they would respect the decisions of the Pacific nation because they were sovereign states and not under the influence of Australia.
She added that even when making pacts with China, each Pacific nation had the right to do so.
“It’s for Pacific nations to make their own decisions about who they want to partner with and in which areas. And we respect that. We want to be a partner of choice. We want to demonstrate to your nation and other nations of the region that we are a partner who can be trusted, who can be reliable. And historically we have been,” Ms Wong.
“I think you’ve seen a lot of Australian development assistance. We want to work with you on your priorities. We want to work together as part of the Pacific family.
“Obviously, we’ve expressed our concerns publicly about the security agreement between Solomon Islands and China. And the reason we have is we think there are – as do other Pacific nations – we think there are consequences.
“We think that it is important that the security of the region be determined by the region and historically that has been the case, and we think that’s a good thing.”
Ms Wong has called on the Pacific nations to be unified. She said solidarity was needed if the small island states wanted to stand up to the bigger nations.
She said this was something the smaller island nations were doing especially when it came to asking the developed nations to meet the goals set on climate.
But the Pacific is not united, with bickering at the Pacific Islands Forum because Micronesia wants to pull out. This situation was brought about when Henry Puna was elected as the secretary general. The Micronesians felt that they were left out because it was their turn to take leadership of the regional body.
A vote to decide this has only been delayed. Australia was one of the nations that voted for Mr Puna.
“Well, ultimately the unity of the Pacific Islands Forum is in the hands of Pacific Islands Forum members. And to find a way through to that unity would I think benefit the forum and all of its members,” Ms Wong.
“I think it would benefit the region, particularly at a time when there are a lot of challenges –COVID, climate, obviously the strategic circumstances in which we live in this world. So, I would encourage forum members to work together to find a path to unity.
“Certainly, it’s not for me to tell people what to do; it’s a decision for the Pacific Islands Forum members. But we would encourage a path to unity. And Secretary-General Puna and I spoke about that.”