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Aid and the Pacific: Rudd's big bang?

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24 March 2010 10:00

Australia needs to do some deep thinking about how it deals with the South Pacific and how it manages international aid.

My previous column canvassed the most likely explanation for the vacant chairs and sense of drift in Pacific policy — the election-year vortex effect in Canberra. In a spirit of optimism, though, let's ponder the chance that The Kevin is merely staying quiet as he considers some big bang changes.

Parliament is not sitting for the next seven weeks, ahead of the budget on 11 May. Rudd cannot spend the whole seven weeks arguing health policy with Tony Abbott, so this period is the last chance for anything that looks like serious policy before the voter vortex turns into an all-consuming whirlpool.

The first big policy bang scheduled to light up the sky during this pre-budget period will happen next Monday. The Government will release the blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration drawn up by the Grand Pooh Bah (otherwise known as the head of the Prime Minister's Department, Terry Moran). Reform to 'build the world's best public service' is the sort of project that could only excite a major wonk like the Prime Minister. It won't get much attention outside Canberra but it will cause ructions inside the Parliamentary triangle.

Two decades ago, when Bob Hawke ran a giant bulldozer through the public service (including creating the combined Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) he at least did it in the quiet time after winning an election. Kevin Rudd is launching the public service revolution just as the voter vortex starts to gather strength.

How could Rudd tinker in Canberra to improve the Pacific effort? Turning Parliamentary Secretary jobs into a Ministerial post would be an interesting place to start.

The logic of the big bang would see Labor resurrecting the Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs, the title the post had when Gordon Bilney did the job in Keating's government. Such a minister would combine the two jobs now performed by Parliamentary Secretaries. A Pacific Minister could pick up some of the excellent recent work which seems to have drifted to the bottom of the pile in Rudd's office.

In the first two years of the Rudd term, Australia exerted a lot of effort to put fresh structure and vision into the aid and economic dimensions of its Pacific policy. Taking the chair at the 40th Pacific Islands Forum last year, Australia drove the creation of the Cairns Compact on Development Coordination. This document had as much aspiration and imagination as you can cram into the prosaic prose of the average communique. Having chaired the Forum confab in Cairns and held the line against Fiji, the policy caravan hasn't so much moved on as faded

A Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs would stay in DFAT and continue to work to the Foreign Minister, but where Parliamentary Secretaries can only plead or persuade, Ministers have a chance to push and deliver the odd kick.

Would that change the current dynamic in which two Parliament Secretaries work to the Foreign Minister? Perhaps not enough to call it a big bang. And perhaps, if The Kevin is in a mood to tinker, he will not want a mere re-run of a solution first tried by Paul Keating.

Let's go for a real kaboom. By all means create a Minister for Pacific Island Affairs who stays in DFAT. But for the maximum impact, also create also a new Minister for International Aid and Development. Shift the Aid Minister out of DFAT and put that ministry, plus AusAID's $4 billion budget, directly under the Prime Minister's wing.

The Aid Minister inside the Prime Minister's Department — that might even get a little attention in voter land. This tinkering game is habit forming, so my next column will look at the merits of such a change — and how the Foreign Minister and DFAT would fight it to the last dollar.

Photo by Flickr user Kristian M, used under a Creative Commons license.

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