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Is Australia’s approach in the Pacific coming into focus (at last)?

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's speech was memorable for both the agenda it set out for relations between Australia and the countries in the Pacific, and the way this was expressed.

Julie Bishop in Nauru in 2013 (Photo: Flickr/DFAT)
Julie Bishop in Nauru in 2013 (Photo: Flickr/DFAT)

During his visit to the Federated States of Micronesia for the Pacific Islands Forum summit in September 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said his government was 'committed to a step change in our engagement [with the Pacific], to be guided by a new Pacific strategy'.

While it’s been a long time coming, this ‘step change' is starting to come into focus, with a speech delivered by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last weekend in Suva. This was not the first time Bishop or other members of the government have spoken about Australia’s approach towards the Pacific, but the tone and language of this speech suggest a process of reflection and of maturation on the government’s part. Earlier speeches tended to default to fairly boilerplate commitments to supporting ‘stability and prosperity’ in the region, and to a strong focus on Australia’s aid program as the centrepiece of Australia’s relations with the region.

The latest speech isn’t memorable so much for specific announcements (although there are some of these, and some significant hints at future announcements), rather for setting out an agenda for relations between Australia and the countries in the Pacific, and for the way in which this is expressed.

Bishop opened the speech by referring to the number of visits she and other members of the government, including Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, have made to the region.  Bishop has a point here – there’s a reasonably good story to tell - but the statistics are less important than the recognition this implies that nurturing personal relationships between Australian leaders and ministers and their counterparts is critical to the success of our diplomacy in the region. (Bishop didn’t mention it, but Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove has lately become a real asset for Australia in this respect, with visits this year to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Samoa.) Also welcome was the confirmation that the Prime Minister will be attending the Forum Leaders meeting in Samoa in September: while Prime Ministerial attendance at this annual get-together isn’t sufficient in and of itself for ensuring that Australia’s relations with the region are well conducted, it is a necessary condition for this to happen.

The core of the Bishop’s speech outlined a three-pronged agenda for advancing Australia’s relations with the Pacific: stronger economic cooperation; stronger cooperation in security; and stronger people to people links. 

Bishop described Australia’s approach as developing as a result of a range of consultations and conversations with regional counterparts. Consistent with this, Australian officials have been at pains over recent months to downplay the idea that Australia had plans to launch a ‘big S’, top-down Strategy for the Pacific. The word ‘partnerships’ was used repeatedly in Bishop’s speech, as is the theme of shared problems and interests. This marks an interesting rhetorical shift from previous speeches during which Bishop has talked much of Australia’s ‘responsibility’ in and for the region. That language is absent from this speech.

The reference to greater economic cooperation included an obligatory nod at PACER Plus, but the real meat of this section is around labour mobility. Australia has already removed any quota under the existing Pacific seasonal labour scheme (and kudos to this government for having done so); the number of Pacific Islanders coming to Australia under this scheme has been rising steadily, even if the numbers are spread unevenly between various Pacific countries. Although she did not make any specific announcements, Bishop did hint at further openings on this front, in speaking of ‘enhanced access to the Australian economy’ and saying that ‘Australia wants to provide more job opportunities for our neighbours in the Pacific’.

Bishop’s discussion of enhanced cooperation on regional security issues puts some more flesh on the 2016 Defence White Paper’s assertion of Australia’s role as the region’s primary security partner. While couched in the language of shared interests and partnership, this part of the speech included some gentle reminders of Australia’s indispensability in this area, for instance as a first responder following natural disasters such as Cyclone Winston in Fiji in 2015, and as the anchor for the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. The speech highlighted the region’s growing vulnerability to transnational criminal and disease threats as well as natural disasters.  The announcement in the speech that Australia will provide a new generation of patrol boats for the region has received some media attention – and it represents a major commitment on Australia’s part - but this isn’t new news.  What was new in this speech is the commitment to work to improve the sharing of information and intelligence on security both between Australia and the countries of the region (and regional organisations) but also among the various national agencies within Pacific governments themselves. The chronic silo-isation of information within Pacific governments will make this difficult to achieve; even so, it’s an objective that is worth working towards and it’s useful that it has been identified as such.

Bishop’s third main theme commits to deepening people to people links between Australia and the region. The government is putting some money into this objective through a new program, Pacific Connect, which went to tender earlier this year.  Bishop didn’t mention this in her speech although an announcement about this program cannot be far off.  Not surprisingly, Bishop also highlighted the role of one of her pet projects, the New Colombo Plan, in promoting people to people links with the Pacific. Given that she mentioned Australia’s Pacific Islands community twice in the speech, the Foreign Minister perhaps missed an opportunity to highlight data from Australia’s 2016 census that shows that the number of people in Australia claiming Pacific ancestry is growing much faster than the population as a whole.

For the past several decades, Australia’s approach to the region has sought to balance the twin aspirations of regional leadership on the one hand, and partnership on the other. Bishop’s speech managed this balance well.  It is likely that some specific measures relating to Australia and the Pacific will have been held back for the Prime Minister to announce at next month’s annual Forum Leaders meeting in Samoa.  That said, in its general tone and at a time of growing strategic uncertainty in the region, Bishop’s speech should be well received in the region.

Pacific Research Program

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