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Australia's Pacific drift

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22 March 2010 12:50

Has Kevin Rudd totally forgotten about the Pacific Islands? Maybe this election year has cleared the subject off the Prime Minister's desk.

It should not be so. Australia holds the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum. And this Government has proclaimed a new, cooperative relationship with the Islands. All this requires consistent, sustained attention.

The uncomfortable sense of drift is symbolised by an embarrassingly long silence on a key Pacific job in Canberra. Probably the only member of the Australian Parliament who has lived and worked in the South Pacific, Duncan Kerr, stepped down at the end of October from the position of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs.

By the middle of next week, Kerr's job — the one politician's post exclusively devoted to the Islands — will have been vacant for five months. When Pacific ambassadors in Canberra started to complain about this last month, they got support from the Lowy Institute with these words from Jenny Hayward-Jones:

The Rudd government's failure to appoint a new (Pacific secretary) sends a negative signal to the Pacific Islands region at a time when Australia should be demonstrating leadership and even closer links to the region, as chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.

It is important that Canberra does not take its eye off the ball in the Pacific. Australia's relationship with Pacific Island countries needs ongoing high-level attention from Canberra.

More than taking an eye off the ball, Canberra may have wandered off the court. The sense of drift goes beyond the empty Pacific chair. Some other jobs with important Pacific roles are also in transition.

One of the best occupants ever of the quasi-Aid Minister's job is Bob McMullan. As Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, McMullan ran a highly professional double act with Kerr. That twin performance was a hit in the South Pacific. Going to the Islands and listening is a good way to gain kudos.

McMullan, like Kerr, is leaving politics in the federal election later this year. Add to this the dispatch last year of Bruce Davis after a decade heading the Australian Government's aid agency, AusAID. The Government announced that Davis was going and then had him gone in only three days. The rapid shift has been followed by more drift. Nine months after Davis shot out the door, AusAID is still headed by an Acting Director General, a diplomat sent over from Foreign Affairs.

The Davis departure was a good moment to think some fresh thoughts about how Australia does aid. To his credit, McMullan has been doing what he can in the new thinking stakes while he heads towards the exit. It is not easy changing things from the bottom of the ministerial chain, especially if your political use-by date is numbered in months.

In the way of Canberra, Pacific processes keep ticking. Last week, the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, announced $10 million to continue funding the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat for the next two years. The media release talked about Australia's 'commitment' to the Forum. Read that as a gentle response to the charge of less-than-total attention. Or perhaps it was just Canberra reminding the region that it pays the bills and the Islands better not complain too loudly.

The party politics of leaving the Pacific Parliamentary Secretary job are puzzling. The Secretary job may be the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder, but it is still a big step up from the backbench. Kevin Rudd has plenty of eager and expectant backbenchers and the Secretary job is a worthy bit of the Prime Minister's patronage cupboard. Given what the polls say about Rudd's declining popularity, he should be massaging his caucus with the patronage balm.

All this may boil down to the single, simple reality that nothing much moves in Canberra unless Rudd has his hand on the rudder. And maybe steering through the Pacific just doesn't rate for the Prime Minister in this election year.

Before accepting the stuff-up explanation, consider a different view of the facts. Perhaps all this is a description of a Prime Minister fascinated with all things foreign policy who is pondering some big structural changes for aid and the Pacific. Parliament has risen and Members and Senators will not return until budget day, 11 May. So Rudd has a seven-week window to hit the detonator button for reshuffles or a big bang solution.

What would big bang changes look like for the Pacific? Turning Parliamentary Secretary jobs into Ministerial posts would be an interesting place to start. More on a Pacific big bang in the next column.

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

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