Reviving a mid-December tradition established by former foreign minister Alexander Downer, Julie Bishop has just completed a three-day whirlwind trip to Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Nauru. As a backbencher, Bishop was part of Downer's delegation in December 2002*, and just as Downer did, Bishop invited a multi-party delegation to accompany her. She even returned to two of the three countries that were part of her 2002 visit.
Bishop's group included not only Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason but also Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Tanya Plibersek and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration Matt Thistlethwaite, as well as her freshly appointed Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja. Taking a relatively high powered group like this on her first visit was an indication of the importance Bishop attaches to Australia's relations with the Pacific Islands region.
Such visits are usually lined with a tidy set of 'announceables'. Tweaks are made to the existing aid program to enable new projects or phases of programs to be announced, and public meetings are held with aid recipients. There is usually ample material for local media coverage but little in the way of real strategic interest.
But as this was Bishop's first visit to the region as Minister, the aid announcements she made will give some pointers on the Australian government's overall priorities in the region.
In Solomon Islands, the Minister said her visit was an opportunity to set the foundations for a stronger economic and strategic bilateral partnership, in a similar vein to the reset she signaled for Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea in the 11 December PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum.
Bishop also followed through on her commitment to increase support for private sector growth by announcing Australia would spend $15 million over five years to the Pacific Business Fund to provide business advisory services to over 250 companies in the Pacific and improved economic opportunities for women through additional support to the Private Sector Development Initiative. She also talked about a $5 million gender program to address family violence, reflecting her commitment to women in the Pacific.
The big announcement Bishop promised for Vanuatu was a $37 million aid package for the second phase of major upgrades to about 350km of roads. It is not immediately clear whether this is new money or a re-statement or realignment of existing commitments.
The previous government's 2013-14 aid budget for Vanuatu committed to supporting critical nation-building infrastructure projects, including further rehabilitation of rural road networks. DFAT's own account of aid program results to June 2013 record that as a result of a $29 million transport sector support program, 171.4km of priority roads were upgraded from 2010 to 2012, generating 101,588 days of work and improving access to health centres, schools and markets for up to 40,000 people. An additional $31 million urban development project with the Asian Development Bank is upgrading Port Vila's road network.
But regardless of whether this really is a new program, Bishop's decision to announce support for infrastructure during her visit is significant.
Bishop spoke during the election campaign about her desire to see Australia recognised as the 'partner of choice' for Pacific Island countries. Although Australia supports infrastructure development in many countries, it is China which is more readily recognised as the Pacific's main partner in this field. Chinese loans are also supporting road development in Vanuatu.
The Minister emphasised while she was in Vanuatu that Australia was the 'most significant aid donor in the region by a long way' and would continue to be so. Her message was clear: Australia wants to be recognised as the most significant partner for the Pacific and understands infrastructure development and maintenance is a priority for the countries of the region. Although more likely aimed at Pacific Island governments, coming just a month after China's own announcement of more loans for Pacific infrastructure, Canberra may be hoping Beijing takes note of Bishop's message.
Bishop has created a good precedent by taking a high level delegation to the region and focusing on gender as well as private sector development and infrastructure.
If this is to be an annual tradition, the Foreign Minister could improve on it by changing the timing of the visit next year. Conducting an annual whistle-stop tour in December not only creates problems for Pacific Island governments winding down for the Christmas break, it suggests the region is something of an afterthought at the end of a busy year. To better reflect the Minister's obvious commitment to the region, creating a new precedent of visiting earlier in the year would be a welcome development.
* Disclosure: I was the DFAT officer assisting the parliamentary delegation accompanying Downer.
Image courtesy of DFAT.