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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 08:54 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 08:54 | SYDNEY

No need for Pacific panic

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14 September 2010 11:14

As the Gillard Government is sworn in today in Canberra, there will be no Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance or Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, two positions ably filled in the last government by Bob McMullan and Duncan Kerr.

While this might appear to signal a downgrading of the Australian Government's interest in both development and the Pacific Islands region, there is no need for Pacific Island countries to worry – yet.

As Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd made relations with the Pacific a priority. He visited Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands within a few months of taking office, developed a good relationship with PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, established Pacific Partnerships for Development with 11 countries, hosted the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in Cairns and introduced a pilot seasonal labour scheme for four Pacific Island countries. He also committed to double Australia's aid program by 2015-16.

Although the Pacific slipped a bit from his Government's radar in 2010, Rudd's interest in the region and in development is on the public record. Assuming he maintains that interest into his new job as Foreign Minister and remembers that personal connections between leaders and ministers are all-important in the region, Pacific Island countries should be confident that they still have Canberra's attention. 

The other appointment that should give the Pacific comfort is that of Richard Marles as Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs. While his duties have not been outlined as I write this post, Marles' strong interest in PNG should translate into some extra attention for the region. 

Richard Marles was chair of the Australia PNG Parliamentary Friendship Group and in his maiden speech to the House of Representatives in February 2008, he spoke of his passion 'to encourage across all Australia a much greater degree of engagement with PNG' and of his wish that Australia would be PNG's 'very best friend.' It is rare to hear such sentiments from Australian politicians about the Pacific and, as Parliamentary Secretary, Marles should be a good friend to the region.

The bad news for those hoping for a fresh approach is that there is unlikely to be any shift in policy towards Fiji. 

As Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd was responsible for driving Australia's highly principled stand against the unelected government of Frank Bainimarama. As Foreign Minister, he is unlikely to want to oversee any softening of that policy, lest it cause him to appear weak. Perhaps the best approach at the outset would be for Rudd to establish a short review of Australian policy towards Fiji, which would enable him to re-assess and give him some space to move. Just a thought.

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

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