It was great to see Australia's relations with Pacific Islands feature in last night's foreign policy debate and particularly pleasing to see this issue raised outside of the inevitable focus on the PNG asylum seeker deal. Overall, I thought Ms Bishop demonstrated greater commitment to enhancing Australia's relations with Pacific Island countries, while Senator Carr gave a credible defence of the status quo.
Julie Bishop expressed the worthy ambition that if she was to be remembered for one thing as foreign minister it would be that she made Australia the partner of choice for Pacific Island countries. She said it was time for Australia to change the nature of engagement with the Pacific, to get away from stereotypical aid relationships and develop true economic partnerships based on mutual respect and understanding with Pacific nations.
It is worth recalling that Kevin Rudd promised a similar renewal of Australia's relations with Pacific Island countries based on respect when he spoke at the Lowy Institute as Opposition Leader in 2007. Treating our Pacific neighbours as equals rather than aid clients seems to be an ongoing challenge in Australian foreign policy.
Ms Bishop's main argument on the Pacific was that our international standing is at its highest when our influence in the region is at its strongest. She said she feared Australia's place in the Pacific has been taken by others and Australia needed a far deeper engagement with the region. My own research proves that Australia remains the dominant player in aid, trade and investment in the Pacific Islands.
Ms Bishop may not be an objective observer, especially in the context of an election campaign, but her remark does reflect a wider perception that China and other countries have begun to exercise greater influence on the Pacific Islands region. Even if the evidence proves Australia is the dominant player, if other countries are being seen to exercise more influence for much less significant engagement and investment, Australia is doing something wrong on the public relations front.
Ms Bishop argued for greater recognition in the region of what Australia actually does, something that would need much greater effort to promote our influence, friendships and connections in the Pacific.
Senator Carr countered by pointing out that Australia is already the Pacific's partner of choice, proved by the fact that every nation in the Pacific except for Fiji voted for Australia to win its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is certainly a useful measure of Australia's influence with governments in the region but it is not an issue that resonates in Pacific Island societies, where aid, trade, investment and cultural links from abroad make a much more practical impression.
Julie Bishop erred by proposing to use our position at the UN Security Council to focus the Council's attention on the Pacific and ensure we don't have failed states in our neighbourhood. She was corrected by Senator Carr, who rightly argued that the kinds of issues faced by Pacific Island countries at the moment are not matters for the Security Council.
Paul Kelly asked the inevitable question about the impact of settling large numbers of Muslim refugees in PNG and Nauru on a long term basis. Senator Carr's assertion that the arrangements would eventually deter asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat, and therefore we would not see large numbers of asylum seekers resettling in PNG and Nauru, coincides with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's own confidence about the deterrent value of the arrangement. Ms Bishop countered that this arrangement would affect the well-being of PNG and Nauru, reflecting the concerns expressed by communities in both countries.
In a point of difference with the Government, Ms Bishop said she would commence a process of re-establishing the relationship with Fiji but pointedly referred to the Fiji people, not the Fiji Government. The Australian Government has stepped up its engagement with Fiji over the last year but maintains its distance from the unpredictable Prime Minister Bainimarama.
While relations with PNG should be the priority, Fiji will probably continue to pose a major foreign policy challenge to whatever government is formed in Canberra after 7 September. Suva continues to see domestic value in attacking Australia. Only last week the Fiji Foreign Minister took an opportunity to score points at the Australian Government's expense over the asylum seeker arrangement with PNG.
Fiji has succeeded in courting new friends on the international stage but it still needs Australia. Australia is Fiji's largest export market by a significant margin, its largest source of inbound tourism and largest investor. The Lowy Institute's polling showed considerable warmth of feeling from Fijians towards Australia and from Australians towards Fiji. If Suva rebuffed Canberra again, as has been its wont to date, it would difficult for a new government in Canberra to maintain a more friendly approach.
Photo by Peter Morris/Lowy Institute.