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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 03:47 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 03:47 | SYDNEY

Pacific Islands: A fresh start

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COMMENTS

23 January 2008 15:00

I argue in today’s Australian Financial Review that Australia needs to accept its Pacific regional identity and treat its Pacific Island neighbours as sovereign states. Australia has for too long treated Pacific Island governments as aid clients and not invested in developing sound institutional knowledge of the politics, culture, language and geography of the region. Diplomatic and aid relations suffered.

The Rudd Government had a stroke of luck when the Solomon Islands parliament elected Derek Sikua as Prime Minister in December after ousting the divisive and unhelpful Manasseh Sogavare. Sikua is in Canberra today on the second leg of his fence-mending regional travel to Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand. Sikua said his intention was to regain the 'trust and confidence of neighbours' and the 'normalisation of bilateral relations with Australia'. This is welcome news in Canberra.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has demonstrated the government’s goodwill towards the new Solomons leadership by lifting the visa restrictions that had been imposed on Solomon Islands politicians by the Howard Government after Sogavare’s expulsion of Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole in 2006. More benevolence should emanate from Sikua’s meeting with Prime Minister Rudd today.

As I argue in my AFR piece, goodwill and strong diplomatic relations are vital in demonstrating Australia’s commitment and advancing our leadership in the region.  Building more constructive and enduring relationships with Pacific Island countries is a long-term project. Improving the effectiveness of the Australian aid program is also a process that will take time and patience. But more practical steps need to be taken in the early part of the new government’s term.  An important first step could be taken with a serious undertaking to address the problems of youth unemployment in the region and permit access for Pacific Islanders to the Australian labour market.

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