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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 10:58 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 10:58 | SYDNEY

A time for hope in Melanesia

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COMMENTS

18 December 2007 11:24

By the end of last week, a glimmer of hope had emerged in Australia’s hitherto difficult relationships with its two most significant Melanesian neighbours. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd enjoyed a constructive first meeting with Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare in Bali on Thursday 13 December.  Rudd’s declaration that it was time to turn a new page in Australia’s relationship with PNG, including by ending the Howard government’s freeze on bilateral ministerial contacts, will be welcome news in Canberra and Port Moresby.

The defeat of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in a no-confidence vote in the Solomon Islands Parliament, also on Thursday, has raised hopes that relations between Canberra and Honiara might improve. Sogavare's negative attitude towards his country’s relationship with its most important partner undermined the work of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands and put at risk the progress of programs designed to help Solomon Islanders. His departure should pave the way for a fresh start in relations with Australia. 

The selection of Sogavare’s successor, however, will be even more important.  Just as Australia needs a true partnership with Solomon Islands to ensure the long-term success of RAMSI and justify the millions of dollars it has committed to the mission, the next Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, be it Derek Sikua or Patteson Oti, needs good relations with Australia to guarantee the future well-being of the country.

The events of 13 December highlight the importance of leadership in governance and diplomacy. Kevin Rudd’s obvious respect for Somare’s position and status shows early evidence of a style more suited than his predecessor’s to genuine engagement with Melanesian leaders. The readiness of the region’s elder statesman to put aside the strains of the recent past and start afresh with Rudd is also encouraging. Whoever wins the parliamentary contest in Honiara this week will do well to take notice.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s 17 December editorial advocates Australia should accept its regional responsibilities and do so with tact.   Australia needs to match its extensive investment in development assistance and security in the region with a much deeper understanding of Melanesian culture and society, and engagement with Melanesia beyond the realm of the aid program.

 

Rudd’s decision to appoint former ministers Duncan Kerr as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and Bob McMullan as Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance indicates his interest in a new approach in the region.  A fresh slate and a committed Australian government may just make the desperately needed difference in Melanesia.

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