Have our Pacific Neighbours Missed Out Again?

At first glance, our Pacific neighbours are one of the big losers in Prime Minister Gillard’s Ministerial Line-up.

The portfolio of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs - which was dropped, without any explanation, by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last year - has not been reinstated by Ms Gillard.

Duncan Kerr occupied the office in the Rudd Government and many credited it with playing a significant role in improving Australia’s relations in the Pacific, particularly those with our nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea.

Many experts had tipped that Prime Minister Gillard would take the chance to reinstate the position, in the light of her avowed aim of establishing asylum-seeking processing centres in the region and of the growing volatility in the Pacific: Fiji’s continuing democratic crisis, the smouldering parliamentary uncertainty in PNG and the growing influence of Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian interests in the South-West Pacific.

The omission is more surprising given the statement by former Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith in the lead-up to the election:

“In our own region, in the Asia-Pacific, when we came to office there was a breakdown in relations between Australia and Papua New Guinea and a breakdown in relations between Australia and the Solomon Islands. They have both been repaired.

“Our opponents, when they were in office, the Liberal Party for 11 years, never chaired the Pacific Island Forum. We chaired it, most successfully, in Cairns last year, establishing the Cairns Compact for the coordination and effectiveness of development assistance in our region.

“This is the century of the Asia-Pacific. Economic, strategic, security, military, influence is moving in our direction: the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined; the ongoing central significance and influence of the United States; the continuing importance, economically and strategically, of Japan and the emergence of Indonesia, not just as a regional power but as a global influence.”

Perhaps Ms Gillard plans to allocate the Pacific Islands Affairs role to one of two new Parliamentary Secretaries for Foreign Affairs, Justine Elliot and Richard Marles.

One of the Rudd Government’s positive legacies was its work towards developing a substantial improvement in relations with PNG. The Kokoda Initiative was born of this new approach, as was the PNG-Australia Development Co-operation Treaty, signed last April.

But many within those structures are concerned that they may not be renewed. They will be hoping that Mr Rudd, as the new Foreign Affairs Minister, will be able to maintain his enthusiasm for the region. He has been tasked with handling the prickly negotiations with East Timor over Ms Gillard’s proposed establishment of an asylum seeker-processing centre there.

Let’s hope that this focus on the region and his passion for Kokoda, will motivate Mr Rudd to elevate the Pacific’s priority in his successor’s government. It would be to his lasting credit.