COVER STORY: Australia's Pacific woes - what can be done?
News Weekly, December 9, 2006
The last couple of years have seen a dramatic deterioration in our local region as Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons have become trouble-spots.
When obscure Victorian Labor MP, Bob Sercombe, was appointed shadow minister for Pacific Island Affairs in October 2004, it was widely seen as something of a cosy sinecure for the last Caucus member to make it onto Mark Latham's frontbench.
Some MPs joked that Mr Sercombe could enjoy his remaining years as a parliamentarian hopping Pacific Islands and sightseeing.
But the last couple of years have seen a dramatic deterioration in the local region and a vindication of Mr Latham's decision both to appoint Mr Sercombe and to elevate the status of the portfolio, and also of Kim Beazley's subsequent decision to keep him there.
And while the Howard Government's foreign focus has been on Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, the local region has become a hotbed of trouble-spots, including Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons.
For once, Labor has stolen a policy lead from the Federal Government, which has gained a reputation for being overbearing and clumsy in dealing with our immediate neighbours.
The simple fact is that Australia, by its size, wealth and proximity, has to take the main leadership role in maintaining stability and security in the region and in assisting economic development.
And yet Australia has an appalling reputation among the leadership of the Pacific Islanders.
The way it conducts itself, and its style of leadership, are crucial to success in dealing with the various problems facing the island nations.
And the problems in the region are complex and often unrelated from country to country.
They include drug-running, people-trading, poverty, corruption and the threat of military coups.
And they add up to one large headache for both Australia's defence forces and the Federal Police, which are already overstretched.
The regions are also extremely dangerous for Australia to help police.
There is a proliferation of weapons and an estimated 120,000 unlawful guns in the region, bought on the black market through military and police rings.
Mr Sercombe, who has been pushing for uniform gun laws in the Pacific, has argued that the illegal guns are fuelling political conflict, tribal warfare, and domestic violence.
To cite a couple of examples, Australia's relations with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea deteriorated over attempts to extradite fugitive Australian lawyer Julian Moti, and the Solomons' move to sack its police commissioner, Australian national, Mr Shane Castles.
In September, Australia's high commissioner to the Solomon Islands, Patrick Cole, was accused of meddling in the island-country's internal affairs and was expelled by the country's Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare - and this from a country which has been the recipient of more than $1 billion in Australian aid and security support!
Fiji has been through several coups and attempted coups since the takeover of the country by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka in May 1987.
Since then, the country has faced the ongoing problem of nationalists trying to derail democracy and whipping up racial tensions.
Resource-rich Papua New Guinea has been the beneficiary of billions of dollars in aid, but parts of the country, including the capital Port Moresby, now resemble broken-down African nations.
Mr Sercombe argues that Australia has done itself a disservice by its overbearing "big brother" attitude to the region, and he points to the attitude of both Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer toward Pacific leaders.
"The problem is Downer and Howard would not dare talk to the President of Indonesia in the same way they talk down to Pacific Island leaders," Mr Sercombe said recently.
"You can't build relationships based on partnerships when you treat your neighbours with arrogance and in a patronising manner."
No one could accuse the Howard Government of lacking in generosity to the Pacific region, but it is time it started taking the region more seriously and adopted a more constructive, diplomatic approach.