First let me say how delighted I am to be here at New Zealand House, addressing the Pacific Islands Society.
As Prime Minister Rudd said in
In any case, this is clearly a very appropriate gathering for me at a very appropriate place.
Now the question mark that I have included at the end of the title of my address today is very deliberate. That is because although the Rudd Government has approached the Pacific with great vigour and a fresh tone and style, it would be wrong to conclude that we have been dilatory in the Pacific over recent years. RAMSI remains an impressive testament to the previous government’s commitment to the region. And governments before them had also been very active. Here I point, in particular, to the record of Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, who, on the day that he became Minister in 1988, said to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that he wanted to make his first overseas visit to the Pacific and that he wanted it to be in ten days’ time! This was a whirlwind tour, as only travelling with Gareth can be, and the substantial group of travelling journalists whom he took with him christened it “the take no prisoners tour"! The then Senator Evans was inclined to say that if we could not get policy in the Pacific right, we had little or no chance elsewhere.
It is certainly possible to argue that
But certainly from Gareth Evans’s time
there has been a real positivity to our approach which had not been
characteristic of Australian policy before.
That positivity was an approach that the Pacific had problems which went
beyond “the growing pains of adolescent children”. That is not language which I would ever have
used but it reflected a perspective on the part of
Gareth’s great first tour of the Pacific in
1988 was only a year after the first coup in
Gareth Evans’s 8 years as Foreign Minister continued to be a period of serious focus on the Pacific. And, in fairness to his successors, by the time they came to government in 1996, it was clear that the region was significant and required substantial Australian Government focus. They brought their own commitment and vigour and it manifested itself in some important ways. Foreign Minister Downer made an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific for almost all of his 12 years as Foreign Minister, going there to visit a number of countries each December. This was in addition to other visits he would have, for more immediate reasons, had to make during the year.
The Howard Government also advanced the
idea of the Enhanced Cooperation Program with
So in those senses you will see that there
has been a real continuum about Australian policy in the Pacific for many years
now. That continuity has encompassed a
number of features. First, a real
recognition that the problems of the region are great. Second, that the problems of the region are
more than just the problems of development.
Third, that we, along with
These things have certainly been picked up with great vigour by the Rudd Government since their election in 2007. They, like Gareth Evans before them, also addressed these problems as amongst their very earliest foreign policy priorities.
Where the Rudd Government have particularly sort to differentiate themselves from their predecessors has been in the tone in which they have prosecuted policy. They have argued, soundly I believe, that the tone they have adopted has been much more about understanding and is less aggressive than some of the language from Ministers before them, in particular some of the language used around RAMSI and the ECP, for example. Let me quote from a recent speech of our Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith.
“In any conversation, the tone you adopt can matter as much as the substance of your discussion. The tone of exchanges with our friends in the Pacific certainly needed changing when we came to office.
“We committed ourselves from the outset to change. Progress and reform are far more likely to be achieved through a respecting and respectful relationship.”
And the Government was able to claim some striking early successes in this approach. Most particularly this has been with the Port Moresby Declaration and all that has gone with it. The Port Moresby Declaration sets out the main elements of the Rudd Government’s approach and does so in language which deliberately focuses on partnership and cooperation, rather than forcefulness and confrontation. Let me quote some of the language from the Port Moresby Declaration:
“The Government of Australia is committed to beginning a new era of cooperation with the island nations of the Pacific.”
“The Government of Australia proposes to pursue Pacific Partnerships for Development with our pacific island neighbours.”
“Under the Pacific Partnerships for Development, the Government of Australia will be prepared to provide increased development assistance over time in a spirit of mutual responsibility embracing commitments by the Pacific island nations to improve governance, to increase investment in economic infrastructure, and to achieve better outcomes in health and education.”
There are a couple of points to make about
the Port Moresby Declaration. The first
is that it was developed against a background of a determination to cooperate
closely at all times and without some of the recrimination that sometimes
characterised our cooperation in the past, with
Second, partnerships have now been
concluded with four
Third, there are already practical benefits from the heightened cooperation visible in recipient countries. Programs are bigger, better focussed and, above all, jointly negotiated.
There are some other significant elements to the Rudd Government’s approach, of course. First, we have seen the appointment of Deputy Ministers for both Pacific Island Affairs and for International Development. This has enabled the Government to throw additional Ministerial fire power at the issues involved in heightened cooperation. I admit, frankly, that I had personal doubts about the appointment of a Minister for Pacific Island Affairs, worrying that this would dilute the attention of the Government as a whole, and that of more senior Ministers, to the Pacific. Happily, I have been proved wrong and the Prime Minister right. That is always a good outcome!
Second, Mr Rudd has made clear his
determination to have the Pacific Island Forum held in Australia this year and,
again, to do this in Cairns in North Queensland rather than in Canberra where
Pacific Island leaders might find waking up to temperatures of minus 5 rather
challenging. The sunnier climes of
Mr Rudd’s commitment to hosting the Forum
reflects the overall strength of Australian commitment to maintaining the
Forum’s primacy in regional affairs. It
has been the Forum where discussion of the difficult issue of
And, I believe that it is because the Forum has been so effective in addressing the issues to do with Fiji that Commodore Bainimarama has sought both to cast the Forum as the agent of Australia and New Zealand and to turn to others, including the United Kingdom and China, for succour.
Those of you who know Prime Minister Sevele
While we in