Foreign policy didn’t get much attention during the election campaign that ended with a decisive win to the Labor Party on Saturday, yet the new government has firm plans for improving relationships in a part of the world in which Australia has real influence, the South Pacific.
Since 2003 Australia has spent $1 billion on the security mission in the Solomons, yet relations are at an all time low. There have been four coups in Fiji in the last 20 years. The PNG relationship is worse than it has ever been, and there has been a ban on ministerial dialogue with Australia. An $800 million cooperation program with PNG is still not up and running.
“Civil unrest and lack of respect for the rule of law in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea shows how unstable our neighbourhood is,” says Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland. “These fragile states don’t just constitute an arc of instability – this is our arc of responsibility. We need to focus our security and foreign policy resources on our region.”
McClelland believes Australia needs a major revision of strategy for how we deal with these fragile states. “They can quickly become economic basket cases, a haven for organised crime, terrorist training or influenced by other countries that don’t share Australia’s interests,” he says.
Now it’s in government, Labor will implement an Asia Pacific Partnership for Development and Security. The partnership will address the collapse in primary education and healthcare; provide aid for basic economic infrastructure including roads, telecommunications and clean water; address the problem of urban male youth unemployment through targeted public works; focus on good governance by training regional leaders and public servants; and provide security assistance to local police forces.
“As much as any other country we have the ability to make our region and the world a more secure, more affluent and fairer place,” says McClelland. “By donning the guernsey of a good international citizen we can once again play first grade - and deliver real outcomes that are in our own interests and in the interests of the world community.”