Everybody Needs Good Neighbours


George W Bush had the Axis of Evil; John W Howard had the Arc of Instability. Both were an important part of the post-9/11 push to paint entire regions of the world as rogue or incompetent, and in need of intervention.

The birth of the so-called "axis of evil" was met with round condemnation from the left. The "arc of instability" and its bedmate the "failed state" – which was popularised by the Government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s report Our Failing Neighbour – slipped into our vocabulary more easily.

The way Australian governments wrap words around the
realities taking shape in our region is about more than just rhetorical style. As
Bush’s trusty "deputy sheriff" in the region, part of Howard’s remit was to maintain
our status as the dominant player, and keep any unwelcome adventurers – from,
say, east Asia – out.

Australia hasn’t moved. Depending on your outlook, our "backyard" is still where it has always been. Yet after Bush stuck that deputy’s badge on, it was as though Howard peered out the back door for the first time, surveyed the overgrown garden under his watch, and decided it was time for a clean-up.

When the Solomon Islands asked for help in 1999 it was met with stony silence from the Howard Government. In mid-2003 it was a different story, and we were prepared to head a regional mission that has now cost us over $1.3 billion.

Money laundering, people smuggling, drug running and even "terrorism", were all thrown around as reasons why we had to intervene in the Solomons – none of which were entirely plausible. Taking for granted that all foreign policy has national interest at heart, it’s still not clear what strategic threat an unstable Pacific poses to Australia – or at least to the extent that it now soaks up $999.5 million, or almost a third, of our total overseas aid budget.

Today the 39th Pacific Islands Forum opens in the capital of Niue. Kevin Rudd will be there and, like Howard, he too will be using terms such as "our backyard" and "helping friends" to demonstrate that he sees the Pacific as an area of key strategic and humanitarian importance.

But a bunch of new words will also be thrown around – and the one that will likely get the most airplay is "partnership".

One of Rudd’s priorities on coming to office was to repair relations with the Pacific, which – despite the rhetoric – had sunk to new lows under the guidance of Alexander Downer. At the height of the fallout, one senior bureaucrat within the Solomon Islands Government told newmatilda.com that he had taken to writing down the insults thrown by Downer during meetings as a way of noting proceedings: there was little else of substance to report.

The spin has certainly changed under the Rudd Government, as have the symbolic gestures: kicked off with Rudd’s meeting with PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare on the side of the Bali Climate Change conference in December last year, and followed by an official State visit a few months later – the first by an Australian PM since PNG’s independence 33 years ago – and the release of the Port Moresby Declaration. (The Australian media have been a little slower to catch on: the first five questions at the press conference announcing this massive change in the direction of our bilateral relationship were about the Kokoda track.)

And it appears to be working: Somare has cautiously allowed eight Australian police officers back into his country to work in advisory roles with the PNG police force.

This is a big deal. In 2005 Somare kicked a whole team of in-line police out of the country because the Australian Government demanded they have immunity from local law. He also claims that in their quest to arrest Julian Moti, Australian police called Australian police stationed as advisers in PNG to arrange the warrant without the involvement of his Government, the DPP or the police commissioner. And there have been a number of other cases in the region where our cops have been accused of overstepping their "advisory role" – often in the Australian Government’s interest.

Rudd has said he wants to shift the focus of Australia’s aid in the Pacific from "military" to "economic", and the guest worker scheme announced this week is an important olive branch in that regard – Howard was accused of treating the Pacific as a "human dumping ground" for his willingness to dump asylum seekers on them but refusal to countenance labour mobility. But for a man hoping to make a fresh start, it is surprising that Rudd still employs much of the old rhetoric. This is him on ABC TV’s Lateline last year:

"Around Australia we have what the strategic analysts used to call the ‘arc of instability’… Over the last 10 years, that concept has become a reality. East Timor: rolling military instability. PNG: continued challenges to domestic stability. Vanuatu: ethnic tension. Solomons: well we know what’s happened in the Solomons. Fiji: rolling military coup. Tonga: a mess. Nauru: becoming probably the region’s first failed state."

Is this a case of new policy, old advisers? Has the culture within DFAT and AusAID also changed, or has Rudd just put a fresh face on Downer’s old department?

It’s still not entirely clear why we take so much interest in the Pacific’s woes, as opposed to, say, Palm Island’s. When pressed on this Federal MP Duncan Kerr, who fills the newly created
position of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, told newmatilda.com that everybody needs good neighbours – which is nice, and very Australian of us, but an odd basis for a policy framework.

Unless of course it’s to ward off the rise of other "interested state players" in the region. Unlike his predecessor, Rudd has at least hinted at this – but he’s yet to name names and drop the C-Bomb.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.