Rough Seas Ahead


In less than a year, the Rudd Government has improved the atmospherics of Australia’s engagement with the Pacific islands. At the end of the Howard era, relations with key Pacific governments were in tatters: the Moti affair and aid disputes had soured relations with PNG and Solomon Islands; Fiji’s interim administration was angry over "smart sanctions" introduced by Australia and New Zealand; and John Howard’s refusal to act on global warming dismayed the small island states that are already suffering adverse climate impacts.

Regular diplomatic visits by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Parliamentary Secretaries Bob McMullan (Aid) and Duncan Kerr (Pacific Island Affairs) reinforce key decisions by the Rudd Government – some symbolic, some substantial – which have changed the mood in the region: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol; the Stolen Generations apology; closing the Pacific Solution detention centres in Nauru; promises of increased aid, $150 million in climate adaptation funds and a new $200 million Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility.

Last week’s announcement of a pilot study for a seasonal workers program – with 2,500 Pacific workers coming to Australia over the next three years to work in horticulture and fruit picking – follows years of lobbying by Pacific governments.

Relations with Port Moresby have improved, with a major joint Ministerial meeting last March and the inclusion of PNG in Australia’s new seasonal workers scheme. In Niue, Prime Ministers Rudd and Somare signed the first of a series of "Pacific Partnerships for Development" – bilateral agreements which Australia will negotiate over the next year with all Forum island countries.

But all this goodwill overshadows continuing tensions over aid conditionality, the looming negotiation of a regional free trade agreement and the best way to deal with Fiji’s military rulers.

Australian media coverage of the Niue Forum headlined seasonal workers, climate, and the refusal of Fiji’s interim administration to attend the meeting. Other key decisions went largely unreported, as many journalists focussed on trivia like Kevin Rudd’s brightly coloured shirt and mistakenly released DFAT notes on the "left-wing" beliefs of New Zealand’s PM Helen Clark.

Few commented on the significant appointment of Tuiloma Neroni Slade as the Forum’s Secretary General, following the tragic death of Greg Urwin, who held the post from 2003 until his recent retirement due to ill health. Neroni Slade has served as Samoa’s UN ambassador and a judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC). As former chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), he has vital international networks that will aid Pacific countries as they carry the Niue Declaration on Climate Change into forthcoming climate negotiations in Poland and Copenhagen.

Another low-profile but important announcement was a major statement on land management and conflict – a controversial issue as donors promote land reform in countries that retain customary land tenure. There will also be debates over Rudd’s call for "mutual responsibility" as a centrepiece of the bilateral partnership agreements, as NGOs ask how increased aid funds will benefit vulnerable rural communities (last year, AusAID’s Annual Review of Development Effectiveness noted: "Australian aid activities are well managed and achieving some good results … however, it is difficult to demonstrate the links between well-managed activities and better outcomes for the poor.")

The seasonal workers program hit the headlines after Opposition leader Brendan Nelson and Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Robb came out in opposition to the scheme. Legitimate concerns over the costs of temporary worker programs – family separation, potential breaches of labour rights and a lack of housing and welfare support for overseas workers – have been overshadowed by the Coalition’s disarray over the proposal. Nelson’s statements drew howls of protest from the National Farmers Federation (NFF) and National Party members in fruit-growing regions. The confusion was compounded when former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer admitted that the Howard Cabinet had rejected his proposal for a similar scheme 18 months ago, partly because of concerns about "the image of bringing in labour which is, essentially, of course to be frank about it, non-white labour, to do jobs that people in Australia simply didn’t want to do."

As Nelson called for criminal and health checks on Papua New Guineans coming to pick fruit in Australia, PNG’s agriculture minister John Hickey in turn urged the Rudd Government to protect workers from exploitation by employers: "First we would like to see our workers belong to a trade union in Australia, because they would receive some protection from exploitation if they became trade unionists."

Debate over Fiji’s interim administration and the role of the military will be a headache for some time to come.

Forum leaders agreed that Fiji may face suspension from the regional organisation if a joint working group cannot negotiate a fixed election timetable by the end of 2008. But diplomatic solutions have not been helped by Helen Clark’s comparison of Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama with Robert Mugabe.

Fiji’s Military Council has not been rattled by previous Australian and New Zealand sabre-rattling (best symbolised by the three Australian warships off the coast of Fiji in the lead up to the December 2006 coup). Economic sanctions are mooted, but during his recent visit to Beijing, Bainimarama no doubt discussed Chinese aid as well as the Olympic results. International pressure on the regime will be significant, but changes in Fiji are more likely to be determined by what’s happening inside the country following the resignation of three Fiji Labour Party ministers from the interim administration – including Interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

The Fiji furore overshadowed another significant decision in Niue: Australia will host the Forum leaders meeting in 2009. This gives Rudd a significant opportunity for agenda setting over trade, aid and labour mobility.

Australia will chair the Forum in 2009-10 as key decisions are taken over a timetable for a new regional agreement on trade liberalisation. The Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER), signed by most Forum members in 2001, will now be extended into a free trade agreement dubbed PACER-Plus. Meeting with Clark in New Zealand en route to Niue, Kevin Rudd stated: "I want to see us working more closely together bilaterally, driving towards the single economic market."

But the push by Rudd for increased trade liberalisation, structural adjustment and public sector reform is raising concern among Pacific NGOs, churches and trade unions. Australia and New Zealand have been arguing for a quick start to PACER-Plus negotiations, in spite of resistance by some Pacific governments who are wary of the social and economic impacts of full regional economic integration. Some Pacific analysts have raised eyebrows at Australia’s offer to train island officials as trade negotiators, so they can negotiate the free trade deal with Australia! Island governments are pushing for the early appointment of a Chief Trade Advisor to look at alternative options for trade and development.

When the Forum meets in Australia next year, will improved regional relations be under a bit of strain?

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.