Not content with watching our elections and those of our Pacific island neighbours, I also kept a fairly close eye on the Australian federal elections that took place last weekend. Given that Pacific policy was one area where there were some key differences between the two major parties, there was good reason to take an interest in what transpired.
So now that we know that the Morrison government has been returned, what do leaders and commentators in the region and the Australian diaspora think this result means for the Pacific? What are they hoping to see from the Morrison government when it comes to sustaining the ‘Pacific step up’?
Climate change is essentially where these conversations start and end. On Facebook, Prime Minister Bainimarama was quite effusive in his congratulations referring to Scott Morrison as his ‘friend’. But he also took the opportunity seek solidarity when it comes to addressing climate change: ‘In Australia, you have defied all expectations; let us take the same underdog attitude that inspired your parliamentary victory to the global fight against climate change’. In a similar vein, PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, as reported in The Guardian, had one message for Morrison: ‘climate change is the single most dangerous challenge facing planet Earth’.
Concerns expressed by Pacific leaders are echoed in the wider communities of the Pacific and among the Pacific diaspora here in Australia. Katerina Teaiwa, an Assistant Professor at ANU, considers that the Morrison government’s ‘inaction on climate change…should be quite concerning for islanders’ and renders this result one that is not good for the Pacific. Similarly, Andrew Muaki, a former adviser to the government of Solomon Islands believes that in Australian politics, economic considerations are more important than ‘climate change issues faced by the island countries in the region’.
Connected with this is an expectation that under a coalition government we can expect Australia-Pacific relationships to be more transactional in nature. As predicted by Dan McGarry, media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post, Pacific island countries can expect ‘less traction’ when it comes to the big climate-related concerns but are likely to ‘receive more financial assistance on big-ticket infrastructure projects’. As McGarry notes, these projects may go some way to slowing the impacts of climate change – impacts that are already being felt. But it would be naïve to believe that more spending on adaptation will convince Pacific islanders that mitigation can be safely ignored. And it is clear that a significant proportion of the Australian public feels the same way.
Issues of human rights and governance also loom large and it is obvious that Pacific island people see this as a space where Australia can and should be playing a bigger role. Elvina Ogil, a Papua New Guinean Legal Counsel working in Australia, laments the return of a coalition government because she sees that there will be a continued ‘ …failure to acknowledge a corrupt Papua New Guinean regime while, disingenuously, paying lip service to the tenets of good governance.’ In Fiji, the leader of the National Federation Party, Biman Prasad, continues to hold out hope that Australia ‘will have a much bigger role in strengthening democracy, human rights and media freedom which has taken a battering over the last decade’.
There is no denying that a lot of the increased Pacific-focused activity we have seen on the part of Canberra in the last 12 months has been driven by a desire to counter Chinese influence in the region. As noted by Paul Barker, Executive Director of the Institute of National Affairs in PNG, ‘Australia has been a bit on the back foot, focused unduly on detention centres, which provide little or no public support”. Others are more upbeat. Bernary Yegiora, lecturer in International Relations at Divine Word University in Madang welcomes increased investment in sports diplomacy to ‘counter the influence of China in the region’.
As I said, when it comes to the Pacific, it starts and ends with climate policy. Josh Frydenberg, Treasurer and deputy leader of the Liberal party was quick to paint this as a finished conversation the day after the elections here in Australia. When the Australian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister meet with their Pacific counterparts in Fiji and Tuvalu respectively later this year they will find that this is far from the case. They will be expected to have listened and have something new to say.