In my recent ‘Pacific Predictions’ I noted that in 2017, the Government of Australia will prepare and release a white paper on foreign policy.
A white paper is something similar to our Vanuatu 2030 — it sets out the framework for a particular policy area that will guide the state machinery in the medium to longer term.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently accepting submissions from anyone who cares to make one. We are also expecting the release of a new ‘Pacific Strategy’. (Which begs the question, should Pacific island countries have an ‘Australia Strategy’?)
The Foreign Policy White Paper is something of a big deal. There hasn’t been one since 2003 and, as DFAT tell us, ‘the international environment has changed profoundly over the past 13 years’. Julie Bishop is generally recognised as one of the better Australian foreign ministers of recent times so it is not surprising that she should be prosecuting an exercise of this type. Having said that, foreign affairs do not figure very highly in Australian political discussions, with little attention if any given to them during election campaigns. And within the small amount of bandwidth accorded to foreign affairs, Pacific issues rate very low on the scale.
Even so, the policy processes referred to above present an important opportunity for Australian policy makers to think about how their country can regain and maintain its status in our region. Admittedly, global events of 2016 have created some conundrums that will test Canberra’s creativity. But that must not detract from the importance of Australia’s relationships with its nearest neighbours.
I will be preparing a submission in relation to the white paper and I’m not going to give away the punch line here. But I will raise one aspect that I’ve been thinking about for a while that I don’t believe gets enough attention. In Vanuatu, our primary experience of Australia’s government is by way of our interactions with DFAT. But our bilateral relationship with Australia is affected by numerous other government departments and agencies that we don’t necessarily deal with directly. Part of DFAT’s role is to liaise with the rest of the Australian government machinery to try and ensure that what they are doing is in line with and supportive of foreign policy objectives. This is an area where we need to see more and better activity and it needs to be examined closely in this year’s policy development activities in Canberra.
Let me give you a couple of examples to consider. The government of Australia has made significant investments of aid money in restoring and further developing our tourism sector. This is part of their economic diplomacy platform, which is based around a belief that small countries such as Vanuatu need opportunities to grow their economies, create jobs and improve livelihoods more than they need aid. As we are realising, Vanuatu is an attractive destination for Chinese tourists, as that market matures and we see a rise in independent, well-funded travellers. In the 12 months to November 30, 2016 the number of Chinese tourists to visit Australia was just over one million. If 2% of those visitors to Australia included a side-trip to Vanuatu as part of their itinerary, the number of air arrivals would increase by 50,000. There are several reasons why this might be difficult to achieve but perhaps the most significant one is the refusal by the Australian government (via the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) to provide multi-entry visas to visitors from China. So it is not possible for Chinese tourists to add a ‘side trip’ to Vanuatu into their itinerary because once they leave Australia they have to apply for another visa to re-enter.
And then there are our agricultural exports to Australia, such as they are. Here we face a double whammy. Australian domestic policy is the reason for the ban on commercial importation of kava, which means that our producers have to seek more distant (and more expensive) markets. In relation to other products such as root crops, nuts and spices a very serious (but insufficiently discussed) impediment is getting products approved by Australian quarantine and biosecurity agencies. This is a hurdle faced by other Pacific island countries as well. You might think that the problem is that Pacific agricultural products are poor quality and do not pass the tests for biosecurity. And you would be largely wrong. As Wes Morgan has educated me the issue is not that the products are not good enough, it is that the Australian processes take so long that producers have to go elsewhere to find a value chain that works. So an agreement like PACER Plus that (we are told) will make it easier for our country to trade with Australia will struggle to deliver on that promise if the relevant bits of government machinery don’t get the memo.
Australia’s foreign policy white paper and, perhaps more so, its Pacific strategy need to demonstrate that these issues (and others) have been well thought out and factored into the blueprints for our future relationship.