Commentary | 09 November 2018

PM Morrison's Pacific pivot must overcome legacy of climate and refugee policy

Originally published in Australian Financial Review

Originally published in Australian Financial Review

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's foreign policy pivot this week contained much that was positive for Pacific watchers.

As part of his "step-up", Morrison made clear that he wants Australia's best minds spending more time thinking about the region, and spending time in it.

His inclusive language, buttressed with promises to be more responsive and engaged with the needs of the region, and to stop "taking it for granted" strike a welcome chord.

Pledges of more diplomatic engagement with a whopping five new diplomatic posts, along with military training and support are positive. Increased money to back business investment, and a new "facility" for infrastructure demonstrates a level of commitment that has been lacking.

The Prime Minister's pledges follow Labor leader Bill Shorten's recent speech at the Lowy Institute in which he mapped out the importance of the Pacific in his party's foreign policy.

Having both sides of Australian politics so clearly invested in improving our standing in the region is unambiguously a good thing.

There are plenty of questions about how this will all work. But there are aspects of Australia's footprint in the Pacific that were little highlighted this week – and they pose significant hurdles for an improved relationship.

The first of these is climate change. Morrison's campaign to get Australians focused on reliable, "fair dinkum" power might work domestically. But it's about as popular as a lump of coal in the Pacific.

Regional leaders know their island nations are among the world's most vulnerable to climate change. Australia's political weather-vaning on policy action is, for them, frustrating and underwhelming.

Australia signed the Boe declaration at the recent Pacific Islands Forum, which identified climate change as the single biggest security threat to the region. With the domestic standoff over energy policy, Australia has little to show its neighbours that it is serious about meeting the challenge.

The other issue – not highlighted by Morrison, and only briefly referenced by Bill Shorten in his recent speech – is Australia's refugee legacy.

In Nauru, Australia's need to outsource asylum seeker processing has coincided with a deterioration of democracy. Australia has stood by as Nauru has worked to keep out foreign journalists, sack judges and deport health and human rights advocates.

In Papua New Guinea, Australia has tightly bound itself to the fortunes of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill through the deal to house asylum seekers on Manus, and from the recognition that there is a thin bench behind him. O'Neill will be hosting world leaders for APEC next weekend, but not long after he will be fighting for political survival with a potential vote of no confidence in parliament looming.

Having watched O'Neill make sure the refugee agreement endures despite moves against it in PNG's courts, opposition figures in PNG might be wondering if Australia has an interest in making sure O'Neill survives any challenge.

That's why these legacy issues matter.

Australia can reinvest in its relationships with the region – prompted in this case by the growing influence of China – and should be able to capitalise on its natural advantages in governance, the rule of law and open democracy.

Decisions made when the Pacific was not so central to government thinking are corrosive to that effort.

It's time to make sure they are dealt with as part of a renewed focus on the region.