The Oz Pacific policy that can’t be named
22 Jul 2019|

Australia has a Voldemort problem. Our big new ambition for the South Pacific—economic and security integration—has become the policy that can’t be named.

Australia’s policy is integration, and we’re working to make it happen. We just don’t use the i-word.

Canberra talks constantly of the Pacific step-up, and lots of new steps are being made. Step-up is policy in action.

But there’s a Voldemort-style caution about naming integration as the ultimate step at the top of the ladder. We’re happy to talk about all the steps, just not the aim—proud of the process, shy about the point.

Integration was one of the top priorities unveiled in the 2017 foreign policy white paper:

The Government is delivering a step-change in our engagement with Pacific island countries. This new approach recognises that more ambitious engagement by Australia, including helping to integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions, is essential to the long-term stability and economic prospects of the Pacific. Our partnership with New Zealand will be central to advancing this agenda.

The white paper referred to the integrate/integration vision six times. In lauding the integration ambition as a new ideal—not just neighbours, but joined—I described it as a complex task for Australia and New Zealand and an important offer that the South Pacific would embrace cautiously. Integration would be soft and slow, evolving over decades. The softness, though, has faded to silence.

While Australia is saying important things about the region, look in vain for the i-word in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s significant Pacific speech (‘Australia and the Pacific: a new chapter’)or from Foreign Minister Marise Payne (State of the Pacific 2018 conference or Fiji Press Club).

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson seemed to offer i-word gold at the 2019 Australasian Aid Conference: ‘No one ever said integration was easy, or complete!’

But it was a false sighting. She was talking about the integration of AusAID into DFAT.

When the i-word does appear, it’s confined to the economic side, not security.

DFAT’s head of the Office of the Pacific, Ewen McDonald, gave the best example in a speech last month at the Australian National University, titled ‘Realising the Pacific’s vision for stability, security and prosperity’:

At a time when uncertainty permeates the global economy, we are also committed to better integrating Australian and Pacific island economies. This will improve regional prosperity. The Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus—or PACER Plus trade and development agreement—will be the first reciprocal regional trade agreement in the Pacific, and is expected to enter into force in late 2019. The agreement will open up new markets and opportunities for Australian and Pacific businesses.

The tortuous PACER Plus negotiations (2009–2017) certainly showed that integration is tough; and after all that effort, Papua New Guinea and Fiji didn’t sign.

DFAT’s description of the step-up points to integration only once, also in talking about PACER Plus. The department says Australia is offering ‘a more ambitious and intensified engagement in the Pacific to support a more resilient region’.

Why does Australia have a policy that can’t be named? Several factors combine to make integration a tough topic to talk about:

  • climate change—as Jenny Hayward-Jones argues, ‘Australia is the principal aid donor and security partner in the region of the world most vulnerable to climate change, but has not exercised leadership on climate change in its diplomatic, aid or security planning’
  • the islands’ pride in their own sovereignty and identity
  • the old ‘neo’ fears—colonialist and/or imperialist—about Australian dominance
  • lack of confidence and trust in Australia on the part of island states, including a perception that Canberra’s just panicking about China.

Australia faces the same problems that confronted the Pacific plan for ‘regional cooperation and integration’, proclaimed by the Pacific Islands Forum in 2005 and 2007. Matthew Dornan noted that the plan had ‘limited impact’ and failed to drive the ‘integration agenda’.

The Voldemort problem shows Australia’s struggle with a blunt question from the South Pacific: ‘Why should we integrate with you?’

Australia wants to get closer at a time when its influence is challenged.

In a fine essay for Australian Foreign Affairs, Hayward-Jones describes the state of play:

[O]ver the last five years, as perceptions of Australia’s influence have changed, as China’s visibility has grown, as the climate change threat has worsened and as Pacific island leaders have become more assertive on the public stage, Australia has found its assumptions about the region challenged. For the nation, this marks a new—and more difficult—era of Pacific diplomacy.