Why Australia is declaring a 'new era' in the Pacific

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Anthony Albanese
Anthony Albanese's new Labor government has declared a new era for Australia and the Pacific

Australia has long been considered a "big brother" by many small Pacific nations, but its approach in recent times has been tearing the family apart, some say. This is something the country's new government wants to change.

"You claim the Pacific Islands are your brothers and sisters, and then look away when your brothers and sisters are having trouble," says Reverend Alimoni Taumoepeau, a Tongan Australian church leader in Sydney.

The key aggravator, some say, has been the reluctance of previous governments in Australia to act on climate change.

"It is not a crisis anymore for the Pacific Islands - it is an emergency," says Reverend Taumoepeau, who describes his homeland as an island paradise that's drowning.

Across the Pacific, rising sea levels, cyclones, storm surges and even droughts are making everyday life "very tough".

Under the previous Morrison government, Pacific countries were essentially told to "take the money... then shut up about climate change", claimed ex-Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga in 2019.

That's a mindset Australia's new government, under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, wants to dispel. In fact, its declared a "new era" for Australian engagement in the Pacific.

A lot rides on the strength of Australia's relationships in the region. Many of its closest neighbours are in the Pacific, and Australia is counting on them to resist growing Chinese influence, which it views as a huge threat to national and regional security.

So how does the new government plan to patch things up?

Making up for 'lost decade' on climate

While Australia's working relationships have remained strong, its image has been badly tarnished thanks to its stance on climate change, say some analysts.

Several leaders took "a great big stick" to the previous government on the issue, historian and author Patricia O'Brien says.

She also points to the time when newly appointed Liberal leader Peter Dutton was caught on camera joking about rising sea levels affecting Pacific Island nations, as then Prime Minister Tony Abbott chuckled beside him.

"The Pacific have not forgotten that," Dr O'Brien says.

In 2019, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama had blasted Mr Morrison as "very insulting and condescending" and last month appeared to take another swipe at him over a comment calling the Pacific Australia's "backyard".

"Fiji is not anyone's backyard - we are a part of a Pacific family," he said.

But with the election of a Labor government that has promised to "make up" for a "lost decade on climate action" by cutting emissions faster, the key tension in Australia's regional relationships is gone, says Dr O'Brien.

Labor's new foreign minister Penny Wong says she - as someone born in Malaysia - has a "personal understanding" of lingering colonial attitudes and promised to speak to the Pacific with more respect.

She also declared that the new government was "committed" to real climate change.

"I understand that - under past governments - Australia has neglected its responsibility to act on climate change, ignoring the calls of our Pacific family to act," she said in a speech in Fiji last week.

"I want to assure you that we have heard you. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Pacific family in response to this crisis."

Ms Wong announced that Australia would set up an "Australia-Pacific Climate Infrastructure Partnership, to support climate-related infrastructure and energy projects in Pacific countries and Timor-Leste".

Dialling down rhetoric on China?

And as they show progress on solving the Pacific's primary concern, Australia is hopeful it can convince them to help address theirs: China.

Earlier last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on his own marathon tour of the region.

Australia was quick to launch a competing visit, sending out Ms Wong to Fiji to reinforce ties with the "Pacific family", within just days of her appointment.

Penny Wong smiles beside Henry Puna, the Secretary General of the Pacific Island Forum
Penny Wong smiles beside Henry Puna, the Secretary General of the Pacific Island Forum

The trip came as China had earlier this year signed a broad security pact with the Solomon Islands, sparking fears of greater Chinese influence in the region, and a prospect of a possible Chinese military base.

Beijing offers Pacific nations support like quick aid or loans and policing assistance, but much of this has been criticised as "debt trap diplomacy".

The Albanese government says the situation is evidence its predecessor "dropped the ball" in the Pacific, leaving the door open for Beijing to threaten Australia's national security.

But Mr Morrison defended his government's approach, saying it couldn't go "stomping around telling leaders in Pacific islands what they should and shouldn't do".

That's true, says political analyst Dr Richard Herr. But the way it spoke about China's dealings in the region probably didn't help its cause.

Mr Morrison had referred to a Chinese military base in the region as a "red line" for Australia, while then Defence Minister Dutton said the country needed to prepare for war.

That rhetoric made Australia look "overly sensitive" and "reactive" to China, says Dr Herr.

Australia will have to accept Beijing will inevitably play a role in the Pacific, and the new government will need to make itself the more attractive partner, he says.

"We can't do things that will exclude China from the region."

This would be unrealistic, as Pacific nations also accept aid from other countries and pursue their own friendly relations.

Solidifying ties through migration

But the most tangible way the new government can better its ties with Pacific nations is through changes to migration policy, says Dr George Carter, the co-Director of the Australian National University's Pacific Institute.

Australia has promised to crack down on exploitation in the country's seasonal worker programme, to let Pacific workers on longer visas bring their families to Australia with them, and to provide 3,000 permanent visas a year for Pacific Islanders.

That will offer work and education opportunities for families, many of whom send remittances back to their home country, in turn stimulating their economies, say Dr Carter.

But growing the Pacific community in Australia is mutually beneficial - it strengthens its relationship with the region and is something on which China has thus far been unable to compete.

"The ties which link certain island countries to Australia are already much stronger than what they are with China… (but) to have a door that would allow for migration, this will be a very welcome policy."

Australia has promised a lot of other things too - including an extra A$500m (£289m; $363.5m) in aid over the next four years, the revival of regional broadcasting, and a new Australian-run defence school to provide training to Pacific forces.

More continuity than change

But overall, the new era being promised is not as radical as Ms Wong suggests, experts say.

Australia's relationships in the Pacific remain strong, says former high ranking Australian diplomat James Batley.

The previous government's aid and development programme was well received, as was its pandemic support - from financial aid to securing critical supplies like PPE and vaccines.

"There'll be a lot of continuity. There's an essential bipartisanship in a lot of the way that Australian governments approach the region," Mr Batley says.

But Reverend Taumoepeau says the promise of even a little change has been enough to crack open "a window of hope" for Pacific communities, both in the region and Australia.

Reverend Alimoni Taumoepeau
Reverend Alimoni Taumoepeau says there is now promise of change

"We were very hurt because the government didn't want to listen to our story," he said.

"Sometimes big brothers do that - instead of talking with the Pacific, they were talking to the Pacific. But [the new government] is willing to work together. So we are so looking forward to doing that."

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