Diminished Pacific role threatens regional stability, critics warn Scott Morrison

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: REUTERS

CANBERRA, 30 AUGUST 2018 (SMH) – The former minister responsible for the Pacific says the Morrison government is jeopardising Australia’s influence in the region at a time when China is wooing island nations with infrastructure and loans.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who last week criticised the direction of the Coalition government under former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his foreign minister Julie Bishop, has also called for the Coalition to reverse cuts to the aid budget and increase its $1.3 billion (US$950 million) spend in the region.

During last week’s leadership spill Senator Fierravanti-Wells dramatically quit Turnbull’s ministry and was subsequently relegated to the backbench by incoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The new ministry no longer includes a dedicated minister for the region.

Instead, Morrison named Anne Ruston as an “assistant minister” – a role formerly known as parliamentary secretary – for international development and the Pacific.

On Wednesday, Senator Ruston said she had “no idea” why Morrison had appointed her to the role.

“Well, I’m not quite sure,” she responded when asked about the promotion on ABC radio. “Anyway, very exciting new challenge but, yes, no idea at all.”

Senator Fierravanti-Wells said she had worked hard as minister for Australia to “step up” its engagement with the Pacific as part of the foreign policy white paper priorities released last year.

“At a time of growing contestability and strategic competition in our Pacific region, the downgrading of the portfolio to a parliamentary secretary role sends the wrong message,” she told Fairfax Media.

“The Coalition had elevated the Pacific to a ministerial role. Indeed, I have advocated that given the importance of the Pacific, our record development assistance of $1.3 billion for the Pacific should be increased and complemented by having a minister for foreign affairs and the Pacific.”

The Abbott and Turnbull governments cut the aid budget to about $4 billion (US$2.9 billion), representing about 0.22 per cent of gross national income.

This compares to a previously bipartisan commitment to 0.5 per cent, the 0.7 spent by Britain, and the OECD average of 0.31 per cent. Pacific aid funding has been protected from the brunt of the cuts.

Early this year, Senator Fierravanti-Wells warned that China was loading up Pacific nations with debt via white elephant infrastructure projects. The comments triggered an angry response from the Chinese government and she was rebuked by Bishop, the senior portfolio minister.

But Bishop later sounded her own warnings about debt traps and sovereignty in the region. In her final press conference as foreign minister on Tuesday, she stressed the importance of Australia’s role in the Pacific region and said a “targeted” aid budget benefited Australia “but we must be able to afford it”.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells said she felt vindicated and the Pacific deserved Australia’s “highest attention”.

“Our allies look to us to ensure that this happens,” she said.

Labor’s defence spokesman Richard Marles said the exclusion of a dedicated minister to the region would be widely noticed by Pacific leaders, who are gathering in Nauru this weekend for a leaders’ forum.

“Scott Morrison is not attending the Pacific Islands Forum. Scott Morrison has no Pacific minister, the message this sends is deafening,” Marles said.

“I’ve long said that the Pacific is Australia’s biggest national security blind spot, you don’t get a more acute example of this point than the absence of the Pacific from the Morrison ministry.”

Australia will be represented at the meeting by the new Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.

Marles warned the government there could be serious consequences if the Pacific felt neglected by Australia at a time when Pacific nations are receiving overtures from China.

“Australia must earn the right to be the natural partner of choice for the Pacific. We cannot afford to create a vacuum,” he said.

Graeme Smith, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, said it was important for the Pacific to have an influential advocate in government.

“What’s important is who holds the portfolio. It’s not so much about whether it’s with a minister or a parliamentary secretary,” Dr Smith said.

Welcoming Senator Fierravanti-Wells’ “change of heart” on the size of the aid budget, he said Coalition government policy on climate change – a particular threat to low-lying Pacific islands – and labour mobility would continue to hurt Australia’s standing with Pacific nations.

Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program, said the minister had a point and the Pacific should be represented at the highest levels in the Australian government. But Pryke said his greatest concern was the lack of Pacific experience and expertise in the government.

More Stories