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Australia Must Prioritise Positive Relationships with Pacific Neighbours

13 May 2022
By Luke Gosling OAM MP
Awareness kits at the launch of Australian Aid: Friendship Grants at Parliament House, 30 May 2018.  Photo credit: DFAT/Linda Roche

Since the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Pacific islands have been free of great power war. The unwelcome reality of strategic competition is now back in a way we have not seen since the Cold War.

This time eighty years ago, four score years, one of the most decisive naval battles in Australian history raged in our eastern approaches. Over four long days, Australian and US naval ships fought side by side in the waters of the Pacific to secure peace. By stopping a Japanese advance for the first time, the battle prevented an assault on Port Moresby and boosted allied morale. It would set off a chain of events ending in Japan’s defeat in 1945.

On 7 May, Northern Territorians, members of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF), and US military personnel commemorated this important battle and turning point in the Pacific War at the USS Peary Memorial in Darwin. The cooperation forged in the heat of battle not only endures but has strengthened, including through the ongoing rotation of US Marines to my hometown of Darwin.

This federal election has become a once-in-a-generation contest over foreign policy. In some ways, this is no surprise. The return of war in Europe plays well for a government eager to burnish what it claims are its superior national security credentials. But recent developments closer to home cast doubt on those claims, with the recent security deal between Solomon Islands and China raising the spectre of foreign military basing some 2,000km from Brisbane.

While the government vaunts its Pacific Step-Up, it has overseen the worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since 1945, damaging Australia’s influence in and relationship with Honiara. Because these developments became public during an election campaign, we can compare actions and not just words. This provides an opportunity for the choice in this election to be brought into clearer and sharper focus. Whereas this Coalition-led government only sent a junior minister, Senator Zed Seselja, to Honiara rather than its foreign minister, the Labor party has a plan of deep re-engagement with Pacific island countries that also takes their security concerns seriously.

Towards this end, the Labor party has announced a new training centre for Australia’s defence colleagues in the Pacific. The Australian Pacific Defence School will provide training for the defence and security forces of Pacific neighbours. Many programs are already in place to train the officers and soldiers of the defence forces of Australia’s neighbours and partners, including through the Australia Pacific Security College. This Defence School will significantly augment those lines of effort, improving the effectiveness of ADF-led defence training.

Foreign policy and national security are often presented as mostly bipartisan policy areas. This remains broadly the case. All sides of politics want a country that is safe at home and respected abroad. But there are critical differences in how these high-level goals are pursued, and whether long-term national interests trump short-term partisan interests.

Solomon Islands’ security deal with China illustrates this government’s fundamental failure to engage seriously with the Pacific. In the past, Australia’s status as primary security partner across the Melanesian arc was not at risk so long as its partners felt respected and supported.

Federal governments of every stripe need to enact policies for the defence of Australia and promotion of national interests. But Australia needs a government that also prioritises building positive relationships with Pacific. That means showing up at an appropriate rank, listening attentively, and following through on their own climate, economic, and security concerns.

Australia’s voice cannot have impact if it isn’t heard. This government cut the Australia Network, depriving millions of people across the Pacific of the opportunity to hear Australian perspectives on the world. This was a critical part of Australia’s soft power strategy, one essential to maintaining Australia’s cultural edge in the region. Labor has a plan to reverse this cut and put Australia back in a position to regain the soft power it lost. If elected, we will deliver an Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy which will broadcast the diversity of Australian views to the region. To achieve this, the ABC’s international program will increase by $8 million over four years. As part of this, we would seek opportunities to expand Australian broadcasting to South Asia and would work with DFAT and the ABC to offer training to Pacific journalists.

Australia needs to be a credible partner to the states of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. We know that the most important issue facing them is the impact of climate change, and the consequent threat to their sovereignty and security. To be a partner of choice for these nations, Australia needs to take tangible steps to stand with its neighbours, to help them in this time of need. Labor has a plan to do this through the Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership, through which a Labor government would support clean energy plans in Pacific.

A key part of what we can deliver for our neighbours is real assistance for development. This government has attacked Labor’s record aid spend in over six Coalition budgets since 2013, axing over a billion dollars of programs. To stem and begin to reverse these decades-long cuts, a Labor government led by Anthony Albanese will boost Australia’s official development assistance for the Pacific and Timor-Leste by $524 million over four years. This additional funding will help to drive meaningful and lasting change in Pacific health, educational, and economic outcomes.

Since Australia’s strategic environment is more strained than at any point since the end of the Pacific War, we face an urgent need to secure ourselves and the region. But words are not enough. The current government’s instinct is to reach for megaphone diplomacy in response to these challenges. We have a different plan. We will engage with the Pacific every day of the year, not just when it suits us. We will assist them, where requested, to strengthen their capacity to respond to climate, economic, and security challenges they identify as critical.

With our interests inter-woven, the Pacific’s concerns are ours. That’s what “family” means.

Luke Gosling OAM MP is the Federal Member of Australian Parliament for Solomon.

This article is part of a series on different parties’ approaches to Australian foreign policy ahead of the 2022 federal election. All major parties and several minor parties and independent candidates were invited to contribute to this series.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.