The Albanese government’s shift on climate policy has been transformative in relations with Pacific island countries. But can this positive momentum be maintained?
Only four days after being sworn in, Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong visited the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Fiji where she heralded “a new era in Australian engagement in the Pacific.” Early indications are good, with positive initial responses from Pacific leaders to the change of tack. One of the memorable images of this year’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit was Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare hugging Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. The question now for the government is how to continue this positive momentum – and how to manage the high expectations that it has created.
A sea change on climate
Resetting Australia’s relationship with the Pacific and re-establishing Australia as the security partner of choice in the region has been front and centre of the new government’s international engagement. Early visits by the minister for foreign affairs, prime minister and the minister for international development show a determination to improve relations with the Pacific. They have spruiked the expansion of Australia’s labour mobility schemes – including pathways for permanent migration to Australia – and the commitment to increase development assistance to the region.
Central to this engagement has been Australia’s change on climate policy. It’s no secret that Pacific island countries took a dim view on Australia’s historic lack of climate ambition. For example, at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum meeting Australia’s actions in watering down commitments around climate action was heavily criticised by Pacific leaders. Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said Australia’s Pacific Step-up would “not mean anything…unless we deal with the issue of climate change. It’s as serious as that.”
In Minister Wong’s first visit to the region, she put climate action at the centre of her remarks, promising: “This is a different Australian Government. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Pacific family in response to this crisis.” She stressed the new government’s election commitments including an emissions reduction of 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, investment in solar banks and community batteries, rewiring the energy grid, and promotion of clean energy exports.
Putting the effects, impacts, and root causes of climate change as Australia’s central foreign policy concern in the Pacific is crucial to any meaningful, long-term shift in the relationship. For Pacific governments, there is no doubt climate is central to their national strategies. Development priorities are now built around the effects of climate change on health, livelihoods, infrastructure, and resources. Climate change is seen not just through major natural disasters, but in how it affects communities on a day-to-day basis, such as in farming and fishing. This has ramifications for how Australia structures aid and development partnerships.
A generational partner for development
If Australia is serious about building a stronger Pacific family, in addition to strong climate action, a sizeable reinvestment in the building blocks of a robust development cooperation program is needed. Leaders of the Pacific Island Forum have committed to the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), calling for the support of development partners in delivering the promise of the SDGs. Securing enough resources to progress the SDGs remains a major challenge, with developing countries facing a growing financing gap estimated at US$4.2 trillion per year.
The Albanese government recognises this and has tasked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) with leading a Development Finance Review looking at new forms of development finance, including mobilising private sector investment. The review will examine how different development financing approaches can complement Australia’s grant financing and enhance the effectiveness of current financing arrangements, including in the Pacific.
Another positive step toward a reinvigorated development program in the Pacific is the government’s decision to develop a new overarching Development Policy for Australia’s development cooperation program and humanitarian assistance. The last time Australia had a comprehensive development policy was in 2011 with the Australian Aid: Promoting Growth and Stability. Any future policy should feature a strategic assessment of Australia’s operating environment, including the priorities and human development needs of partner countries and clear long-term objectives and focus areas. This would provide the framework needed for transparent decision making and investment as well as allow multi-year budgeting.
Not all fair weather ahead
While Australia’s new stance on climate change has created a reset in relations with Pacific island countries, these changes by no means position Australia as a global leader on emission reductions. It is likely Pacific island countries will want Australia to do more. Australia’s long-term vision should be to build genuine, mutually beneficial partnerships based on respect and shared leadership. Strong relationships are the product of long-term, consistent, and multi-faceted engagement, of genuine partnership with and respect for countries that are equally sovereign, and exchange that takes seriously the priorities, concerns, and values of all the parties.
Australia needs to frame its engagement with the Pacific as valuable in its own right – not just through the lens of geostrategic competition – and position itself as an integral and invested part of the Pacific neighbourhood that is truly committed to bold climate action on a global scale. If it does not, it is unlikely that the new government’s early wins in the region will translate to something more.
Heather Wrathall is Program Lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D).
Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA is Executive Director at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D). She was National Executive Director of the AIIA for 13 years.
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