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The Pacific Scorecard: How Has Penny Wong Fared in Her First Year as Foreign Minister?

24 May 2023
By Tess Newton Cain
Foreign Minister Penny Wong visit to Fiji for 2023 PIF. Source:

With Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the helm of foreign policy, the Albanese government has set a strong standard for rebuilding diplomatic ties with Australia’s nearest neighbors. In moving forward, the government should be careful not to treat all relations within the security context that has dominated foreign relations so far. 

On the fringe of the Labor Party’s annual conference in December 2018, then shadow defence minister Richard Marles turned to his colleague Penny Wong and implored her to “fall in love.” Not with him, but with the Pacific. As an unashamed Pacific tragic, Marles stressed that to build deep-seated and long-lasting relationships with the near neighbourhood, Australia and Australians needed to fall in love with the region. And as foreign minister in waiting, Wong needed to lead.

Fast forward to May 2023, and Wong has now been Australia’s Foreign Minister for twelve months. There is no denying that considerable amounts of her time and energy have been spent spearheading a substantive shift in how Australia engages with its “Pacific family.” Her renowned work ethic has been on full display as she traversed the region, meeting with her counterparts and getting an intensive (re)introduction to Pacific politics, diplomacy, development, and culture – including drinking kava with grace.

Her approach has been welcomed in the Pacific, a region where how things are done is scrutinised just as closely as what those things are, and sometimes even more so. She carries herself well, presenting a strong combination of ease and dignity. She speaks in measured tones and treats her Pacific audiences with respect. Her language has been well chosen and is, to a large extent, consistent. Particularly welcome has been her treatment of the media while travelling in the region, ensuring that she has been accessible to journalists. When facing a combined throng of both Australian and Pacific media, she makes sure she takes questions from both groups. This has been encouraging to see.

I have long held the view that while Senator Wong understands and accepts the importance of the Pacific as an intellectual prospect, she is unlikely to see it as something – in and of itself – on which she is prepared to expend any significant political capital. The same goes for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Her tenure as foreign minister has coincided with a period in which we have seen geostrategic competition in the region intensify. By nailing her colours to the national security mast, Wong has been able to prioritise Pacific work without depleting her political capital reserves. In fact, the contrary applies – if she had not spent so much time in the Pacific and devoted such energy to Oceanic diplomacy, she may have faced significant political blowback.

However, a wholesale adoption of a securitisation lens when it comes to Pacific engagement brings with it significant risks. Both Wong and Pat Conroy, Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific, were at pains to stress that the almost $AU2 billion package (which is predominantly security focused) was constructed based on what they had heard from their Pacific counterparts. There is no reason to disbelieve this. However, what is not known are the issues raised by Pacific leaders and counterparts that missed out on budget allocation. Beyond the seemingly unending decline of the aid budget, we heard nothing about a commitment to the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund, nor was there any mention of an investment in increasing Pacific literacy across government or the Australian society more generally.

From the outset, Penny Wong has acknowledged the centrality of climate change in the concerns of Pacific leaders and communities. The new government’s adoption of a revised and more ambitious emissions reduction target made her entry into the Pacific smoother than it might otherwise have been. However, this card has now been played and the Pacific is looking for more from Canberra. The upcoming meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders in Cook Islands may see increased pressure from the leaders of countries such as Vanuatu, Samoa, and Marshall Islands for Australia to up its ambitions on this score. Australia’s intention to host COP31 in conjunction with the Pacific could prove to be an important leverage point for this conversation.

While there has been much to like about Wong’s Pacific work in this first year, it is not all rosy. Her thinking has evidently been strongly influenced by the concerns of the national security community. This has led to her language increasingly adopting a tone of strategic denial in relation to the region, with its concomitant conflation of Australian and Pacific security that obscures significant divergences.

Most importantly, Senator Wong needs to ensure that for her the Pacific and her relationships in the region remain a key focus of activity. Having visited all of the other 17 members of the Pacific Islands Forum, her tone had something of a “there, done” ring to it, which is not appropriate or effective in a Pacific context. She needs to ensure that the good work she has done in the first 12 months is a launchpad for greater progress to be made in the months to come.

Associate Professor Tess Newton Cain is the Project Lead at the Griffith Pacific Hub, a forum for engagement and relationship building between Griffith University, the Pacific islands region, and the Pacific diaspora communities of Queensland and the rest of Australia.

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