Analysis – By Dr Scott MacWilliam
Prior to the September 7 election, there were some, even high, hopes that the anticipated victory of the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition would bring major welcome changes to Australian foreign policy toward the South Pacific.
These changes included a reversal of the stance toward Fiji’s military regime initiated by the previous conservative government headed by John Howard and maintained during the six years of centre-left Labor Party headed coalition rule.
Indeed shortly before the election, the shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop signalled an intention to more closely engage with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s government, easing sanctions in the run-up to the promised 2014 elections in Fiji.
Soon after the Australian elections, New Zealand’s conservative government welcomed the release of the new Fiji constitution and also announced that some sanctions would be eased, while planning for the elections continued. Change looked to be in the wind.
However, the experienced and astute Fiji Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola immediately placed the significance of the proposed Australia-New Zealand shift in context.
In a recent interview Kubuabola indicated that while Fiji welcomed the incremental changes in the New Zealand stance, it was regrettable they were of little impact at this late stage of Fiji’s progress towards a return to democracy.
Expect much the same from newly appointed Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. It is not unlikely that she will make a similar pronouncement to that coming from New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully.
Kubuabola has been around long enough to know the long-term drivers of Australian and New Zealand foreign policies towards Fiji and other South Pacific countries.
He would be well aware that soon after Bishop trumpeted her greater sensitivity to the region, the new conservative Treasurer of Australia Joe Hockey announced a A$ 4.5 billion cut over the next four years to the aid budget.
For reasons outlined below, I expect this to be only the first such cut. AusAID for Fiji, which has increased substantially since 2006, is unlikely to be spared major reductions UNLESS the government feels it can be used to exert further leverage on the military regime.
Kubuabola would also know that a central, if not publicly stated plank of the Australian foreign policy toward Fiji, is the re-installation of the former SDL (Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua) Party, now SODELPA (Social Democratic Liberal Party) in government.
On a recent visit to Fiji, I was informed by a normally reliable source that the Liberal Party in Australia had provided for two SODELPA officials to watch how that party conducted its election campaign.
While I have not seen written evidence to this effect, it did not surprise as AusAID support has previously been forthcoming for the training of SDL and Fiji Labour Party officials at the Australian National University’s Centre for Democratic Institutions.
The opportunistic United Front which consists of SODELPA, the Fiji Labour Party and the National Federation Party is likely to also receive support from Australia in the form of assistance for the FLP.
That is, Kubuabola and the regime would know that lifting sanctions is code for back to the future.
Propping up the bloc that led to the military takeover is aimed specifically at whatever party Prime minister Bainimarama establishes to run in the elections.
When the Prime Minister’s bitter opponent, former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, is the principal adviser to SODELPA, which currently has a largely token figure at its head, the domestic Fiji battle lines are becoming sharper each day.
What Australian foreign policy hopes to achieve is equally transparent.
While much has been made of the previous ALP (Australian Labor Party)-Greens-Independents coalition government’s internal divisions, there is now a pronounced campaign under way in Australia to claim that the conservative coalition is a united team.
So consistent have been the efforts by senior party figures to proclaim a cautious, common front as was shown when in opposition, that this suggests divisions needing to be glossed over.
Already there have been the much publicised attacks on the presence of only one woman, Bishop, in the cabinet.
Less noted have been the very public criticisms of proposed policies in areas which point to the inherent tensions between the Liberal and National parties.
Similarly, the handing of Trade and Investment, the former traditionally a National Party sinecure, to a Victorian Liberal who previously held the shadow Finance portfolio is likely to produce major disagreements between what might loosely be called the ‘economic nationalists’ or ‘agrarian populists’ and the ‘economic rationalists’.
Resolving these disputes, with more funds poured into agriculture and rural infrastructure – both ministries held by National Party politicians – can be most easily resolved by further cutting foreign aid.
Both sides are in agreement with this direction, with the new National Party agriculture minister being an especially vociferous critic of giving to others money which he believes is needed in Australia.
Australian climate change scepticism
Then there are climate changes, the effects of which are so critical for nearly all South Pacific countries and highlighted at a recent regional conference.
For all the attempts to suggest an incoming government, which is trying to be get closer to the governments of other South Pacific countries, the new Australia one will be forever branded by two phrases.
One of these is ‘climate change is crap’, with the second being ‘stop the boats’.
On the first, one of the earliest signs that denial is still a central belief of the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott is the appointment as consul-general in New York of former Senator Nick Minchin.
A South Australian party hard man and extreme conservative, Minchin shares his leader’s view on the predominant scientific position regarding global warming.
Minchin, an Abbott promoter in internal party tussles, is famous or infamous depending upon one’s respect for medical knowledge for proclaiming that the documented links between passive smoking and various illnesses are not proven.
In the mid-1990s, he was described as holding ‘troglodyte’ views on the subject and there is no evidence that he has changed since.
So for the people of the South Pacific concerned with the effects of rising sea levels, do not expect this government to bring climate science to the table in discussions on Australian foreign policy toward Pacific islanders.
No boat people sensitivity
On ‘stop the boats’ little more needs to be said except that the initial stance does not show any change from the heralded Opposition position.
Do not expect much greater sensitivity from the government or the Foreign Minister to the views of regional governments on this internationally difficult issue.
The suggestion that Australia would buy boats which might be used for transporting asylum seekers and destroy them has not been given much credence.
Julie Bishop has already declared her position regarding Indonesian opposition to such advocated measures as paying informers to gather information about proposed people smuggling activities in Indonesia.
To the critics who point to the possible implications for Indonesian sovereignty, Bishop has stated: “We’re not asking for Indonesia’s permission, we’re asking for their understanding”.
Indonesia’s foreign minister almost immediately spoke against the payments proposal.
Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill too is clearly on the alert regarding attempts to redefine the deal signed with the previous Australian government.
No need for optimism
Overall, for those who looked forward to a change of government in Australia as one which would bring greater benefits to South Pacific countries, all the initial signs are for the need to be cautious rather than optimistic.
Being in opposition allows grandiose promises; being in government of a relatively minor and not very important country in world affairs means having to bend to major storms which blow across the globe.
An attempted muscular foreign policy from such a minor player is unlikely to convince too many in the region or elsewhere.
Alternately, whether this government can instead sway and bend in its dealings with neighbours is yet to be tested.
Dr Scott MacWilliam is a Visiting Fellow, State Society and Governance in the Melanesia Programme, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, Australian National University in Canberra. He is a contributor to Pacific Scoop.