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'Australia's focus on the Pacific': address to Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra.

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Speech for

The Hon Duncan Kerr SC MP

Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs

Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)

Defence and Security Luncheon

‘Australia’s Focus on the Pacific’

The Boathouse Restaurant, Canberra, 17 April 2008

(As delivered)



Thank you Lee.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, last month I had the pleasure

of launching ASPI’s two new papers on the Pacific, Australia and the

South Pacific: Rising to the Challenge, and Engaging Our Neighbours:

Towards a New Relationship.

And as I said at that launch, I welcome the contribution ASPI makes to

policy debate and to informing public discussion.

With that in mind I am very pleased to be here today to talk to you about

the new Australian Government’s focus on the Pacific region.

Australia’s strategic interests as a nation of, and in, the Pacific, is to build

and reinforce a framework of constructive engagement with our


That interest is best served by developing flexible, enduring and

mutually-respectful relationships within a healthy community of Pacific


nations, nations with strong institutions that can withstand both

undemocratic internal discord and destabilising external influences.

But to achieve a healthy community of nations we must first achieve

nations of healthy communities and people:

Healthy in body from disease and poverty.

Healthy in mind, nurtured by education.

And healthy in spirit, fuelled by the strength that comes with self-

determination and self-belief.

So we wish to enter into a New Dialogue

We came in to office determined to articulate an alternative approach to

Australia’s strategic relationship within the Pacific.

Since the election, the Rudd Government has undertaken an intense

program of high-level personal contact with our Pacific neighbours.


The Prime Minister’s first overseas trip was to Bali for the climate change

discussions, then on to East Timor, and soon afterwards, to Papua New

Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, other Ministers, my Parliamentary

Secretary colleague Bob McMullan and I have visited Solomon Islands,

Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati and Tonga, with more visits anticipated in

coming months.

My appointment as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs

demonstrates our own region is a continuing priority for the Rudd

Government. The Prime Minister gave further form and content to this

commitment with the Port Moresby Declaration in March and the

announcement of his intention to pursue Pacific Development

Partnerships throughout the region. We have already commenced

negotiations with Papua New Guinea and Samoa.

The Government’s new approach is a product of the work Kevin Rudd

and Bob McMullan undertook in Opposition. I must also acknowledge

the contribution of Bob Sercombe, the former shadow minister for Pacific

Island Affairs who has since left the parliament but who retains a strong

personal interest in the region and its people.


The response from our Pacific neighbours to the new Australian

Government has been overwhelmingly positive. The change in tone has

been noticed and appreciated.

By the time the curtain fell on the Howard government in November

2007 - and despite it having developed some sound initiatives - the

tonality of Australia’s engagement within the Pacific, whatever the

underlying reasons, had become resented.

Our new dialogue is grounded in mutual respect. As the Prime Minister

has illustrated with his recent visits to the United States and China, we

acknowledge that there will be disagreements between nations. Our

intentions are that these will be debated with frankness but as friends, and

always with respect for each other’s sovereignty and dignity.

And I must add here that the Prime Minister’s ‘Apology to Australia’s

Stolen Generations’ has had a real effect upon the people of the Pacific.

During my visits it has been raised, unprompted, time and time again.

The personal humility with which Kevin Rudd delivered the Apology, his

shouldering of responsibility, affected our Pacific neighbours in a way


that we might find difficult to understand. But it has served to elevate his

standing, and that of Australia, in the eyes of many, and is further proof

that doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing to do, can

have benefits far beyond that which one might first expect.

Working in Partnership

Australia’s strategic interests in the Pacific will be maximised by working

as much as possible within multilateral frameworks. We have nothing to

fear, and much to gain, from working cooperatively with nations and

agencies of benevolent intent.

To underpin our fresh relationship and renewed commitment to

multilateral engagement with our region, Australia has offered to host the

2009 round of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The Forum is actively engaged in seeking the restoration of democracy in

Fiji, and Stephen Smith is a member of the Forum’s Foreign Ministers

Contact Group that is monitoring the progress of Commodore

Bainimarama’s pledge to hold elections by March 2009.


Australia is working constructively with its partners across the Pacific

towards the restoration of democracy, not only because it is important for

the people of Fiji to determine their own political leadership, but also

because Fiji is a crucial hub for tourism, trade and commerce, and the

base for regional institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat

and the University of the South Pacific.

A healthy Fiji is important to the health of the region.

In 1977, poverty affected one in eight Fijians. Now it affects one in three.

Coups have been bad for the economy and bad for the people of Fiji.

Fiji’s restoration to full and healthy participation in all aspects of the

regional architecture can not be achieved so long as the country remains

under indefinite military government, or if the next elected government

faces removal at gunpoint.

The first step is elections by March 2009 but our collective attention

should also turn to encouraging Fiji’s leaders to make democracy central

to civic life and to addressing the coup culture that has infiltrated Fijian



A key element of our Pacific engagement must involve cooperation with

New Zealand, our most similarly-minded neighbour and ally. Prime

Minister Helen Clark has committed NZAid to working with AusAID so

we continue to be well coordinated in support of Pacific Island countries’

efforts to achieve Millennium Development Goals.

We must also continue to respect and value the role that France plays in

the region as a guarantor of collective stability. France’s role in the

Pacific is little understood and if it was to depart, the strategic and

economic consequences for Australia would be significant.

The European Union is an important source for development assistance,

and is set to be a very significant long-term donor. As the PM outlined in

Brussels, we are committed to working more closely with the EU.

Japan and the United States, of course, remain key economic, security

and strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific and we welcome the emerging

role of a growing Korea.

China is a rapidly growing global power and it will inevitably have

economic and strategic interests that intersect more, and more often, with


the Pacific. Its interests, like ours, are in a stable and economically

prosperous region.

We are, of course, therefore concerned about China’s rivalry with Taiwan

and the destabilising and unhelpful effects this has on Pacific Island

countries. China and Taiwan each have considerable development

assistance resources to employ and we would like to see these resources

more effectively meet the requirements of the recipient country, while

reinforcing broader international support for improved governance,

transparency and accountability.

We look forward to discussing with China the possibility of working as

partners on pilot projects in the Pacific. The bilateral Strategic Dialogue

that commenced in February is a new and important element.

As Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said at this venue just last week,

Australia is building relationships - whether alliances, partnerships or

dialogue - with many nations, and building those new relationships does

not have to be at the expense of relations with other nations.

A Strategic Re-Assessment


We have always had a role in the region, whether as a 19th century

destination for 60,000 Pacific Islanders who worked Queensland’s fields

of sugar cane, or fighting in the mud of Kokoda, or administering Papua

New Guinea as a Territory until 1975, when it was granted independence.

But while we have always had a role in the region, we haven’t always

considered ourselves part of it. When PNG was legally de-coupled, it

unfortunately also diminished deeper ties of human engagement. Official

contact and flows of aid continued - 15 billion dollars since

independence - but the broader Australian interest in the Pacific waned.

To illustrate this, when I first entered the national parliament in 1987, I

was one of more than ten Members of Parliament who had close personal

experience with Papua New Guinea. Today, I suspect I may be the only


Some of Australia’s leading policy makers had come to believe that

because the nations of the Pacific had neither military nor trade

significance, the region was of little strategic importance for Australia.

A number of things have recently combined to force a strategic re-

assessment, and put the Pacific front and centre of our thinking.


Solomon Islands

By far the most important of those events and circumstances was the

crisis that emerged in the Solomon Islands over the past decade.

In early 2000, when I first visited the Solomon Islands as a member of a

Parliamentary delegation, the then-Prime Minister, Bartholomew

Ulufa’alu, told us that he had requested from Australia a small number of

police to form the backbone of a 50-member regional contingent.

The Prime Minister said that ethnic tensions were at dangerous levels and

he didn’t trust the Solomon Islands police - overwhelmingly from one

community - to be even-handed. He explicitly warned that if the police

discipline failed guns would get into the wrong hands and the country

faced being torn apart.

His call was supported by the then-leader of the opposition and its

wisdom acknowledged by the Chief Justice of the Solomon Islands.


Upon returning to Australia, I wrote to the then-Foreign Minister,

Alexander Downer, to urge that the Howard Government reconsider the

request for a modest police intervention.

Nothing was done and events unfolded as Mr Ulufa’alu had predicted. It

cost lives, ruined the Solomon Islands economy and created a power


It became obvious to Australia’s strategic thinkers - including ASPI

which released a report, Our Failing Neighbours - that allowing the

Solomon Islands to implode was deleterious to our strategic interests and


With Honiara at crisis point, ASPI’s recommendations for action ringing

in its ears and a renewed plea from the Solomon Islands for intervention,

the Howard Government admirably, if belatedly, led efforts to create a

new Pacific structure: the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon

Islands - RAMSI.

A partnership of sixteen Pacific Islands Forum states, it has been a

success story. It has helped restore law and order and is now turning its

focus towards re-building capacity and infrastructure.


The crisis made manifest the reality that failed states in this region are a

direct challenge to Australia’s strategic interests; that we cannot afford to

sit back as they crumble, and that our capacity to make a substantial

positive contribution to the region’s stability is best realised in


There is a second reason for the need to re-focus on the strategic

importance of our region.

Globalised threats: Crime, Terrorism, Disease & Climate Change

Climate change and the relatively recent globalisation of crime, terrorism

and disease - in particular SARS, highly-resistant tuberculosis, and

HIV/AIDS - have also forced us to re-assess our Pacific engagement.

Any Pacific Island nation vulnerable to infiltration by international

organised crime or those motivated to political violence, or which fails to

take preventative health measures, is a direct threat to the well-being of

any country in the region, including our own.


It is therefore in Australia’s interest to ensure that our Pacific neighbours

can rebuff the corrupting allure of organised crime, that they are able to

reject the advances of extremist movements, and to ensure that the people

of the Pacific can access essential health services.

The effects of a health pandemic alone could be catastrophic, crippling

trade flows between Australia and the Pacific worth seven billion dollars

a year.

Projections for the spread of HIV/AIDS are alarming and Australia’s full

attention is turning to addressing it. In PNG - the most populous of the

Pacific Island states - between 40,000 and 60,000 people are infected.

The best case scenario for 2025, is 220,000 infected.

If, however, a ‘business as usual’ approach occurs, the figure will be

500,000, or close to five per cent of PNG’s projected population.

To provide some perspective, 24,000 Australians have been infected by

HIV/AIDS since 1987. It would be one million if PNG’s ‘business as

usual’ projections applied here.


This epidemic will put enormous strain on the already-fractured health

services which will struggle further to treat tuberculosis, malaria and the

host of everyday other serious ailments that confront Pacific hospitals.

Australia is working within regional and global multilateral agencies to

improve health and we have earmarked 178 million dollars to combating

HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea and another 30 million dollars to the

rest of the Pacific.

For the rest of the Pacific, the challenge is to take prevention strategies

seriously; and strong political resolve will be needed if this is to happen.

As for climate change, Australia recognises the strategic threat it presents,

particularly to Pacific Island countries, and we have taken immediate

steps to address it.

Last month, Australia and PNG signed a Forest Carbon Partnership to

reduce emissions from deforestation - an important first step to develop a

model of climate change cooperation between developed and developing



When it comes to the myriad effects of climate change, it is predicted rise

in sea levels will be of most immediate concern in the Pacific. The

Australian-funded South Pacific Sea Level Monitoring Project has

recorded rises at all twelve of its stations since 1994.

Even small rises can result in the loss of fresh water and habitable and

arable land for low-lying Pacific islands.

Another less well-known effect of climate change is the predicted rise in

marine acidity on coral reefs, the backbone of economic activity for many

islander communities.

If land drowns and coral reefs die, the Pacific faces mass movements of

human populations, presenting strategic and humanitarian challenges for


Australia the Internationalist

To deal with these issues, we need an international approach. And

Australia is unashamedly, enthusiastically internationalist.


We will work across our region and around the globe to uphold and

achieve the common human values and aspirations of security, freedom,

fairness and preservation of our planet.

We can only achieve these objectives by harnessing and enhancing the

power of key institutions, particularly the United Nations and, regionally,

the Pacific Islands Forum.

We also look forward to working closely with various non-state actors,

such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and various NGOs

and organisations including the Gates Foundation and the Global Fund.

It is in our strategic interest to take our values as a good citizen to the

world, enhancing Australia’s status and standing across the Asia-Pacific.

The Prime Minister wants Australia to take a seat at the United Nations

Security Council in 2013-2014. This commitment to the United Nations

is core strategic business, because we believe in a global rules-based


Open Trade = More Prosperity


Finally, of course, a healthy Pacific needs to be prosperous.

For Australia, it is crucial that the Asia-Pacific remains open to trade and

investment. We are focussing more attention on discussing with our

partners in the Pacific the importance of opening their economies.

The challenges are real, but so too are the rewards. Open economies and

they open the door to prosperity.

Under the Hawke-Keating Governments, Australia went through - and

continues to adjust to - an economic revolution that tore down tariff walls

and the false comfort of protectionism.

Coming from Tasmania - a very small Pacific state - where tariffs

protected textile and manufacturing jobs, I, like many of my colleagues,

was concerned about the effects of restructuring upon families and

communities, but the results of open markets and free trade are now clear.

Consumers are better off and producers have learned to adapt and



The Pacific also stands to benefit from closer economic integration. We

are on the path to reform with the PACER-plus talks and we are

committed to seeing this process through.

Australia is not blind to the challenges of reform and we offer our

experience in managing the transition for those who face unwelcome


But I am confident that many Pacific nations face a positive future if they

can weather the squalls that restructuring will bring.

And there is plenty to be positive about. The Australian Government’s

Pacific Economic Survey, which I launched recently in Port Vila, shows

the economies of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu should each grow six

per cent over the next year, with the Pacific as a whole growing at 4.5 per


Tourism remains a major economic activity and improvements to

infrastructure and travel options and the removal of red tape should

accelerate its appeal.


In ASPI’s Rising to the Challenge report, Graeme Dobell, the ABC’s

highly-experienced Pacific correspondent made this point: “If Australia is

to have a special role in the Pacific then Pacific people must have a role

in Australia.” Graeme is right, and improved interchange, whether by

tourism, education or other means, can help us develop a more integrated

Pacific Community.

Australia will examine the possibility of a seasonal Pacific labour

mobility scheme and will review the findings of a New Zealand trial. We

want to test the Australian demand for seasonal labour and the

receptiveness to a pilot program ahead of the Pacific Island Forum in

Niue in August.

Finally, I should say our Focus is on Human Advancement

Nurturing Australia’s strategic interest is a prime focus of the new

Government, but we have other priorities, particularly the advancement

of the human condition at home and abroad.

In some Pacific countries nearly 40 per cent of the population is under 14

years of age, compared to just 19 per cent in Australia. Rapid population

increases threaten to outstrip economic capacity and infrastructure


development. Without adequate education, training or employment

opportunities, many boys face becoming young men with bleak futures,

ready recruits for street gangs, crime and lives of listlessness.

The rapid urbanisation of Pacific countries heightens the challenge, but it

also presents some opportunities for urban-centred economies of scale in

terms of delivering infrastructure and education and health services.

Under the Pacific Development Partnerships the Australian Government

is prepared to provide increased development assistance to partner

nations in a spirit of mutual respect, mutual responsibility and mutual


Each PDP will be designed to meet the particular requirements of the

partner nation. Outcomes will be mutually agreed with the focus on

making real progress against the United Nations Millennium

Development Goals for advancements in health, education and basic


So, central to our strategic and human advancement goals in the Pacific is

working with our partner nations to lift education at all levels, from early

childhood, through to primary, secondary, skills training and tertiary.


Ladies and gentlemen, Australia’s strategic interest is inextricably linked

to human advancement across the Pacific and around the globe.

Our own role in the Pacific region is part of Australia’s wider

contribution to the further development of a robust, rules-based

international order that enhances security and economic health for all

people and all nations.

Thank you.