WHAT difference will the election of Labor leader Kevin Rudd as Australia’s next prime minister make for his Pacific neighbours? Will there be significant changes, or just more of the same?
Unlike the sometimes tumultuous democratic change elsewhere, Australian elections are a staid affair. But consistent polls tell us that a limited version of “regime change” is about to take place in Canberra.
The Rudd team has successfully marketed itself, and the investment groups, mining companies and corporate media which dominate Australian policy – despite their prior uncritical support for prime minister John Howard – broadly accept the proposed change.
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch even gave his personal blessing, after Rudd visited him in New York.
No small part of the Rudd team’s success has been the ugliness of the incumbents.
Domestic legitimacy was difficult to maintain in face of the unpopular privatisations, bloody war, racist policy towards immigrants and refugees, and attacks on domestic civil and industrial rights.
The Pacific legacy, similarly, is not pretty.While preaching “good governance” and security in the region, intervention and corruption were hallmarks of the Howard administration.
Regional intervention was linked to commercial and strategic interest, but argued in the name of “stability” and “assistance”. The Ramsi intervention in the Solomon Islands, although initially invited, led to a near collapse in relations between the Australian and Solomons governments.
The 2006 intervention in Timor Leste, following a long conflict over oil and gas revenue, affronted the major political party. Fretilin now in opposition, blames Australia for backing a coup. And the planned Enhanced Cooperation Programme for PNG collapsed after unconstitutional immunities sought for Australian officials were overturned in PNG’s Supreme Court.
Under Alexander Downer’s stewardship of foreign affairs and trade, the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) personnel paid nearly A$300 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein’s regime, to secure pre-invasion wheat contracts. As an official inquiry showed, Downer then argued the case for Australian participation in the illegal invasion of Iraq, on the basis that support for the US-led war would benefit “Australia’s commercial position in Iraq”.
As it happened, exposure of the AWB scandal allowed the US to completely squeeze Australian wheat suppliers out of the Iraqi market.
Neighbouring leaders were treated with contempt. When PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare was forced to remove his shoes in Brisbane airport, Downer claimed this was a “standard operation” that applies to “everybody”.Yet when US vice-president Dick Cheney arrived in Australia, state laws were changed overnight, at Howard and Downer’s request, to allow Cheney’s bodyguards to carry their weapons through the airport and onto the streets of Sydney.
Then as Solomons prime minister Manasseh Sogavare sought to appoint Australian lawyer Julian Moti as his attorney-general, Canberra and the Australian federal police decided they would sideline Moti with charges that he had engaged in child sex in Vanuatu.
In fact, Moti had been cleared of all charges and was not wanted in Vanuatu. His real offence, it seems, was that he had advised an inquiry into the role of Australian police in the April 2006 disturbances in Honiara.
When Moti passed through Port Moresby, the PNG Government did not comply with an Australian extradition request, and instead deported him to the Solomons, Howard and Downer then turned on the PNG Government.
With such a history, most Australians and their Pacific neighbours are keen to see the back of Howard.Indeed, regime change in Canberra at the least brings the prospect of some new faces, and perhaps a change of tone in the conversation.
Rudd and his shadow foreign minister Robert McClelland may well take a step back from the overt racism that characterised the Howard-Downer regime, where neighbouring governments were bluntly told what was good for them.
This change in tone may be reflected in some actual policy changes, for example a resurgence in the teaching of Asian languages in Australian schools, and an increase in AusAID scholarships.
Rudd has spoken of a “Pacific Colombo Plan”, suggesting significant numbers of scholarships. He has also indicated a planned increase in the AusAID budget, from 0.3% to 0.5% of GDP, by 2015-16.
Most of this, as we know, will return as “boomerang aid” to the handful of Australian companies who are AusAID’s “preferred contractors”. Nevertheless, aid money is clearly a central means by which Rudd hopes to rescue Australian influence. He recognises the damage Howard has done, speaking of a “long-term drift in Australia’s strategic standing right across this region” and expressing a desire to control “anti-Australianism” and avoid “costly military interventions”.
What might this mean in practice?It may include increased intervention.
Rudd’s party now speaks of a “staged withdrawal” of troops from Iraq, but a build-up in Afghanistan and the Pacific, possibly including Timor Leste.
The budget of the Australian Federal Police in the Pacific already nearly exceeds its domestic budget, but Rudd has promised them even greater resources.
Education aid will be targeted. Rudd will likely follow Howard in plans to increase scholarships to Timor Leste, now that Australian troops have helped sideline Fretilin.
Due to Howard’s chilly relations with the Alkatiri government, scholarships to Australian universities for Timorese students had fallen from 20% a year to just 8% per year. That may now increase.
McClelland, who is likely to be the new foreign minister under a Rudd government, has spoken of Labor’s desire to train “a new generation of young leaders” from Timor Leste, PNG, the Solomons and Fiji, with greater Australian loyalties.
This brings us back to the continuities between Howard and Rudd. We can expect Rudd as prime minister to continue to back Australian mining companies and to work against potential competitors, in the Timor Sea and in PNG.
He will be hostile to plans to develop gas processing capacity in Timor Leste and PNG, if Australian companies are not involved. Rudd will probably continue Howard and Downer’s opposition to Cuban health and health training programmes in the region, but the opposition will remain private, because Australia cannot compete.
Timor Leste already has one of the fastest-growing health systems in the world, largely thanks to Cuban generosity. Relations with China are in a class apart, due to its economic power. Rudd, who speaks Chinese, has said he will seek greater engagement with China while maintaining a strong alliance with the US.
A further continuity will be Rudd’s backing of the “open market” or export-oriented approach to agriculture.
This is dictated by the global ambitions of Australian agribusiness.
On this basis, Australia refused to help rebuild Timor Leste’s rice production after 1999, even though it sells no rice to that country. Australia does have substantial rice exports to PNG, and typically does not support staple grain programmes.
A Labor government led by Rudd would not be quick to move on the “migrant worker” issue, because of trade union fears.
A possible breakthrough might come for skilled workers in the mining sector.
The simplest solution, of course, would be to extend to young Pacific people the backpacker visas now offered to young “working tourists” from wealthier countries such as Britain, Germany and South Korea.
However, residual racism in the Australian immigration system may make this difficult. As Rudd says, he “will listen” to the region. His background as a diplomat and a linguist give him some advantages, in this regard. However as a technocrat – who quibbles more with Howard’s means than his ends – he can be expected to maintain support for all the important commercial and strategic interests backed by Howard.
The pressure and influence is likely to be less crass and less public, but somewhat more “backroom” and cheque-book driven.
Dr Tim Anderson
Note: The author is a senior lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney