Economic globalisation has a stranglehold on the Pacific, Duncan Kerr & the Rudd gubbament come over like, the iron fist in the velvet glove approach, but that doesnt change Australia's (& their Allies) strategic and economic "interests" in the Pacific one iota. Colonial settlers who have founded their state on the genocide of Aboriginal Peoples have a cheek to think that they can offer anything of use to the Peoples of the Pacific, except their economic and political assimilation.
Just one month in office as Australia’s new parliamentary secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs—equivalent to a minister of state—Duncan Kerr is clear about the way he will engage with independent islands under his responsibility.
“Australia can’t impose itself on the domestic politics of individual Pacific Islands countries,” says Kerr in an interview he gave the magazine at his spacious office inside the Australian parliamentary complex in Canberra last month.
“We’re not always going to agree on everything but we hope that where we do find differences, we either minimise those differences or speak respectfully about those differences and we concentrate on the 95% of areas where we will be able to find common grounds and make sure those things proceed effectively.
“In that way I think we can develop good sustainable, robust, adaptive relationships that will enable us to have a peaceful and healthy Pacific region.”
Being the key link between his government and the 16 relatively small and remote islands of the Pacific can be a taxing and thankless task.
Thankfully though for Kerr and perhaps even for his International Development Assistance counterpart Bob McCullan, the job has been made much more easier with a clear and unambiguous roadmap on how to engage with the islands which was articulated by their leader and current prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd.
In his July 5, 2007 speech at the Lowy Institute, Rudd as Opposition leader then, spoke of a Pacific partnership for development and security.
For him, partnership will be the guiding word when Labor is in power.
Asked to articulate his strategy on engagement with the Pacific islands, Kerr referred consistently to the need for partnership.
“The idea of partnership agreement that we wish to reach is to ask the Pacific Islands countries with which we in the main have good basic relationships to identify their priorities and then work with them to shape a framework into which Australian development assistance can be included.
“We can provide resources and assistance in areas where governments identify weaknesses.
“We would like to see these partnership agreements being robust enough to survive political change either in Australia, Tonga, Samoa, or wherever.
“So we stand ready to work with the governments of the Pacific to articulate their priorities and to work with them to develop these partnerships.”
Such a relationship seems to be guiding the new Labor Government’s engagement with the government of Dr Derek Sikua of Solomon Islands under the regional RAMSI initiative.
Kerr spoke to ISLANDS BUSINESS on the eve of his departure for Honiara for a review of RAMSI with his Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and McCullan.
No exit strategy yet: But he was firm in the belief that Australia is committed for the long-term and is not eyeing an exit strategy yet.
“We’re not talking about an exit strategy; we are talking about the next phase of RAMSI.
“We don’t imagine that the Solomon Islands government is keen to see anything like an immediate or short timeframe for the termination of the work of RAMSI.
“It’s too important in terms of the stability it guarantees.
“What we’re looking at is an agreed framework for the evolution of RAMSI as it succeeds in its mission, to evolve to the other element which is institutional strengthening, and working with the Solomon Islands government to enable it to pick up its capacity to deal with a wide range of issues.”
Kerr says the dawn of Sikua’s government and his recent visit to Canberra allowed both countries to turn a “clean page” in their relationships.
RAMSI he adds has been able to allow for the “footprint of law and order” to make an indelible mark in the daily lives of Solomon Islanders.
The next phase now for the regional initiative would be to go into capacity strengthening and allow more room for AusAID and other international donors to operate.
“The next stage of RAMSI where of course we will have to stay the course because the whole idea is not simply to go in and provide a quick solution to communal violence, but we will also need to strengthen the capacity of the Solomon Islands government to provide effective governance and to compliment the work of RAMSI with a bilateral programme through AusAID.
“This will enable some of the benefits of stability to start to be seen by the community in areas of education, health, at the community level.
“I think it’s important to distinguish between RAMSI which is essentially a commitment to deal with the crisis and in strengthening governance and the routine bilateral arrangements which we still strongly support.
“So, this is what they say not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning, we hope a period where the first critical phase of RAMSI starts to evolve more clearly towards the ultimate endpoint of normalisation.”
Fiji’s case: On Fiji, Kerr admits the island nation—recovering from its fourth coup in 19 years—is a “difficult situation” for the Rudd Government.
“It’s difficult because no one in our region is happy to see a continuation of rule by a military administration.
“We don’t own the past but equally we don’t want to send any signals that we are tolerant or willing to be thought of accepting the continuation of military rule.
“But if there’s space for constructive ideas that can bring parties together, in ways that will enable the evolution of governance in Fiji to a return to democracy without violence and disruptions, then we would of course be interested in those ideas.
“But that said, for a whole range of reasons we are quite happy to assist with regard to the preparation of a democratic government.
“The Fiji electoral people can come to Australia for any resources or assistance that can be provided.”
Kerr says Canberra is aware of the move by the military-led regime in Fiji to embark on a process of formulating a people’s charter “which was intended to bring together people of goodwill across all the different parts of the Fijian community to look at how a return to democracy can be achieved.”
“But it’s pretty clear the process has not attracted the participation of key sections or all of the cross sections of the Fijian community.
“So it hasn’t been able to fully achieve the full objectives intended.”
On Tonga, Australia’s parliamentary secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs says Prime Minister Fred Sevele had assured Canberra of continued political reforms in the people’s representation in parliament.
The process he says seems “healthy.”
“We hope it will proceed with goodwill on both sides and we hope the turbulence of the past is well behind.
“With those political changes committed to by the government and publicly stated and reinforced in our meetings, we believe there’s a sound basis, a confidence that change can occur in a peaceful way, consistent with continued economic strengths in the Tongan economy and in dealing with the wash-ups of the trouble of the past.”
Kerr confirmed his government is not rushing into implementing a guest worker scheme the Australian Labor Party had proposed whilst in opposition.
He maintains the concept has not been ruled out altogether and that much hinges on how Pacific islanders perform at the guest worker scheme currently on trial in New Zealand.
“Just the other day I met with senior representatives from the World Bank and I think they are doing an evaluation of the New Zealand scheme.
“I think it’s close to the end of its first full year of operation, but the preliminary indications coming in are consistent with Pacific Islands countries being very, very careful about how they select participants, making sure they put a lot of efforts into its success and there have been preliminary good reports from New Zealand about the way its operating.
“But there hasn’t been any comprehensive assessment and our decision will be made in light of an evaluation of that. Ultimately of course. it’s a decision for our cabinet.”