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It's time for a Pacific "step in" to Australia's council of governments

The Australian Government’s Pacific “Step-Up” is a welcome set of measures that have returned the Pacific islands region to the heart of Australia’s foreign and strategic policies, where it should be. It’s a pity that it took a heightened geopolitical panic about China in the neighbourhood to make it happen. The current threats to the region from the Covid-19 pandemic underline how manifestly inadequate, though, is the narrow, securitised lens through which the Australian Government views the Pacific. If we really are family, we need to build a new, resilient set of partnerships that build capabilities for shared priorities across all areas of governance, from health to climate change. We already do this with New Zealand, which participates in the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meetings across all policy portfolios. COAG discussions allow coordination, common standards and learnings, and all jurisdictions participate as equals. It’s time to invite the region’s premier organisation, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), to join COAG meetings.

Australian officials across the Pacific are currently engaged in the critical work of providing health expertise and medical equipment to help prepare for the serious challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is as it should be. Whenever there is a natural disaster or other crisis in the neighbourhood, Australia is there to help. As the big, rich country in the neighbourhood, we could do no less. But, when the current crisis has passed, we could do more.

The Pacific Step-Up includes a range of new measures to strengthen security and other cooperation between Australia and the Pacific islands, dating back to an initial announcement made at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2016. New initiatives since then have included a very welcome increase in regional visits in both directions by leaders and new Australian diplomatic missions are finally to be opened in Palau, Cook Islands, Niue, French Polynesia and the Marshall Islands. After criticising China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Australian Government has created its own lending vehicle, the A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (although it has no projects yet, according to its website). A much more generous Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme was established.

Its best intentions notwithstanding, the Step-Up is flawed because of the flaws in the Australian Government’s relationships with the Pacific. Australia sees the region primarily through a security lens, which is not the way that our neighbours see things. The Canberra security establishment, which understandably focuses on worst case risks, sees a region of potentially failed states, with poor governance, ethnic tensions, natural disasters and potential “influence” by outside powers in our “patch”. Pacific leaders, who are proud of their independence and their long-surviving cultures, see a region facing existential threats from climate change, are seeking mutually beneficial trade, investment and aid from outside powers, just as from Australia, and don’t very much like Australia calling their sovereign nations our “patch”.

The Step-Up was a step in the right direction, but we need to go further if we aim to build more shared perspectives, and understanding of each other’s priorities. Even more important than discussion, though, is building the capacities of all jurisdictions across the region to coordinate and collaborate, in those areas in which they want to coordinate and collaborate. Preparation for, and mitigation, of crises is one of those areas. In the post-Covid-19 recovery we should also be looking at how we can coordinate and collaborate better in all areas of government competency. While there is much valuable support provided to local governance through in-country aid programs in the Pacific, we should think beyond the aid paradigm and invite Pacific leaders to join, contribute and benefit from the existing structures for inter-governmental coordination that already bring together the governments of Australia, the states, territories and New Zealand.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) was formed in 1992 as part of the Hawke Government’s new federalism agenda. Its ministerial councils and officials and expert committees have become a fundamentally important platform for inter-governmental consultation and coordination of economic, social and environmental policy, from the competition reforms of the early 1990s, to the high-profile role of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee in the current Covid-19 crisis.

As a former Chief of Staff in both Tasmania and New South Wales, I have experienced how valuable the COAG process is in supporting Australia’s smallest and largest states with information sharing, coordination and common standards, all of which enable a comparable quality of governance across jurisdictions. New Zealand has participated in COAG meetings since the beginning, functioning like a “seventh state”, but with no condescension intended or experienced, as far as I am aware. Joint regulatory bodies have even grown from the process, such as Food Standards Australia New Zealand. While it would be too resource intensive and impractical to invite all of the Pacific island countries in their own right, there is no reason why the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) could not attend COAG meetings as a nominal “eighth state”. As with New Zealand, there would be no condescension intended, just a family welcome to a meeting of equals.

PIF is the peak political grouping for the Oceania region, with the chair of the Forum rotating between its heads of government on an annual basis. It has a secretariat based in Fiji with a team of policy advisers who are well placed to coordinate between governments across the region. Originally founded as the South Pacific Forum, PIF has expanded over the years, as more island countries became independent. It has recently accepted membership of two French territories, French Polynesia and New Caledonia, bringing total membership to eighteen. PIF was an effective international advocate in its early days when Australia’s interests and priorities more closely aligned with the island countries, such as its early opposition to French nuclear testing and support for decolonisation. In more recent times, with Australia’s recalcitrance on climate change, interests and priorities have diverged. Nevertheless, regional leaders including Australia reaffirmed in the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, in Nauru in 2018, that climate change is the single greatest threat facing the region. As indeed it still will be, when we emerge from the current health crisis.

Recently, island members of the PIF have begun to forge an ever-stronger oceanic identity as a “Blue Pacific Continent”. This is a vision of the region affirming its island members are in fact giant ocean states, in recognition of their massive exclusive economic zones recognised by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, that stretch across a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Australia has not yet meaningfully engaged with the evolving regional identity. Inviting the neighbours to participate in COAG would be more than a gesture that Australia considers itself seriously engaged with the Blue Pacific, its aspirations and its success.

Nowhere is there a greater need for policy coordination than in environmental management and climate change, in particular. The Pacific Ocean is bearing the brunt of warming and rising oceans, coral bleaching, more frequent natural disasters and king tides that threaten low lying atolls and coastlines. This should be a shared priority for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, to combat climate change as well as developing mitigation and adaptation strategies. The inclusion of the Pacific in the regular Meetings of Environment Ministers would certainly change the conversation, which recently appears to have given little attention to the major risk facing the region.

Across other policy areas, the Pacific island countries, Australia and New Zealand would all benefit from working closer together, in trade policy, police and emergency management, agriculture, fisheries, health and other portfolio areas. Most countries of the region have signed up to the PACERPlus agreement for closer economic relations including more consistent rules to encourage business development. Tourism, traditionally an area in which every country is in competition, will be a different story post-Covid-19. We should work together to reinvigorate regional air and sea links, and to ensure the tourism industry in every Pacific island country bounces back as soon as possible, creating jobs and sustaining some of the region’s most vulnerable economies. Australia should join the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (China is already a member) and invite it to meetings of the Australian Standing Committee on Tourism.

The post-Covid-19 world is going to look very different, and our shared region of Oceania is no exception. One of the ways we can shape a better future is to engage more meaningfully with our neighbourhood. The region will always be of critical security importance to Australia and it is likely developing nations in the neighbourhood will always need a helping hand in times of need, but it is in our shared interests for these relationships to be about much more than just security or aid. We should commit now to partnerships to make the region more self-reliant, with resilient infrastructure, sustainable economies, strong health and other services, and a strategy for climate change. There is much work to be done to achieve such goals, but that means starting as we mean to continue, by giving the Pacific a seat at the table and a voice. With Pacific participation in COAG, Australia’s engagement with the Pacific can truly step-up from paternalistic donor-recipient relationships to whole-of-government, enduring partnerships.

Published in The Mandarin, April 6, 2020

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