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  • The Region in Review:International Issues and Events, 2003
  • Karin von Strokirch

This year's review focuses on Australian policy toward the Pacific Islands, as there were important developments concerning Canberra's role in regional security and in the Pacific Islands Forum. Because Australia is the region's primary aid donor and leads in setting the political agenda, shifts in its national policy warrant careful consideration. In 2003 Australian Prime Minister John Howard took unprecedented interest in the region. He became much more assertive in pursuing Australia's agenda for the microstates, notably with regard to intervening in Solomon Islands, advocating good governance, and taking measures against terrorism. This review explores the shifts in rhetoric, policy, and processes, and weighs their impact for Australia's relations with the region. To establish the context for policy shifts, it is useful to begin by examining a recent, wide-ranging, and timely report on relations with the region by an Australian Senate committee.

In August 2003, the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade References Committee produced a comprehensive 312-page report on Australia's relations with the region. The committee reviewed the performance of past policies, made recommendations for improvements in current practices, and proposed innovations. In the political domain, the committee repeatedly alluded to the need for Australia to relate to the region on the basis of an "equal partnership" and thereby dispel concerns about a "big brother syndrome" ( FADTR2003, 156, 158). The current government was criticized for its inattention to the region and its disregard for cultivating relations with Pacific leaders. In this respect Howard's absences from the Forum early in his tenure were noted. Overall the report reflected a perceived need for greater engagement with the region on the part of Australian ministers and parliamentarians.

Australia's policy of processing asylum seekers in the microstates, otherwise known as the Pacific Solution, also came under fire (see von Strokirch 2002 ). It was argued that this policy "feeds the perception within the region that Australia's domestic political considerations are more important than broader regional issues" ( FADTR2003, xxvii). Questions were also raised about the strategy's lack of transparency, its effect on political stability, and its long-term social impact ( FADTR2003, xxvii). The committee recommended that the policy be terminated. Another example of Australia's apparently uncaring attitude toward its neighbors was its refusal to countenance Tuvalu's request to consider accepting environmental refugees as a result of rising sea levels associated with climate change. The committee suggested that Australia give assurances to Tuvalu that assistance would be forthcoming ( FADTR 2003, 170). [End Page 370]

In the economic domain, the Senate committee made several practical recommendations including reduction of non-tariff barriers to regional trade; a long-term plan for regional cooperation to promote tourism; and a pilot program allowing Pacific Islanders to undertake seasonal work in Australia. With regard to good governance and development policy, the committee emphasized that Australia must be better informed about country-specific culture and politics in order to tailor policies accordingly. Indeed, the report set an example by devoting a substantial section to country case studies. The need for local consultation and participation in aid planning and delivery was stressed. The tendency for Australian aid to be crisis driven was also criticized for distorting and skewing priorities. Aid should not be diverted from long-term development strategies to address periodic crises; instead, an emergency fund should be set up for this purpose. The committee noted Australia's preoccupation with reform of central governments in the Pacific. It observed that this was occurring at the expense of equally important rural development programs ( FADTR2003,xv-xxi).

The Senate committee believed that many of the weaknesses in the relationship stemmed from widespread ignorance and lack of interest in the Pacific Islands on the part of Australians (including politicians and media) and an overall neglect of bilateral, people-to-people links. The committee recommended the establishment of an Australia-Pacific Council to enhance awareness, interaction, and understanding between Australia and the region. The functions of such a council could include promotion of visits and exchanges; institutional links in the areas of politics, culture, commerce, and media; and Pacific studies in...


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