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  • The Region in Review:International Issues and Events, 2008
  • Nic Maclellan (bio)

Throughout 2008, Pacific regionalism was buffeted by a series of crises. Regional unity was stressed by administrative, budgetary, and leadership problems in intergovernmental agencies; by tensions between Pacific Islands Forum member countries over climate change and trade; and by unresolved debate over the relationship between the Forum and Fiji, after the 2006 coup led by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

At the same time, elections in Australia (November 2007), New Zealand (November 2008), and the United States (November 2008) have transformed the regional landscape, as the incoming governments push new policies on development assistance, climate, and regional engagement.

In less than a year, the incoming Australian government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd improved the atmospherics of Australia's engagement with the Pacific Islands. By the end of the conservative government of former Prime Minister John Howard (1996–2007), relations with key Pacific governments were in tatters. Relations with Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands were soured by the pursuit by Australian officials of Julian Moti (an Australian lawyer who was advisor and subsequently attorney general for Solomon's Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare) over alleged criminal offenses. Australian ministerial contact with Papua New Guinea was banned after Prime Minister Michael Somare authorized the use of a PNG military flight to transport Moti to Solomon Islands to avoid Moti's extradition to Australia. Fiji's interim administration was angry over "smart sanctions" introduced by Australia and New Zealand, and John Howard's refusal to act on global warming dismayed the small island states that are already suffering adverse climate impacts.

In 2008, regular diplomatic visits by new Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and parliamentary secretaries Bob McMullan (for aid) and Duncan Kerr (for Pacific Island affairs) have reinforced key policy decisions by the Rudd government. These changes—some symbolic, some substantial—have changed the mood in the region: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol; the Stolen Generations apology; closing the Pacific Solution detention center in Nauru; promises of increased aid, A$150 million in climate adaptation funds; and a new A$200 million Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility (PRIF).

Following years of lobbying, Pacific governments also welcomed Australian and New Zealand programs to open their labor markets to unskilled workers from the Pacific. New Zealand's Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) program for seasonal workers brings nearly 5, 000 Islanders a year to pick fruit in orchards and vineyards around the country. The August announcement of a pilot study for an Australian seasonal workers program means 2, 500 Pacific workers will come [End Page 324] to Australia over the next three years to work in horticulture and fruit picking (Maclellan 2008).

Relations with Port Moresby have improved, with a major joint ministerial meeting in March and the inclusion of Papua New Guinea in Australia's new seasonal workers scheme. At the August 2008 Forum leaders meeting in Niue, Prime Ministers Rudd and Somare signed the first of a series of "Pacific Partnerships for Development"—bilateral agreements that Australia will negotiate over the next year with all Forum island countries. By January 2009, these bilateral agreements had been finalized with Papua New Guinea, Sāmoa, Kiribati, and Solomon Islands.

The New Zealand elections saw the defeat of the Labour Party government led by Prime Minister Helen Clark, and the election of a coalition government under National Party Prime Minister John Key. The Māori Party, winning five seats, has taken up ministerial posts in the National-led government with Dr Pita Sharples as minister of Māori affairs and associate minister for health and corrections, and Mrs Tariana Turia as minister for the community and voluntary sector, associate minister of health, and associate minister for social development and employment.

Incoming Foreign Minister Murray McCully stated that the New Zealand government would increase its focus on aid and trade with the Pacific, and "saw a much higher level of engagement with the Pacific nations" (Wilson 2008, 16). New Minister for Pacific Islands Affairs Georgina Te Heuheu stated that the government would consider expanding New Zealand's RSE seasonal worker program (Wilson 2008, 15).

While maintaining its longstanding ties to Polynesia, New Zealand has increased economic and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9464
Print ISSN
1043-898X
Pages
pp. 324-335
Launched on MUSE
2009-08-29
Open Access
No
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