During the current election campaign, Australian foreign policy has been almost completely off the agenda as a result of apparent bipartisanship between the Labor Government and the Opposition on a range of issues, including the American alliance, China, the war in Afghanistan and, more broadly, the Middle East.
Yet Australia’s relations with its near neighbours in the Pacific are now at their lowest level in decades, and Australia’s relations with East Timor have been seriously damaged by the Gillard Government’s arrogant attempt to impose an off-shore detention facility on the country, without any consultation with its Government or Parliament.
These island-states fall within Australia’s sphere of interest, and should be at the top of our diplomatic agenda. Instead, Canberra seems too obsessed with participation in UN talk-fests on issues such as climate change to notice disturbing recent developments in our near neighbourhood.
The clearest sign of the deterioration of Australia’s standing was seen at the recent Pacific Islands Forum meeting, which was boycotted by leaders of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, over the suspension of Fiji from the forum and the economic sanctions imposed on the island.
The President of Kiribati, who did attend, said he was not alone in thinking that more progress would be made with Fiji if New Zealand and Australia were not part of it.
Even among the people in Fiji, in whose interests Australia purports to be acting by suspending Fiji from the forum, there is widely-held resentment that the wealthy countries in the region are throwing their weight around, and treating the small island of Fiji in a way they would never dream of treating large countries such as Thailand or China where political freedoms are limited.
The Australian Government’s actions have actually cemented the position of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the military chief who deposed the elected Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, in December 2006, suspended the constitution and has deferred elections until at least 2014.
Bainimarama revels in the status of a David, who is not afraid to stand up to the regional Goliath.
Commodore Bainimarama held a rival summit, called Engaging Fiji, after the Pacific Islands Forum. This was attended by leaders of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, and representatives of all other member-states of the Pacific Islands Forum, except Australia and New Zealand.
Australia’s Foreign Minister, Steven Smith, reportedly attempted to dissuade countries from attending the summit, as he had attempted to prevent the holding of a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in Fiji.
At the summit, Bainimarama announced that Fiji had decided to join the Non-Aligned Movement, and that it was forming an association with the Arab League. Both actions indicate that Fiji has shifted out of the Western bloc.
In the meantime, China is deepening its involvement with the Pacific island-states, as it is with East Timor. Commodore Bainimarama recently visited China, as a guest of the Chinese Government, to attend the Shanghai World Expo. While there, the Fijian PM reported that there was a high level of interest from Chinese investors in setting up businesses in Fiji, including investment in hotels and the tourism industry, and spoke of building tourism from China.
Currently, around 40,000 tourists from Australia visit Fiji every month, and are the mainstay of the local economy.
Commodore Bainimarama also visited a bus factory which is to supply buses to Fiji, and thanked China for the gift of heavy machinery, including tractors and bulldozers, to assist with infrastructure works.
These ominous developments require a reassessment of Australian policy towards Fiji and, more broadly, towards the states in the region.
While Australia has a long and proud tradition of democracy, we must not impose that on other states in the region, including Fiji, which do not have such a tradition.
In fact, for the past 20 years, Fiji has oscillated between unstable elected governments and military rule, and attempts by Australia to shape the course of events there have utterly failed.
To prevent a further deterioration in Australia’s relations with the region, there is an urgent need to step back to let the Pacific nations themselves deal with these issues and, if necessary, to push the reset button.
It is interesting that when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Michael Somare, recently suspended his parliament for six months, Australia remained diplomatically silent. The same approach should be taken with Fiji.
Unless there is a change of direction, Australia risks being frozen out of the only part of the world where our continued diplomatic and economic presence is vital, not only to these countries, but potentially for Australia itself.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.