Following the 2007 Australian federal election, the new government moved rapidly to re-invigorate Australia’s engagement with the Pacific islands. Visiting Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia would enlarge its aid programme and host the yearly Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) heads of government meeting in 2009. Later that year, the government broke the longstanding taboo against labour mobility for Pacific islanders by introducing the Pacific Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme (PSWPS).
It normalised relations with PNG and Solomon Islands, which had become highly fractious in the final years of the Howard government. Yet despite these promising beginnings, the PIF meeting was tainted by acrimony over the Australian government’s heavyhandedness in preparing an agreement on climate change and the PSWPS failed to meet expectations. Even the long-standing goal of concluding a regional agreement appears to have foundered.
The swing from early enthusiasm and optimism to disappointing outcomes and low expectations is less an indictment of the Labor government than the most recent iteration of a pattern that has repeated itself again and again since the 1980s. Each time, Australia has re-engaged with its Pacific islands neighbours in the wake of some crisis (or perception of crisis).
Extraconstitutional changes of government, analyses showing imminent economic or political collapse and even terrorist threats emanating from the Pacific have spurred ministers to turn their attention to the region. Seemingly inevitable, each subsequent engagement has been derailed by events in the Pacific or competing Australian policy objectives.
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