Mar 24, 2017 Last Updated 12:15 AM, Mar 15, 2017

Cuts to undermine Australia’s reach

IN September 2016, New Caledonia and French Polynesia joined the Pacific Islands Forum, further linking the francophone Pacific territories with their anglophone neighbours. In February 2017, Radio Australia (RA) will end its French language service for the Pacific. Great timing! At the same time, ABC International – the overseas service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) – will end its shortwave radio broadcasting to the Pacific.

The closure of shortwave will also affect remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. These decisions, taken at a time of tightening budgets for Australia’s national broadcaster, are yet another sign of the lack of commitment to Pacific neighbours by the largest member of the Forum.

In his remarks to the 2016 Forum leaders meeting in Pohnpei, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged: “My Government recognises that Australia’s interests in the region and the complexity of the challenges we face demands more engagement at every level, more integrated policy and fresh ideas. We are committed to a step-change in our engagement, to be guided by a new Pacific strategy.” 

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Jittery race

Turnbull holds on

THE count hadn’t been completed yet in Australia’s triennial federal election and questions were already being raised about party leadership. How long would Malcolm Turnbull be able to hold on as head of the Liberal Party? Would Bill Shorten step aside as leader of Labor? Turnbull’s position was looking shaky because he had called the double dissolution election and exhorted Australians to vote for the kind of stable government that he said only his coalition could provide.

He was also anticipating a massive win. He won but it wasn’t the decisive victory he’d been hoping for. His partnership with the Nationals staggered over the line in a protracted count, taking 76 seats in the 150-seat lower House of Representatives. Not only had Turnbull not received the mandate he was looking for, he was facing a Senate that was even more hostile than before.

There were misgivings too about his ability as leader because his party had come out of the election with less seats than it had when it went in. Labor, on the other hand, has a policy of declaring its party leadership vacant in the event of a federal election defeat. The result meant its leadership itself was up for a vote.

The party rallied around Shorten. Anthony Albanese, the man who was expected to mount a challenge, didn’t. What he also did not do was rule out a contest further down the road. What this points to is a future of instability at the federal level in two of Australia’s main political parties. More importantly for the country, it means Turnbull will be a distracted Prime Minister. 

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AUSTRALIAN voters go to the polls on 2 July, after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a double dissolution of both Houses of Parliament on 8 May. Halfway through the lengthy 55-day electoral campaign, Australia’s relations with its Pacific neighbours have not been a feature of the election.

Despite this, the final result will have important implications for the region, as Australia remains the key aid, trade and military power in the islands, despite anger over Canberra’s climate policy. Current polling suggests a close result, after Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader Bill Shorten has improved his party’s standing following a disastrous election defeat in 2013.

Shorten, a former trade union leader, has advanced popular policies on taxation, health and education, but must overcome criticism of the record of ALP governments between 2007-13. Leading a Coalition government of Liberal and National parties, Turnbull took office in a leadership spill last September, defeating his more conservative rival Tony Abbott.

The Abbott government’s climate policies were widely condemned around the region, and Turnbull is hoping his foreign affairs team can improve Australia’s international standing (look out for yet another post-election Cabinet reshuffle affecting Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells).

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THE rise and rise of Australia’s new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has revived relations with the Pacific Islands. While there is continuity with many of the core policies promoted by former conservative leader Tony Abbott, the Turnbull government is seeking to change the tone of Australia’s international engagement.

The appointment of Queenslander Steven Ciobo as Minister for International Development and the Pacific is an important re-affirmation of Australia’s commitment to the islands. Despite this, many of the institutions that support Australian engagement with the region - from volunteer programmes to Radio Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology - have suffered structural damage over recent years.

Declining budget revenues, with falling prices for iron ore and other mineral exports, will constrain Australia’s engagement with the islands region. There are a number of looming headaches for the Turnbull government, at a time when the regional architecture of the Pacific is rapidly changing.

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Currency fluctuations have heavily deterred Australians from taking overseas holidays over Christmas in the past but this time around travel tour companies do not anticipate a slowdown in visitors to the Pacific islands despite the dollar dropping significantly this year. Tour operators and hoteliers in the region need not fear a slump in tourists in the 2014- 2015 season because savvy travellers from Australia are opting to take out new prepaid travel cards which allow users to lock in foreign currencies at that day’s exchange rate, a better deal than using regular credit cards.

Foreign tourists entering the islands region from Australia by far exceed travellers from other destinations with exponential growth in numbers over the last decade. Fiji, alone absorbed 332,000 Australians in 2012 – a phenomenal rise from just 128,000 in 2002. The Australian dollar was riding at US$1.01 in 2011 – which gave travellers a healthy exchange when they took holidays abroad but now it has slumped to US87 cents with some analysts tipping a further decline to as little as US77 cents in 2015. “Australians have gained an appetite for overseas travel on the back of our currency kudos,” said corporate affairs manager Haydn Long at Flight Centre – the leading travel agency in Australia.

“The dollar’s powerful ride has allowed us to stay and live larger” while travelling overseas to exotic destinations like the South Pacific. Long said Flight Centre recommends travellers this year to book and pay for hotels, transport and excursions ahead in Australia to avoid nasty exchange rate surprises on your trip. “Pay as much as you can of your travel before you go. This way you lock in a rate and you know how much you have left to budget for spending money,” said Long.

Four-star stays Australian agents have also noticed travellers are exploring budget stays in the region so they can have greater spending dollars. Travel agencies have over recent months begun offering discounts on airfares and packages to entice travellers. “If the dollar is weaker, they may shorten their stay or opt for four-star accommodation rather than five,” he said. Travel Money Oz general manager Dion Jensen recommends using currency exchange outlets which include commission and fees in their advertised rates. “Avoid airports and tourist areas as the currency exchange businesses in these areas have a captive audience and will offer the worst rate and higher fees and commissions,” cautioned Jenson.

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