Saturday, August 14, 2010

Australia's government outlines foreign policy

 August 13, 2010 

Australia's very close general election is now just over a week away and foreign policy generally, and the Pacific in particular, have barely rated a mention. The government and opposition have now held a debate on the issue, with both sides committing to increasing aid budgets, not giving up on Fiji and to ensuring the pre-eminence of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Presenter: Linda Mottram

Speaker: Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith

SMITH: I've indicated that we have an absolute commitment to zero-point-five per cent of Gross National Income by 2015-16. I've said in the course of the election campaign after that we'd like, if financial and fiscal and economic circumstances allowed, to go to point-seven. But we've got to get there step by step. At the same time we're gearing up AusAid, we've changed AusAid structures so that it no longer reports to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but is an executive agency reporting to me. We've got to make sure we've got the effectiveness right, we've got to make sure that the accountability and value for money is there. That's why I've instituted in our last budget a review of our arrangements in terms of use of consultants and the like. But also enables us to do more, both in terms of amounts and particular programs in the Asia Pacific, but also extend to other areas; Africa and the Caribbean, where we want to make our contribution to Millenium Development Goal contributions. But our backyard will continue to be our priority. For example five per cent of our development assistance goes to Africa, and 55 to 60 per cent goes to the Asia Pacific.

MOTTRAM: Julie Bishop, the opposition foreign affairs spokesperson has announced that Tony Abbott if elected would appoint a minister for aid. Will you match that?

SMITH: Well historically Labor governments have had models that are comparable to what we have now, development assistance reporting to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, responsible in Cabinet. In previous guises we've either had a parliamentary secretary who assist the Minister for Foreign Affairs, or a minister. We will have a comparable historical arrangement. And the same will apply for the Pacific Islands. We've had Duncan Kerr until recently as the parliamentary secretary. In the past we've either had a parliamentary secretary or a minister assisting the Minister for Foreign Affairs on Pacific Islands matters. We'll have comparable arrangements.

MOTTRAM: On a couple of particular problem areas in the region, Fiji, what do you propose to do to try to advance your agenda with Fiji for a return to democracy, because clearly at the moment Frank Bainimarama is heading a long way away from Australia?

SMITH: Yeah that's regrettable, I mean we will continue, despite any number of rebuffs, continue to try and get a dialogue going with the Commodore and with the interim administration in Fiji to bring Fiji back to democracy and respect for human rights. There's unanimity amongst the Pacific Island Forum leaders that Fiji's suspension has to continue until they return to democracy. the same with the Commonwealth. But we've got to find a way back to a dialogue and we will simply redouble our efforts. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to respond in kind when Commodore Bainimarama expelled our acting high commissioner, but I didn't want to leave our professional diplomatic relationships with Fiji unrepresented in Canberra. So I turned the other cheek on that matter. It's simply a matter of us keeping at it. We are worried about Fiji moving further into an isolationist position, and in my conversations with the leaders of the Pacific and Vanuatu, we all believe absolutely in the need to just continue our efforts for a dialogue to bring them back to their full standing as a democratic Pacific nation.

MOTTRAM: And Papua New Guinea, there are so many very difficult issues in Papua New Guinea despite the enormous amount of aid and assistance over a long time?

SMITH: Well two important points; firstly the LNG project does provide the opportunity for PNG to transform itself economically. So we've been working very closely with PNG, giving them all of our assistance and expertise in terms of establishing sovereign wealth funds to enable the revenue stream off the project to go into a sovereign wealth fund to be there effectively for a long term enduring benefit. Also we have effected a review of our development assistance treaty arrangements. We know that we have to do better, we know that we've got to focus more on two or three areas and get value for money and value for effort in a smaller number of areas, rather than spreading the butter thin. But I've had a lot of meetings with my PNG counterparts. The last couple of meetings I've had in Melbourne and in PNG itself have been in my view two of the most productive meetings that Australia and PNG have had, because there's a very clear focus on getting the liquefied natural gas arrangements right. Of course it's a matter for PNG and the sovereign government of PNG, but we're rendering every assistance, and then doing better on our development assistance program.

MOTTRAM: Can you put a timetable on the Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands?

SMITH: Well I always think it's the wrong starting point to put a timetable on a mission where you are concerned about peace and security and stability. We believe and again the leaders of the Pacific Island Forum of Vanuatu as part of their communication were very positive about the success story of RAMSI. We've recently seen the Solomon Islands election, that went very well. It'll take some time before the Solomon Islands parliamentary arrangements are settled to enable a new government to emerge, but in terms of the conduct of the election, that went very well. Some isolated incidents, but very well, particularly compared to previous efforts. So obviously we don't want RAMSI to be there forever, but equally we don't want to make the same mistake we made on a previous occasion, which is to leave too soon.

MOTTRAM: And the Pacific Islands Forum, are you concerned that its relevance is declining, particularly under pressure from Frank Bainimarama?

SMITH: Absolutely not, I know that Prime Minister Gillard was not able to go because of our election, Prime Minister Sikua was not able to go because of his election, Prime Minister Somare, as everyone knows, has got his own parliamentary issues to deal with. But it was a very good meeting, and there is a spirit of unanimity and a spirit of partnership. We had very good discussions and I must say from a personal point of view I was very privileged to be able to represent Australia on that occasion.

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