Canberra’s turmoil: implications for the Pacific

Parliament House, Canberra (Christopher Chan/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Parliament House, Canberra (Christopher Chan/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Written by Bal Kama

Last week’s political events in Canberra sent a cold reminder to those in the Pacific that even established democracies struggle with good governance, political stability and leadership contestations. Pacific countries often usurp their prime ministers or government mid-term using constitutionally entrenched vote of no-confidence schemes. Rarely do they have challenges from within a political party as witnessed in Australia last week. The vote of no-confidence schemes in the Pacific often engage the opposition in what could be described as a participatory and representative usurpation. Hence, the challenges to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that resulted in Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years was both a spectacle and a mutiny for observers in the Pacific.

The way in which politics has unfolded in Canberra over the last five years impacts negatively on Australia’s stance on governance and political stability. Australian officials, civil agencies and academics leading governance programs in the Pacific will need to acknowledge that both the Pacific and Australia have governance and stability issues. Perhaps it calls for a rethink of the ‘arc of instability’ tag often attributed to Australia’s neighbours. Last week’s events also served as a reminder to some leaders in the Pacific who have entrenched themselves in power that they should not get too comfortable. It also demonstrated that democratic usurpation of leadership is possible without violence or civil discord.

Despite the change in government, the key policy issues between Australia and the Pacific are likely to remain at least until the elections next year. This includes policies on foreign aid, climate change, China’s interest in the Pacific, asylum seekers, and the various initiatives currently in place to strengthen people-to-people links between Australia and the Pacific.

Climate change, in particular, was raised by some Pacific leaders this week when congratulating Prime Minister Morrison. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, in his message urged Morrison to take action on what he described as “the greatest threat facing Australia and all of [its] neighbours in the Pacific.” It came after Malcolm Turnbull, in a bid to gain the support of his Liberal Party members on the eve of the challenge to his leadership, dumped plans to legislate on the emissions target. The Morrison government is unlikely to reverse that action.

Climate change will be one of the many issues likely to feature at the Pacific Island Forum next month in Nauru. However, it is surprising that Prime Minister Morrison decided not to attend the Forum meeting, instead asking the new Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, to attend in his place. Nauru may not be the ideal place for Morrison, who in his former capacity as the Immigration Minister led Operation Sovereign Borders and defended the use of Nauru and to Manus Island to house asylum seekers. But the Prime Minister’s attendance will be of important diplomatic and strategic value at a time when Australia is increasingly concerned with other emerging actors in the region. His omission is likely to be interpreted as making the Pacific a lower priority, especially after deciding to demote international development and the Pacific from a ministry to an assistant ministry headed by Senator Anne Ruston who, unfortunately, noted to have “no idea at all” how she was given the post.

While few, if any, policy changes can be expected under the Morrison government, the resignation of Foreign Minister Julia Bishop, who had gained the respect of Pacific leaders over the last five years, may present some challenges. There were notable improvements in Australia-Pacific relations under Bishop’s leadership. Her representations at the highest level, and as the only female foreign affairs minister in the region, was an inspiration to women in the Pacific who are struggling for political leadership and recognition.

An enduring issue for every Australian government is whether the Pacific still matters. It is an issue that goes beyond the traditional arguments of aid and development. There has been, in recent times, a sense of urgency to deepen relations with the Pacific, especially in light of growing Chinese interests. It is likely that Foreign Minister Marise Payne being a former defence minister may continue this urgency albeit from a more strategic perspective. If anything, having China in the Pacific has been useful leverage to get Australia and its allies interested in the region, often argued to have little influence within the corridors of power in contemporary Canberra and in the minds of contemporary Australians.

Maybe Prime Minister Morrison, a devout Pentecostal Christian, will think favourably of the largely Christian population in the Pacific. Come Sunday, many in the Pacific will not only join Morrison in singing the familiar songs from the Hillsong Church where Morrison is an attendee, but will be praying for divine wisdom to guide their brother, the new Australian Prime Minister.

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Bal Kama

Bal Kama is a PhD Candidate at ANU’s College of Law and a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Canberra. He researches the relationship between the judiciary and the parliament under the Papua New Guinea Constitution and the influence of Australian constitutional thinking. He is a solicitor in the ACT, 2016 Commonwealth Pacific Young Person of the Year, and Founder and Director of Kama Scholars Foundation (KSF), an NGO operating in PNG.

5 Comments

  • The Liberal Party in Australia needs to shore up its voter support base come the next general elections. The political signals in the recent gallop done by ABC Australia indicate a changing variation to how well the Liberal Party has performed on a range of issues across the Asia-Pacific region.

    Is the Australian Liberal Party in need of a “political Jesus Christ” at this time, given the pendulum in international relations continues to change? The answer is yes.

  • I think that from the perspective of political economic development analysis, Prime Minister Morrison’s elevation following the Liberal Party’s caucaus vote in which political power-brokers selected Morrison rather than Julie Bishop as the Liberal’s next leader was to shore up grass-root support among its members in most suburban area’s throughout Australia.

    The internal political chessboard has been constantly changing because of the divisions in opinion within the Australian political space over asylum issues, Australia-Pacific seasonal worker schemes, Australian aid to the Pacific, West Papua, regional trading blocks such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), and China’s growing commercial and economic penetration of the Pacific, climate change and the United States’ so-called “pivot” to the region. Most of these issues require considerable re-evaluation to ensure that greater consensus is reached among Pacific island nation states prior to any mutually beneficial decision being reached in the region.

    At the moment, there is a lack of active and consistent engagement by Australia in the South Pacific region because its focus is heavily focused on other regions of the world such as Asia, with special focus on China.

  • While it may be a new Prime Minister for Australia, the Liberal party’s policy would still be the same, even for Pacific or matters on regional developments.

    The leadership change in the Liberal party does not automate into a complete or gradual change in the way Liberal party’s foreign or regional policies stand. Scott Morrison is not a new person, he is the old same person in the top echelons of power in the Liberal party and Australia ruling government.

    Pacific countries can stand on their own now and review their foreign policies and regional development. Apart from Australia and New Zealand, other countries stand ready to answer their calls and currently its happening now over the oceans.

  • While Australia has embarked on this political leadership fiasco like most Pacific Island countries esp. Melanesia, yet it is hard to see that the Pacific itself did not get its act together on a number of issues not to say all. With the Fiji co-Presidency of COP23, the Pacific seem not to fully take advantage of that and push for climate change initiatives forward. Fiji has taken all the credit on their co-Presidency (and they have the right to do so) even when announcing at the very beginning of their mandate that they are representing the whole Pacific community. Somehow we seem to have missed it all on this opportunity and I am not sure when we will have another one like this.
    We have seen how the sub region Melanesia is so divided over the West Papua issue which has other implications on a unified region. All these have great impact on so-called Pacific regionalism, which has been preached for some time now. All in all, while its good to look up to big brother (Australia) it is also important in the Pacific context that we first get our act together on a number of key issues before we look elsewhere. We (Pacific) seem to forget that by working together we are stronger.

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