An article by Cynthia Banham in the Sydney Morning Herald has touched on the relations between Australia and the region.Stating that it is time to reappraise Australia's role in the South Pacific, the article provides one reason for this is the 'rather mixed legacy' John Howard left behind.
Despite Australia's good record in the last decade, the Howard years were 'seriously lacking' in diplomatic style leaving Australia with an image problem in 'the neighborhood'.
'Howard and his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, treated their Pacific Island counterparts with contempt, choosing to air complaints about them in press conferences and open letters to the public, rather doing as they would with, say, the president of the United States or the prime minister of Japan - and pick up the phone'.
Criticizing comments made by Mr. Howard and Mr. Downer's 'regular public disparaging' of Pacific Island leaders despite not being immune from similar criticisms themselves, the article goes on to say 'If Australia's prime minister and foreign minister treat political leaders of the South Pacific poorly, such behaviour can only seriously undermine the efforts of our diplomats on the ground, as well as Australia's influence in the region'.
According to the article, Australia's new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has shown signs that he is willing to 'take a fresh approach', already meeting Papua New Guinean Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, who was banned by the Howard government for his alleged involvement in the Julian Moti affair.
Furthermore, the article points out that 'a thaw in relations with our Pacific neighbours could not come any sooner' in relation to the fact that 'the more fractured those bilateral relationships have become over the past few years, the more Pacific Island states have looked to the north for support - to China and Taiwan in particular. China, which unlike Australia does not place conditions on its aid, is now pouring hundreds of millions annually into the Pacific Island economies. As a result Australia faces a real risk of the Pacific Islands becoming staging posts for aggressive larger nations - something the Rudd Government is acutely aware of, and intends to make a focus'.
Prime Minster Rudd had announced two new initiatives in the Pacific during the election campaign, the Pacific Partnership for Development and Security and an Asia Pacific Centre for Civil-Military Co-operation.
However, the article goes on to question whether the politicians are solely to blame for the country's image problem in the region. It points out that despite having 'the island states at our doorstep, there is little teaching about Pacific cultures'. 'There is therefore nothing to move Australia beyond the "us and them" mentality which underpins our Pacific policy and the patronising behaviour of some of our politicians'.
While the article points out that a possible solution is labour mobility, which would bolster local economies and develop mutual understanding, this is, in the end, in the hands of the new government.