The return of Scott Morrison, and Australian excesses in the Pacific

By Alexander Rheeney, 20 May 2019

The shocking victory of Australia’s conservative government in the 2019 Australian Federal Election will reverberate across the great blue expanse of the Pacific.

Australian diplomats stationed in the various Pacific Island nations will heave a sigh of relief when they clock into work Monday, knowing it will be business-as-usual in terms of their foreign policy and often tested relations with small Island states, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison back at the helm of the Liberal Party-led coalition Government.

The niceties of modern-day diplomacy will compel Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi and his Fijian counterpart Frank Bainimarama to send words of congratulations to Canberra, mindful and thankful for the A$336.4 million that Australia will give through its Pacific Regional Program in 2019-2020. 

But the missed opportunity to work with the now defeated Australian Labour Party leader Bill Shorten — to create a new pathway to address Climate Change in the region with the full backing of a Labour Government in Canberra — would not be lost on these two seasoned Pacific Island Politicians-turned-climate warriors.

Tuilaepa, while not giving too much away, subtly indicated after meeting with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in Fiji last week which way he wanted the Australian political pendulum to go.

“I think we should not worry too much about it. The question will be answered by the (Australian) voters. Let us keep our fingers crossed,” he said according to the ABC.

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The return of Australia’s Conservative Government — whose own data revealed that Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution levels are projected to increase in the next decade — returns the Pacific back to square one, in terms of getting the largest developed economy in the region to curb its greenhouse gas emission levels, and embrace sustainable energy as the way of the future. For communities in the Pacific Islands, there is no Plan B, which is why the threat of Climate Change is taken seriously by our leaders.

While we acknowledge the long-term impact that the incoming Australian Government’s Climate Change Policy (or the lack of it) will have on the Pacific, we also look with concern at the Morrison Government’s next move on the regional processing centers in Manus and Nauru, where up to 1000 asylum seekers and refugees remain.

The two Australian-funded offshore immigration detention centers remain open despite their condemnation by the United Nations and various human rights organisations. Even Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled the Manus regional processing center unconstitutional, saying the detention of the asylum seekers and refugees is illegal. But Canberra and the PNG National Government in Port Moresby ignored the court ruling and kept the centre open, in a blatant disregard of Papua New Guinean local laws including the Constitution.

Tragically Australia’s Offshore Detention Policy — while being marketed to the PNG and Nauru constituencies over the last six years as being manna from heaven with long-term benefits for the local population — has only increased the socio-economic challenges facing indigenous communities on these tropical islands, and led to more despair and disillusionment amongst the refugees and asylum seekers.

It is time for Canberra to clean up its mess in the Pacific Islands and shut its offshore immigration detention centers in Manus and Nauru. The return of the Morrison Government provides it with the perfect opportunity to turn a new leaf, by respecting human rights and begin working with the United Nations and multilateral partners to kickstart the process to resettle asylum seekers and refugees.

Last but not the least, perhaps Prime Minister Morrison can create a ministerial portfolio within his Cabinet, that specifically deals with Pacific Island issues and peoples. And give it to a senior ministerial colleague in his Cabinet who appreciates and respects the Pacific and its people for who and what they are. 

It probably might be a good idea for Australia’s next Pacific Minister appointee to fly to New Zealand to understudy Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for a couple of months, in order to get acquainted with the ways of the Island before setting foot in Suva, Apia or Honiara and other island capitals far and in between. 

Have a wonderful Monday Samoa and God bless.

By Alexander Rheeney, 20 May 2019

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