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Friday, February 23, 2007

Pacific experts call for adjustment to Australian attitude towards Pacific neighbours

By Shar Adams, Epoch Times Australia Staff

Pacific experts say Australia's attitude to its Pacific neighbours is presently one of impatience and irritation and unless the Federal Government show more understanding and a genuine effort to engage, relations in the region will continue to deteriorate they say.

Professor Don Denoon, a former lecturer in history at the University of Papua New Guinea (PNG), says the Australian Government was racked with division in its approach to the Pacific Island nations.

"Security studies people," he said were concerned about failed states while "the economic rationalists" concerned about "budget tabs".

The one thing that presently unites them all is an attitude of "irritation" and impatience," he said.

Dr Max Quanchi, lecturer in Pacific Islands history at Queensland's Institute of Technology agrees, saying there have been many Senate enquiries and a lot of advice given to the Federal Government, but no one has "sorted out actually what we should be doing".

Without a proactive approach to the region, Dr Quanchi says, Canberra is continually on the backfoot, reacting to events in the Pacific as they occur.

Dr Quanchi referred to the Solomon Islands whose Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, expelled Australia's High Commissioner last year and has since refused to acknowledge Peter Hooten, the new High Commissioner. The situation has further deteriorated with Mr Sogavare now accusing Canberra of trying to run a parallel government in his country and is threatening to expel the Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI), which was deployed in 2003 to quell ethnic riots.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has responded by publishing a full page letter in the local paper saying RAMSI should continue and has accused Mr Sogavare of trying to seize power and run the country at gunpoint.

Patient approach
Dr Quanchi said while both sides were growing impatient, he believes that with Australia being the dominant power, it had to be more tolerant of the pace of modernisation in the Pacific.

"Academics and scholars who study the Pacific will tell you that the Pacific Islands are working these things out," he said, "but very slowly."

Fiji is presently under military rule after its fourth coup in 20 years and the PNG has long suffered instability from party alliances and votes of no confidence but Dr Quanchi says the small island countries are doing pretty well for young nations.

"They are struggling to come up with a way to govern themselves in the democratic tradition," he said and pointed to PNG which only gained independence in 1975.

The Howard Government has adopted a rigorous approach to aid in the Pacific but has done little to engage island leaders. Prime Minister John Howard stated recently that Australian support would be conditional on "legitimate conditions" within island states.

"Those legitimate conditions are improved governance and economic reform," he told the ABC, "because in the long run, the smaller societies of the Pacific are only going to be successful if standards of governance are lifted and there is economic growth and reform."

Dr Quanchi says Pacific Island nations need support to provide those legitimate conditions and while the Australian Government looked to the Pacific Forum as a means of support in the manner of the European Union, there needed to be more interest and understanding of the complexities inherent in the region.

"The problem with the Pacific is that we are dealing with 14 independent countries," he said. "They are all different in culture and government systems, and their problems and needs are different."

What is really needed is a specific minister and department, like the French, he said: "Who go out and engage with the Pacific, rather than sitting behind desks in far away places."

Dr Quanchi said attitudes within government bureaucracy also needed to change. He says Canberra's focus had been on the Asian region and there was little interest or understanding of Australia's historic connection or responsibilities to the small island nations.

"We have [Pacific] high commissions," he said, "but they are short staffed and often the people who staff those high commissions...are doing their three years in Fiji or Port Moresby and then they are off to Canada."

"I sense we haven't really made a concerted effort to develop a massive Pacific expertise…in the university system and the bureaucracy."

Source: The Epoch Times

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