In the first week of next month, the nations of the Pacific Islands Forum will meet in Vanuatu.
Australia will not be represented, as it is understood that neither the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, nor the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, will attend.
While the Prime Minister’s absence may be understandable given that she has only been in the office for about a month and has called a general election for August 21, Mr Smith should most certainly attend the Pacific Islands Forum.
It would be an ideal opportunity for Mr Smith to prove that the government is serious about consulting with nations in the region about establishing a processing centre for asylum seekers from the region and beyond, rather than just announcing an ill-conceived proposal designed to distract attention from Labor’s failed border protection policy.
The government cannot use the excuse of the election if Mr Smith fails to represent Australia at the forum.
Mr Smith may well be concerned about losing his seat from the backlash at his strong support for Labor’s resources tax and its emissions trading scheme, which would have cost thousands of jobs in Western Australia.
Now that Labor and the Greens have done a preference deal, the mining sector in the west will be understandably agitated by the prospect of the return of the resource super profits tax, which Greens Leader Bob Brown has said should be about 50 per cent.
Mr Smith will face additional pressure to reveal the details of what Labor promised the Greens in exchange for preferences. But whatever his domestic woes, Australia’s national interest must take priority.
However, another reason behind the Foreign Minister’s decision could well be a desire to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that Labor’s “East Timor solution” will not happen and that he has given up any attempts to persuade other nations of its merits.
This may have come from the grave concern raised by the United Nations about Labor’s approach. Or perhaps the Foreign Minister has finally accepted that East Timor, which has observer status at the forum, does not want the centre.
We are yet to learn whether Ms Gillard sought Mr Smith's advice prior to announcing that she had contacted East Timorese President Ramos Horta and raised with him her plan for a regional processing centre.
If Mr Smith was consulted but failed to advise that protocol dictated Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao be contacted, rather than the President, that would betray a serious lack of judgment on his part.
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