I have been observing, and at times advising on, the politics of the South Pacific for more than four decades. In that time I have especially followed Australia's diplomatic and strategic approach to its immediate region.
It gives me no satisfaction to say that our influence – at just about every level – has never been weaker than it is today. And certainly no satisfaction to add that China's has never been stronger than it is today.
In this contribution I want to outline the reasons why we are in this alarming position, something the mainstream media in Australia has generally not really examined. And I will outline why the Glasgow climate conference is simply confirming both.
I have been very disappointed with key aspects of our strategic approach to our region – led by Papua New Guinea but including other close neighbours such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Readers will be aware that I believe the so called "Pacific Step-Up" agenda has underperformed, and its flag ship Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility has become an embarrassment.
But events leading up to and now including the Glasgow climate summit almost defy comprehension as they relate to our diminished influence, and China's absolutely unchallenged growth in its influence in every one of our neighbours, with the recent exception of Samoa.
It may surprise, if not anger, readers to know that Australia has financially helped the leaders and delegations from a number of our neighbours to attend the Glasgow summit! Yes, it appears we have helped with air fares, accommodation and daily allowances for at the very least the Fiji and Solomon Islands delegations.
There has been an appalling lack of transparency on the part of DFAT on this "assistance", funded by the Australian taxpayers. At the very least the taxpayers of Australia ought to be told just how many delegations have been given Australian cash assistance to attend, and how much in total has been given.
Over the last forty or fifty years or more Australia has generously funded "study tours" to Australia by serving and emerging leaders as well as state visits and official visits by Prime Ministers, Ministers, and Opposition Leaders and senior MPs. This has been a very useful exercise, as I observed personally when I was the advisor to then opposition leader, the late Sir Iambakey Okuk, and then Prime Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu.
This program ought not just continue, it needs to be upgraded and reinvigorated as part of a strategy to rebuild at least some of our influence.
But actually funding Island leaders to attend Glasgow is quite something else. And if it was intended to strengthen our influence, especially on climate change, then it has been a miserable failure.
Take Fiji for a start. The Fiji Times has reported that Australia has helped fund the delegation led by the Fiji prime minister, Frank Bainimarama. The Fiji prime minister has been the strongest critic of Australia when it comes to our policies on climate change and emissions.
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