One of the highest priorities of the next Australian Government must be a comprehensive and considered strategy to rebuild our relations with the people of our region and especially the people of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
There can be no doubt that over the last 50 years - and more particularly the last decade - our "people to people" association with our region has diminished. That frankly reflects poor foreign policy, and more particularly regional policy, by successive national governments.
China's march through the region, most recently evidenced through the secret comprehensive pact with the government of the Solomon Islands, has been partly enabled by our weak and inadequate responses to it, and the unquestionable failure on the part of our most senior diplomats - led by High Commissioners and Ambassadors - to fully engage with the people of our neighbouring countries, and not just with the political and bureaucratic elite in them.
What the next Australian Government, led by the Foreign Minister, must do is jettison existing policies and strategies including our "development assistance" programs. They have simply failed or fallen well-short of what is required in a changing and challenging environment.
The presumption that "by picking up the phone" we can retore our influence in our region is just wrong. The damage that has been done, by our own failings and by China's aggressive approach is not going to be solved overnight - and it most certainly will not be solved by tipping more aid cash, or projects, into the region.,
What is needed is a genuine focus on restoring our people-to-people links especially in areas where China cannot compete.
In this contribution I want to offer just a few suggestions how that might be done. While my principal focus is inevitably on our relations with our largest and closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, these suggestions are also relevant to countries such as Fiji and Vanuatu.
Rebuilding education links
As i have written before, the Hawke and Namaliu Governments around 1990 established a unique scholarship scheme to enable around 1,000 young Papua New Guineans to attend high school in Australia, principally in Queensland. Some students attended private schools while some attended state high schools and were taken in by school families as borders.
In my view, the scheme was an outstanding success. It was sabotaged by officials in DFAT, supported by the Foreign Minister in the Howard Government, Alexander Downer. I suspect the cause in reality was the amount of work that had to be done securing passports, visas and making travel arrangements
That scheme needs to be re-visited and re-introduced. Tying it to upgrading high schools, and teacher standards, in PNG and other regional countries, would be useless.
What this scheme did, just as the Colombo Plan did across Southeast Asia, will be to grow genuine people-to-people links that will last long beyond the period of the student’s education in Australia.
I would suggest the schools included in the program include Northern Territory schools and schools in regional New South Wales.
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