Lowy Institute

Two months ago, as Prime Minister Abbott's globalist reflexes were becoming increasingly apparent, I offered a perspective from Washington that the US should welcome a more prominent role for Australia on the world stage.

I argued that America's steadfast ally had unique normative, diplomatic and geopolitical strengths that could advance our common interests, particularly if Australia escaped from the confines of outdated models of 'deputy sheriff' and the 'hub-and-spoke' alliance system.

This was already occurring with Australian leadership over the MH370 search, at the UN in the wake of the MH17 tragedy, and in helping to deepen military-to-military cooperation between the US and China with next month's trilateral 'Exercise Kowari' in northern Australia. I said at the time, with few reservations, that, 'greater Australian involvement in world politics — again, even in pursuit of its own aims — will ultimately advance American interests.'

Having just returned from a week in Australia that overlapped with the Abbott Government's one-year anniversary, I have to admit it was less clear than ever exactly what those aims are.

Traveling to Canberra, Sydney, and places in between, I had the opportunity to discuss Australia's newfound direction with leading foreign policy and defence experts, as well as officials from the Australian Defence Force, Department of Defence, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. On everyone's mind was the question of Australia's appropriate role in the world, reinforced by current events and ongoing debates over what the Abbott Government would and should say in its much anticipated Defence White Paper due next year.

And yet, lurking behind widespread support for Australia to be a more proactive security provider in world affairs, it was easy to detect a budding sense of unease among Australia's strategic community.

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A prevailing critique, coming in different flavours and from different angles, was that Prime Minister Abbott risked spreading Australia too thin. If there's one thing Australian security experts are quick to remind you of, it's that their country has limited resources. As a result, doing things like deploying police officers to Ukraine, special operations units to Afghanistan and fighter jets to Iraq quickly places constraints on Canberra's freedom of action, particularly given the requirements of keeping resources at home for homeland defence and unanticipated local crises.

Similar concerns arose about capacity and prioritisation in defence procurement and military modernisation. Sure, it would be great if Australia could go all in with the US on ballistic missile defence, interoperable amphibious forces and a region-wide maritime domain awareness architecture. This in addition to continuing to invest in fifth-generation aircraft while working with Japan on submarine technology and committing to additional spending on military construction to support a rotational US naval presence in Australia.

But as in any country, Prime Minister Abbott will have to ensure that his strategic ambitions do not outpace Australia's capacity. To put this another way, Australia will have to start thinking seriously about the relative impact of its global activism, including trade-offs between expending pockets of resources on numerous international efforts versus consolidating those resources to pursue areas of core competence and comparative advantage.

This is about how, not if, Australia should be a global player.

Perhaps this is where politics and strategy diverge, but hearing that Prime Minister Abbott was sending another 100 police to support efforts in Ukraine, a country in which Australia didn't even have an embassy prior to September 2014, made me wonder whether Australia might be better served by a leader more akin to candidate Abbott, who committed to 'more Jakarta, less Geneva.'

All things being equal, of course Australian contributions in Europe and the Middle East are welcome. And no doubt the Obama Administration values the ability to cast its initiatives as multilateral.

But all things aren't equal. And Australia's backyard, especially Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, is emerging as a focal point of international politics. Therein, Australia's partnerships with India and Japan harbour critical opportunities for exceptional economic and security cooperation. Moreover, Australia has the essential task of preparing for potential instability in the Pacific Islands. *

This is not to suggest that Australia doesn't have the ability or the right to play on global issues with great powers. Of course it does, and Prime Minister Abbott has made that abundantly clear. But the critical question now is: where can Australia make the greatest relative contributions to both its national interests and the larger common interest of advancing peace and prosperity?

Prime Minister Abbott's answer to this question appears to be that Australia should participate in major crises in which it has national security equities, regardless of distance and relative effect. Both admirers and detractors characterised Abbott to me as taking an ideological approach to these issues, similar to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

But it's not yet clear he's convinced the majority of the Australian people or its expert foreign policy community that this is the right path for their country.

While Australia's leading strategists don't all agree with each other on priorities and alternatives, many said quietly (and some not so quietly) that Abbott may dilute Australia's power and influence if globalist ambitions prevent Australia from devoting sufficient resources to issues where it can make more unique and significant contributions. In the case of Australia's global activism, less may ultimately be more. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

* Ed note: this sentence added at 12.12pm.

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After eight years of Voreqe Bainimarama's military rule in Fiji, there is much excitement about the prospects for Fiji's return to democracy with elections next week. Seven parties and one independent candidate will contest 50 parliamentary seats. 591,095 Fijians have registered to vote; 120,000 of them will vote for the first time. With limited time and despite some constraints applied by the Fiji Government, the Fiji Elections Office has educated Fiji's voters on a new voting system, trained some 14,000 volunteers to staff polling stations and injected a vigour to the process that significantly diminishes the risk of fraudulent behaviour.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has expressed confidence in the preparations underway for the elections. A Multinational Observer Group co-led by Australia, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and featuring observers from at least ten other countries is already in Fiji monitoring the elections.

It is tempting to see the elections as the culmination of years of international pressure, driven largely by Australia and New Zealand, for Bainimarama to deliver on his promise to restore democracy in Fiji. 

In a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief, I argue that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy. Fiji has much more work to do to restore all the elements of a democratic society. And Australia should play a key role in assisting this transition.

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Fiji's democratic institutions have taken a battering since the 2006 coup. Political parties were not permitted to operate as parties until 2014. There was no formal political opposition to Bainimarama's Government. The independence of the judiciary has been compromised. The freedoms of Fiji's media and civil society are constrained.

Elections themselves do not make a democracy. As we have seen in other ostensibly democratic polities, such as in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, elections can be used by dominant leaders to both legitimise and entrench authoritarianism. Developments in Turkey in recent years are one such example. Charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved his talent for winning elections, with his Justice and Development Party claiming victory in six consecutive polls (general and nationwide local elections) and most recently winning Turkey's first ever popular election for president.

But Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, restricting civil liberties, cracking down on public protests and imprisoning record numbers of journalists. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol has argued that Erdogan has created a 'winner-takes-all democracy' where as elected leader, he both defines and dominates the nation to the exclusion of opposing voices.

If Bainimarama's Fiji First party is in a position to form a government either in its own right or in a coalition after the poll next Wednesday and Bainimarama is elected prime minister, there is no guarantee he will be a democratic leader. Indeed, his authoritarian governing style to date, his aversion to criticism and suspicion of media and civil society indicate he is more likely to emulate the leadership example of Erdogan than that of a typical leader of the Westminster style of government prevalent in the Pacific Islands region.

Bainimarama has arguably evolved as a civilian rather than a military leader through the campaign process. If elected, however, he is likely to see victory as a vindication of his leadership approach and agenda for Fiji rather than seize the opportunity to remake himself as the leader of a vibrant parliamentary democracy. After years of ruling by decree and centralising decision-making in his office, Bainimarama and his Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum will struggle to adjust to facing robust debate in parliament in order to pass legislation. The 2013 constitution does little to promote a more independent judiciary. Some constraints on the freedoms of civil society and media prevail.

Without the moderating influence of an effective parliament, where an opposition holds the government to account, an independent judiciary and (in the words of the Australian Foreign Minister) a 'free and unfettered media to hold all the sides of politics to account on behalf of the people', an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will not be able to consolidate the progress established by the election.

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?

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 President Obama's speech to the US National Defense University, May 2013:

We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

Amen, Barack, Amen.

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There were relatively few plot twists for a prime time television spectacle but you have to hand it to the leading man: he hasn't put in such a convincing performance in a long time.

The main points of Barack Obama's widely telecast speech to the American public tonight did not depart significantly from those which had already been released to the media and the wider public earlier in the day and week. The President promised a significantly expanded US-led military campaign to target the rising threat of the violent Islamic State (IS) movement, which he identified as not only a danger to the Middle East but also increasingly to US citizens (Obama referenced the murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff).

This plan includes US airstrikes in Syria, following an earlier reluctance to become directly involved in tackling IS there, and the deployment of a further 475 military advisers to Iraq. The President also called on Congress to support further measures including the training and arming (reportedly to the tune of US$500 million) of the Free Syrian Army, set up to oppose the Bashar al-Assad regime, to take up the new challenge of repelling IS.

Again, however, he stopped short of committing US ground troops to another potentially deadly and protracted campaign in a far-flung location.

Given the relative lack of surprises, the most notable feature of the performance was the level of conviction with which the President articulated these points, recalling for a brief time the vim and vigour on which he established his political reputation only a few years ago. Gone was the painfully slow pace of delivery and the not-so-pregnant pauses that characterised many of his recent announcements, particularly in this troubled foreign policy sphere.

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Speaking after the Public Broadcasting Service telecast of the speech, New York Times columnist and frequent Obama critic David Brooks went as far as to praise the President for so clearly articulating his desired pathway, despite the fact that most of us realise he is a reluctant strongman when it comes to such matters.

In Obama's words themselves, there was even a fairly significant change in the recent rhetoric emanating from the White House, which has implied that the US needed to accept a lesser role in dictating world affairs and embrace a greater degree of multilateralism.

Towards the end of the speech the President tied the current mission against IS into a more familiar trumpeting of American exceptionalism and the nation's stand for 'freedom, for justice, for dignity.' At times it strongly recalled the efforts of his predecessor George W Bush, as with the pronouncement that 'It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilise the world against terrorists' – words that take on more significance in light of Obama's Bush-like willingness to circumvent the established protocols of Congress and other institutions.

These developments understandably have many worried that we will see a return to larger scale war and another of those painful legacies of instability and lawlessness that produced the conditions conducive to the rise of IS in the first place. Obama categorically denies that this is the path down which the US and its allies are traveling, but could the President's sense of returning vitality belie some more worrying truth?

Photo courtesy of @WhiteHouse.

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 Catch up on news, commentary and analysis from and about the Pacific island region...

  • The last polling to be released before the 17 September elections in Fiji indicates that a coalition government may be on the cards. Meanwhile, members of the military and others have cast their votes during the pre-polling period:

  • The Tongan Government has been trying hard to persuade China to convert $US119 million of loans into grant assistance but, to date, has been unsuccessful. The negotiation and management of the loans is proving politically contentious.
  • In French Polynesia, the political game looks to have ended for veteran politician Gaston Flosse, who has resigned as president having failed to obtain a pardon from Francois Hollande following a conviction for corruption last year. Opposition leader Oscar Temaru has called for fresh elections. Flosse will retain his seat in the French Senate until the end of the month.
  • In Solomon Islands, the ninth parliament has been dissolved ahead of elections to be held later this year.
  • In this 'In Brief' item, Peter Nuttall looks at the potential for moving to low-carbon shipping options for the Pacific island region.
  • In a recent interview, Greg Poling looks at how the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) fits in to the regional architecture.
  • The leaders of the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands have signed a treaty to create the Micronesian Trade and Economic Community.
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It's fair to say that President Obama is a reluctant commander-in-chief and sees the Middle East as a place where the limitations of US military force are most apparent. So his speech  tonight on America's strategy against Islamic State (IS) was from someone who wishes he didn't have to deal with what he has to. But that is what being president is about.

In such a short speech, it is difficult to capture the intricacies of a strategy to deal with as complex a problem as IS in Iraq and Syria, but I thought Obama laid out as clear a plan for public consumption as was feasible at this stage. Some early thoughts:

  1. A clear and ambitious mission: It doesn't get much clearer than 'degrade and destroy', but the second part is harder than the first. The first part is already occurring, with over 150 airstrikes ordered. 'Destroying' is harder, but given that IS is a coalition, stripping away its less ideological elements and then scattering its core may render it as ineffective as al Qaeda currently is. Whether IS will be completely destroyed or just morph into something smaller will be for people to judge in the future. The effect may well be the same.
  2. Play to your strengths: As has been the case throughout his time in office, Obama was keen to emphasise that the ground combat would not be carried out by US forces, and that Washington would provide the technologically advanced enabling support such as airstrikes to support local ground efforts. The US will also provide training and organisational support that allows Iraqi forces to engage IS. This effort still involves an additional 475 US military personnel, but gives Obama and his military the flexibility to disengage relatively quickly or to withdraw support if the Iraqi political class ceases to play along.
  3. Watching the language: Coalition building in the Middle East is a fraught process and despite Obama's very public mentioning of the fact that 'we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region', it is likely that many of those same partners will provide limited support. As an aside, the use of the term 'Arab' as opposed to 'Sunni Arab' was deliberate and a desire to downplay the religious issue that permeates much of the regional hand-wringing over the issue.
  4. This is going to take a long time: Coalition building takes a long time, force generation and deployment takes a long time, training and mentoring takes a long time, degrading and destroying takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul.
  5. Authorising Sunni militias: Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military.
  6. The Syria issue: Not mentioned a lot but where it was, Obama raised more questions than he answered. Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

 

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On 17 September, Fiji goes to the polls for the first time in eight years. This is a notable step forward given that, when I spoke to people in Suva a year ago, they were still phrasing things in terms of 'IF the election happens'. With the first pre-polling stations having opened a few days ago, that 'if' has become a very definite and proximate 'when'.

Assurances have been given both by Rear Admiral Bainimarama and by Brigadier-General Tikoitoga, the new commander of the Fijian military, that the results of the election will be respected. If these promises can be taken on faith then the question is not if Fiji will return to democracy, but how well the transition will be managed.

The critics of the Bainimarama Government have always demanded elections for Fiji, but also that those elections should be free and fair. In that regard Fiji's outlook is mixed.

Prominent experts, including the Deputy Head of the EU delegation to the Pacific, believe that the results on the polling day will reasonably reflect the will of the people. As far as the vote itself goes, that is likely to be true. Despite reports of at least one case of voters being defrauded, widespread blunt-force cheating probably won't be an issue. The ballot boxes aren't likely to be stuffed, there is no evidence that voters have been disenfranchised and I would not expect to see intimidation at polling stations. Fijian citizens who cast their vote can feel safe that it will go to whomever they select on the ballot paper and that they will be able to make their choice safely.

So far, so good. By world standards of elections after prolonged military rule, Fiji is doing well.

However, a truly free and fair election requires more than the absence of extra ballots stuffed into the box. Yes, voters need to be free to make their choice on the day, but the process by which they reach their decision also needs to be fair. In a free and fair election, political parties compete on as level a playing field as the system can enforce. This is where the election process in Fiji stands on shakier ground.

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In recent months there have been a string of controversies and criticisms of the way the Bainimarama Government is handling the transition to democracy. I will touch briefly on three areas: balance of media coverage, participation of NGOs in the electoral process, and issues surrounding candidate nominations.

Media coverage

There has been considerable attention given to the question of media balance in political reporting in Fiji and the role of the government media watchdog, the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), in enforcing the Bainimarama Government's media decrees.

There have been repeated accusations by other parties that Bainimarama's Fiji First party has received unfair media advantages. These accusations have been strenuously denied, both by the news outlets and by MIDA. It is always difficult to distinguish between legitimate editorialising and bias. But the fact that these claims have persisted is concerning. Even if issues of media balance are just based on editorialising, the perception of unfairness can be problematic for creating a free and fair election environment. 

NGO participation

The role of NGOs and civil society in the election is also concerning. That civil society is key to democracy hardly needs to be explained, especially in creating a democratic culture in a country that has not seen elections in so long. But not only are foreign funded NGOs prohibited from participating in the election process, domestic NGOs have also been banned from providing election observers. In most developing countries NGOs play a crucial role in preparing a country for an election, shoring up state resources and furthering participatory democratic culture. Given that this ban affects NGOs already operating in Fiji, even the fear of foreign influence is not a convincing justification for the ban. 

Candidate nominations

Fiji's political parties have had to jump through an unusually large number of hoops to nominate candidates. From an Australian perspective the ban on trade unionists and public servants being candidates may seem particularly baffling. But I would argue that there are more worrying trends in the process of candidate accreditation.

There have been a variety of issues, from candidates being reportedly barred for traffic offences to the late introduction of a residency requirement that has disqualified several respected Fijians, including people seconded to RAMSI. What I would focus on is not the changes themselves but the lateness with which they were made. Both measure came into force in August, mere weeks before the election. Campaigning had been going on for months by this point. For an election to be fair, political parties and voters need to have clarity as to who is running for election. Having candidates knocked out at the eleventh hour should be an exceptional matter for a functioning democracy, not one of deliberate state policy.

Given these three issues, as well as other controversies surrounding the elections, is the outlook for Fiji bleak? I would argue that the election is still a step forward. Regardless of controversy, returning Fiji to democracy with less than perfect elections is better than no elections at all. As has been pointed out in The Interpreter before, elections are just the first step to re-establishing Fijian democracy. It is worth accepting some flaws (in the hope that they can be corrected in future) to see Fiji take that step. 

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Reuters Staff. 

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Given how little The Interpreter has had to say on the topic of Scottish independence, it seems somewhat frivolous to post this, but it's irresistible:

(H/t Dish.)

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The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

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'Front and centre is the only woman, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.'

When ANU's Dr Katerina Teaiwa explained her heritage to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) women's economic empowerment conference, held in Kuala Lumpur last month, she personified the region:

I was born and raised in the Pacific, with roots that cross many oceans. My mother's family is a mix of Native American, African and European heritage, extending back from North America, across the Caribbean and Atlantic to Africa via the slave trade. My father's people are the product of an Austronesian diaspora that began in East Asia, extended down to Southeast Asia and went across to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean and east via Melanesia, as far as Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. Our family is the meeting place of many oceanic crossings...

IORA is similarly diverse. It consists of 20 member countries with more than 2 billion people (that's 30% of the world's population) of varying cultures and religions. Member countries range from Indonesia to Yemen and from Madagascar to India. Australia is the current chair of IORA.

Last year's group photo of the IORA foreign ministers (above) is telling: front and centre is the chair and only woman, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. At the next IORA ministerial meeting in Perth in October 2014 we hope for more female foreign ministers.

Australia has put gender on the agenda. The IORA conference I hosted on behalf of Minister Bishop in Kuala Lumpur was the flagship event to further Australia's aspiration on the economic empowerment of women. The event had a focus on textiles and tourism, two areas in which women are active in every member country. Textiles involve women as artisans, workers, designers, entrepreneurs and traders. Tourism is anticipated to account for one in every ten jobs on the planet by 2022.

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Among women in the Indian Ocean countries there is growing entrepreneurialism, labour force participation and leadership aspirations. Yet discrimination in institutions and social norms is widespread. While barriers differ across countries in the region, there are common features of women's participation in economies. These include low labour force participation, discriminatory laws, gaps in pay and gaps in education. High rates of violence against women also underpin most societies' challenges for women.

Women and men shared their stories at the IORA conference. A female entrepreneur told of being inspired by her single mum, who wanted more for her daughter. Some women were just starting out in business. Others had built theirs to a stage where they could invest in other women through social enterprises. There were women in international business, women active in civil society, women in academia. They were all pushing for change in the social norms that hold them back or see them working the double-shift of a professional woman and a mother and wife. Many participants had inspiring stories.

And while inspiration is terrific, policy makers need only look at the dry facts. The evidence is in: empowering women is smart economics. As The Economist observed in 2006, 'Forget China, India and the internet: economic growth is driven by women.' When women are able to develop their full labour market potential we can expect economic gains in the order of a 25-30% in the region. And women invest more in health and education, reducing poverty.

So what can be done? The workshop participants came up with six messages, and tangible actions under each. They concluded that governments and businesses need to invest in vocational education and make it more relevant to women and women entrepreneurs. They agreed the creative economy had great potential. They thought we need better data to measure progress for women across the region. They agreed that policy settings like trade negotiations need to take account of gender. They wanted to see IORA countries place a priority on responsible tourism. They wanted to register that change won't occur until gender stereotypes are acknowledged and leaders recognise the potential role of women in their societies. The Australian Foreign Minister will take these messages to the IORA ministerial meeting in October.

We are realistic. We know that it takes time to change mind-sets and time to formulate plans and projects. But we do expect change, because the case is so strong and women's voices are starting to resonate. 

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This week the Lowy Institute's International Security Program Director Rory Medcalf and Research Associate Danielle Rajendram discuss Prime Minister Tony Abbott's visit to India. The visit marked an acceleration of the Australia-India relationship, with a deal for Australia to sell India uranium and a pledge for closer strategic and economic ties.

Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office.

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People who laud Tony Abbott's surefooted foreign policy never mention his role in the Pacific islands. It's hardly surprising. Following the precedent set by John Howard, the Prime Minister has not shown much interest in Australia's closest neighbours.

The 37th Pacific Islands Forum meeting, in 2006. (REUTERS.)

Abbott couldn't even spare a day to attend this year's Pacific Islands Forum (Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss spent just 36 hours in Koror, though you wouldn't know about it  since not one press gallery journalist or TV news crew accompanied him to Palau). Abbott's decision to focus on the MH17 crisis overshadowed a crucial meeting, which included the selection of a new Forum Secretary General, preparations for Fiji's first post-coup elections and the development of regional interventions for a series of global summits on small island states, climate and development. 

For the first few years of the previous Coalition government, John Howard was also unenthusiastic about attending Forum leaders meetings. However, reality intervened and crises in Fiji and Solomon Islands forced Howard to engage; we ended up with RAMSI and a A$2.5 billion, decade-long overseas commitment.

Is the Abbott Government being penny wise and pound foolish in the same way?

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Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason have been active around the region, but the Government's focus on 'economic diplomacy' and aid for trade is more directed at Asia than the small island states of the Pacific. Only Papua New Guinea and Fiji are especially committed to Canberra's vision of regional trade liberalisation. The atoll states have long argued that the real barriers to trade are in Australia (through non-tariff trade barriers like quarantine regulations). Canberra's reluctance to address Pacific concerns on labour mobility and funding for structural adjustments continue to delay negotiations for the PACER-Plus free trade agreement.

Meanwhile, the Government has abandoned programs on climate adaptation and cyclone research, which are of particular interest to small island states vulnerable to the effects of climate change. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last year, Australia announced it would not contribute to the Green Climate Fund, which transfers money to developing states for climate-change adaptation and mitigation (even though Australia was co-chair of the Fund's board until October 2013). It was a particularly inapt venue to send this message, given the Commonwealth is full of small island states and developing countries.

The Government's refusal to include climate change on the agenda of this year's G20 meeting has also raised eyebrows in the islands, given this is one of the few times that the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters will gather in Oceania. In Palau, Warren Truss stated that the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat would not even be invited to Brisbane as an observer.

While the Australian commentariat is busy debating the fairness of the  budget, few analysts mention the Government's abandonment of the OECD's official development assistance target of 0.5% of gross national income. While the removal of A$4.5 billion from the aid budget over forward estimates is ignored in most domestic commentary, it has not gone unnoticed in the region (especially when the Government has pledged A$1.2 billion to Transfield over four years to run the detention centres in Manus and Nauru). 

So the Pacific report card on Tony Abbott's first year in office: must try harder!

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ASIO* Director-General David Irvine last night told the ABC's 7:30 program that he is considering raising the terrorist threat level in Australia from Medium to High:

I would say that, at the moment, it is at a very elevated level of medium and I'm certainly contemplating very seriously the notion of lifting it higher, because of the numbers of people that we are now having to be concerned about in Australia, because of the influence of Syria and Iraq on young Australians, both in terms of going to those places to fight but also in terms of what they are doing here in Australia with a potential intent to attack.

Back in March, the Lowy Institute's Anthony Bubalo tackled the subject of foreign fighters in the Middle East, and the threat they pose on return to Australia. He argued that 'In coming years Australia will face a more complex and serious terrorist threat than it did after 9/11', but that it would be wrong to focus solely on fighters returning to Australia:

...the breakdown of state control in a number of Middle East countries is opening new spaces in which jihadists can train and operate. In fact the situation today is considerably worse than it was before 9/11. In the 1990s jihadists found sanctuary in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia. Today all of those are still on the list of jihadists’ safe (or semi-safe) havens, which now also includes Sinai in Egypt, Libya, parts of Iraq and Lebanon, and of course Syria.

For Australia the concern is not just about Australian returnees, however. Indonesians have also travelled to Syria. At least one has been killed there. Given the success that the Indonesian authorities have had in tackling the terrorist threat over many years, it is critical that the conflict in Syria does not allow jihadist groups in Indonesia to redevelop their lethal capabilities and linkages once again. This is a situation that will require close attention and cooperation with the Indonesian government, perhaps as much as any focus on Australians returning home.

* A corporate member of the Lowy Institute.

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