On Monday, Prime Minister Turnbull unveiled a new cabinet with sweeping changes to the front bench. The most important point for the Pacific is that Julie Bishop retains her position as Foreign Minister, with an improved status in cabinet as one of the kingmakers of the new Government.
Steven Ciobo with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Milner Tozaka, February 2015. (Wikimedia.)
But missing from most of the media discussion this week is the promotion of Steven Ciobo to become Australia's first Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Speaking to ABC's Pacific Beat on Monday Ciobo, formerly Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and to the Minister for Trade and Investment, outlined the symbolic importance of his appointment to the region:
This new position really reflects and really does underscore the Government's renewed focus on the Pacific, the importance of the Pacific, the value that we place on our international development, and of course our very strong desire to continue building a strong relationship with our near South Pacific neighbours.
The importance of the message this sends to the Pacific should not be understated. By jettisoning the trade portfolio and narrowing Ciobo's foreign policy remit to the Pacific, the Turnbull Government has elevated the region to a higher, indeed unique, status.
This reflects Julie Bishop's position since her time in opposition that the Pacific is where 'Australia's reputation as a valued global citizen can be made or lost.' Ciobo's promotion is also a unique one for the cabinet reshuffle, with most parliamentary secretaries simply being promoted to assistant minister positions.
Adding international development to Ciobo's portfolio should also be lauded. It makes good on a commitment Julie Bishop gave in opposition to have a minister for international development, as well as providing an extra level of oversight to an area that has recently undergone sweeping administrative and budgetary changes. It is also something the Australian development community has been crying out for. There will also be plenty of synergy between Mr Ciobo's twin responsibilities, as more than a quarter of Australia's aid is spent in the Pacific region.
But it's not just the message this appointment sends which matters; the new ministerial position will also have practical implications. While Julie Bishop proved to be a more than competent foreign minister in the Abbott Government, her portfolio is incredibly broad. By letting Ciobo take charge of the day-to-day operations of Pacific engagement and the aid program, Bishop frees herself to focus on the bigger picture of Australia's long-term engagement with the region, and other areas of diplomatic importance.
This isn't to say Minister Bishop should walk away from the Pacific altogether. This is a region where relationships matter, and she has been personally instrumental in reframing Australia's engagement there, particularly with regards to Papua New Guinea and Fiji. As my colleague Jenny Hayward-Jones put it, she 'is Australia's chief "political asset" in PNG'. This notion could easily be expanded to the region as a whole, considering her prolonged and personal engagement.
Minister Ciobo's appointment, whilst most important for the Pacific, isn't the only one of significance. Scott Morrison has taken over as treasurer and now has ultimate say over the size of Australia's aid budget. Considering that the Pacific was relatively well protected from aid budget cuts made by former treasurer Joe Hockey two years ago, and Minister Bishop's elevated influence in cabinet, it's unlikely we will see any aid cuts to the Pacific in the near future. That said, Bishop and Ciobo's relationship with Morrison will be an important one. Australia also has a new Defence Minister, Marise Payne, who took an active interest in the Pacific during her time as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and led an observation delegation to the 2006 Solomon Islands elections. Considering Australia's involvement in two theatres of war, the ongoing submarine debate and the impending release of a new white paper, it's unlikely that her engagement with the Pacific will go beyond interest.
Beyond aid, Pacific Island leaders will be concerned with how the cabinet reshuffle will change big-ticket policy items in the region like Australia's position on climate change and regional asylum seeker processing. While we are likely to see a softening of the language around climate change, as was already evident from Julie Bishop's speech on the Pacific earlier this month at the ANU, Australia is highly unlikely to change the targets it takes to the Paris negotiations late in the year. The same can be said with regards to asylum seeker policy, given that the Coalition holds 'stopping the boats' as one of the major successes of its first two years in office. There may be a change in climate policy if the Government is re-elected and Turnbull is granted a broader mandate, but Pacific leaders shouldn't stake Ciobo's and Bishop's performance to this issue.
The new Turnbull cabinet is great news for the Pacific. Julie Bishop will continue to set the tone and policy priorities for the region, while Minister Ciobo can focus on day-to-day implementation in the region. The Pacific is often neglected by Australian politicians; having two ministers focused on the region is a welcome change.