Memo Mr Rudd: don't ignore the neighbours

The Gillard government persisted against the odds with its plan for a regional processing centre in East Timor. Not only was the idea ill-conceived, Canberra's diplomatic preparation was also appalling and its failure to come up with convincing alternatives abysmal. The idea has finally dissolved at the Bali summit on people-smuggling and Labor must now drop its political point-scoring and turn back to the centres at Manus Island and Nauru that formed part of John Howard's Pacific Solution.

The lack of interest from East Timor and Indonesia underlines the truth that asylum-seekers are essentially an Australian challenge. These people are not seeking safety in Indonesia, the main stepping-stone to Australia. It is we who must do the heavy lifting through painstaking regional diplomacy, strategic resourcing and restoring the off-shore processing system to send the right signals to people-smugglers. Australia's failure to convince Dili over the offshore centre is bad enough, although not surprising, but the absence from the Bali summit of East Timorese Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa, who is at a Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting chaired by Fiji's military leader Frank Bainimarama, points to a broader problem with our regional diplomacy.

As prime minister, Kevin Rudd won applause in Papua New Guinea, and beyond in the Pacific, when his first foreign visit was to Port Moresby. Since then, that shine has faded. The demands on Mr Rudd as Foreign Minister are immense -- from the Middle East to natural disasters in New Zealand and Japan. Even so, every Australian government must ensure key relationships are well-oiled. That includes building the best and broadest possible links with the neighbours. Tensions are bound to arise, as regional politicians seek -- probably without winning extra votes beyond a few urban malcontents -- to affirm their independence by stressing differences with Canberra. This happens especially as elections approach, as in PNG, where they are due in the middle of next year, and as governments form, as in Solomon Islands, with wafer-thin majorities. The sense of edginess and transition is strong in the islands today, with PNG especially awash with money from its resources boom. The digital revolution sweeping the Pacific is presenting new opportunities for business. Canberra can no longer presume that its influence will persist purely by default. Seductive alternative forms of governance are emerging -- from China, to a degree, but more worryingly from Commodore Bainimarama's militarised Fiji. He is seizing the day, squeezing his chairmanship of the MSG for all it is worth as Fiji is suspended from the larger Pacific Islands Forum grouping that also includes Australia.

There are no short cuts for Australia. We must reapply ourselves to winning hearts and minds in the Pacific. That involves frequent visits. And -- Wayne Swan take note -- better resources for diplomacy.

While we are reconfiguring and increasing our aid efforts, it is essential we do the same for our other channels of engagement. Starving our diplomatic missions of the staff and funds they need undermines our capacity to project policies beyond the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.


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