Since winning the election in May 2019, Scott Morrison has maintained his categorical statement that the Pacific islands region is ‘front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook, our foreign policy, our personal connections, including at the highest levels of government’. Based on what we heard from Labor during the 2019 campaign period, it is safe to assume that this is essentially a bipartisan approach. The “Pacific step-up” is now embedded in political and bureaucratic rhetoric and its prominence is rightly associated with the leadership of Morrison. But its position in the policy ecosystem predates him becoming Prime Minister in August of 2018, dating back to a 2016 announcement by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull followed by its inclusion in the Foreign Policy White Paper that was released in November of 2017.

So, in terms of assessing how the “Pacific step-up” is progressing, we can look back over a period of 18 months or so. Late last year, as we neared the first anniversary of the release of the White Paper, I framed my assessment in terms of whether Australia’s engagement with the Pacific islands region was a ‘step up’ or a ‘stumble’. But a lot has happened since then. Now is a good time to reflect on what has happened, what informs what is happening now and what this might mean for the future.

In the Australian political, economic and media landscapes, foreign policy does not merit a great deal of bandwidth. And within the very narrow scope of mainstream foreign policy discussion and analysis, the Pacific struggles to maintain even a toehold at times. But at this particular moment, there seems to be more appetite for thinking and talking about Australia’s relationships with her nearest neighbours than we have seen for many years. Whilst this is no doubt a significant national conversation, there is much to explore in terms of what this means for Queensland, described by PM Morrison as ‘our gateway to the Pacific’. Drawing on many and various threads of geographic proximity, economic linkages, cultural affinities, a complex and contentious history, vibrant diaspora communities, and future opportunities, now is the time for Queensland to (re)establish itself as Australia’s Pacific state. This report provides an assessment of the state of the “Pacific step-up” to inform decisions by policy makers, the business sector, and others to take that forward.

The various aspects of what constitutes the “Pacific step-up” are listed in Figure 1. They touch on a range of sectors and aspects of Australia’s relationships with the Pacific islands region: security, economic linkages, diplomacy, and people-to-people links. They have been articulated via the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, ministerial speeches and announcements.

Figure 1: The components of the Pacific step-up        

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website identifies the following as manifestations of Australia’s stepped-up engagement with the Pacific Islands region. Some (e.g. the establishment of the Australia Pacific Security College) originated in the Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017. Others (e.g. the Pacific Maritime Security Program) were already underway when the step-up was “announced” by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November, 2018. Many of them have been launched further to ministerial announcements, including by the Prime Minister.
• Pacific Labour Scheme
• Opening of five new diplomatic missions (Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Niue, Palau, Tuvalu)
• Establishment of the Office of the Pacific within DFAT
• Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific
• Coral Sea Cable (providing high speed internet to PNG and Solomon Islands)
• Increased callable capital to the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Efic)
• Australia/Japan/USA trilateral partnership for infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific
• Australia/PNG/Japan/New Zealand/USA Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership
• PACER Plus
• Australia Pacific Security College
• Pacific Fusion Centre
• Dedicated vessel to provide support including Pacific humanitarian & disaster relief
• Joint Heads of Pacific Security Forces event hosted in Australia
• Australian Defence Force Mobile Training Team
• Pacific Faculty of Policing at the Australian Institute of Police Management
• Expansion of the Cyber Cooperation Partnership with the Pacific
• Pacific Maritime Security Program
• Pacific Transnational Crime Network
• Support to the Forum Fisheries Agency
• Pacific Medicine Testing Program (pilot)
• Secondary School Scholarships
• APTC scholarships
• Expansion of the Australia-Pacific Schools Partnerships
• Church Partnerships Program with the Pacific
• Australia Pacific Sports Linkages Program
• Pacific-Australia Card
• Pacific Research Program
• Pacific Connect Program
Source: Adapted from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Please click here to read the full “The state of the step-up: Australia’s engagement with the Pacific” article published in the 2019 State of the Neighbourhood report, written by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Associate Professor Dr Tess Newton Cain.