Engaging the Pacific: Objectives for Australia's new international development minister

Alex Hawke, Australia’s new minister of international development and the Pacific, meets ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers. Photo by: DFAT

CANBERRA — Alex Hawke, Australia’s new minister of international development and the Pacific, has taken up a challenge — to step up the country’s role in the Pacific.

The recently concluded fifth Pacific Water Ministerial Forum in Vanuatu and the upcoming Pacific Island Forum Leaders Meeting in Tuvalu are important tests for Hawke and Australia to discover if the country’s increased presence and engagement in the Pacific is enough to combat questions regarding Australia’s action to combat climate change.

Discussing the ministerial role

“It is a great privilege to have been appointed by Prime Minister Morrison to help fulfil what is a key objective of his government and Australian foreign policy — our ‘Pacific step-up,’” Hawke told Devex, mentioning the new catch phrase widely used in Australian aid promotions, including at the recent Aid for Trade Global Review.

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But the step-up involves more than the Australian aid program. Departments including defense, health, and communications are among those leading programs to better engage the Pacific. And Hawke is playing an important role in bringing them together — as well as implementing other initiatives announced by Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November, which aim to make Australia the partner of choice in the region.

“Many Australian government agencies have long been engaged with their counterparts in the Pacific, and it will be my job to help ensure their efforts are appropriately joined up and responsive to the region’s needs,” he explained. “Australia’s engagement in the Pacific is one of our highest policy priorities. That’s because the Pacific region is our home.”

The step-up as a whole builds on the objectives outlined in the Defence and Foreign Policy white papers, and responds to priorities set by Pacific partners.

“This includes, for example, partnering with Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu on significant infrastructure projects that will enhance the security capability and the prosperity of the region,” said Hawke.

But other priorities include improving governance, broadening economic opportunities, improving human development, and advancing gender equality.

“We are supporting our Pacific family to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals, including by increasing access to fresh and safe drinking water, improving health outcomes, increasing the role of the private sector in development, and by responding swiftly and effectively in times of crisis,” said Hawke.

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Along with the role of minister for international development and the Pacific, Hawke has taken on responsibility of assistant defence minister — a role he prioritizes over international development on his personal website. And it is a dual role he says can advantage the Pacific.

“My dual ministerial roles are a new combination reflecting the importance of the Pacific to our government,” Hawke said. “Defence [Department]’s long-standing relationships in the Pacific, its enabling capacity, and its deep history of contribution and cooperation make it integral to this whole-of-government effort. For example, along with our policing and aid cooperation, defense makes a key contribution to maritime security — a key priority for our Pacific neighbors for whom fisheries play a vital role in economies, livelihoods, and cultures.”

Security and stability in the Pacific are among the other key priorities for Hawke, merging his two roles.

“As Prime Minister Morrison says regularly, the Pacific is our patch — it is our part of the world,” Hawke said. “It is where we have enduring shared interests and special responsibilities.”

"Australia's engagement in the Pacific is one of our highest policy priorities. That’s because the Pacific region is our home."

— Alex Hawke, Australian minister of international development and the Pacific

Can the ‘step up’ message be sold without strong climate action?

The message Hawke is aiming to deliver to the Pacific is challenged by the view that Australia is not doing enough to combat climate change — which many see as the greatest security risk in the region.

With the criticism from some leaders in the Pacific getting louder, Foreign Minister Marise Payne responded that Pacific leaders "should be pleased" with Australian commitments including the Paris climate agreement. But achieving the agreement requires Australia to use carry-over credits from the Kyoto protocol, which other developed countries have called “dodgy.”

In Vanuatu last week, Hawke continued the sales pitch for Australia’s climate action record.

“Well, we're spending about $300 million [$204 million Australian dollars], which is a new record for us, obviously directly on climate change effects,” he told press at Port Vila. “And we take very seriously the impacts of climate change on Pacific countries. Indeed, in Australia, climate change means impacts on drought. And we're seeing that with our farmers in our rural areas as well. So, through our Infrastructure Financing Facility … we've got $2 billion for climate resilient and climate adaptation projects. We think that will unlock more money to invest in that climate resilience and those climate adaptation projects.

“But we listen very carefully to our Pacific partner countries. Obviously, at the Pacific Islands Forum, we'll be listening carefully about climate. We'll work together in a multilateral way where the Boe Declaration that we signed is about climate change as well,” Hawke continued.

In Tuvalu, Morrison is expected to announce a new recycling initiative — but whether this is a response that shows Australia is listening will soon be seen, potentially impacting the future of Australia’s engagement with the Pacific.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.