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Prime Minister Rudd and the Pacific

By Tim Anderson - posted Thursday, 23 August 2007

What difference will the election of Labor leader Kevin Rudd as Australia’s next Prime Minister make for his Pacific neighbours? Will there be significant changes, or just more of the same?

Unlike the sometimes tumultuous democratic change elsewhere, Australian elections are a staid affair. But consistent polls tell us that a limited version of “regime change” is about to take place in Canberra.

The Rudd team has successfully marketed itself, and the investment groups, mining companies and corporate media which dominate Australian policy - despite their prior uncritical support for John Howard - broadly accept the proposed change. Rupert Murdoch even gave his personal blessing, after Rudd visited him in New York


No small part of the Rudd team’s success has been the ugliness of the incumbents. Domestic legitimacy was difficult to maintain in face of the unpopular privatisations, bloody war, racist policy towards immigrants and refugees, and attacks on domestic civil and industrial rights.

The Pacific legacy, similarly, is not pretty. While preaching “good governance” and security in the region, intervention and corruption were hallmarks of the Howard administration.

Regional intervention was linked to commercial and strategic interest, but argued in the name of “stability” and “assistance”. The RAMSI intervention in the Solomon Islands, although initially invited, led to a near collapse in relations between the Australian and Solomons governments. The 2006 intervention in Timor Leste, following a long conflict over oil and gas revenue, affronted the major political party. Fretilin now in opposition, blames Australia for backing a coup. And the planned Enhanced Cooperation Program for PNG collapsed after unconstitutional immunities sought for Australian officials were overturned in PNG’s Supreme Court.

Under Alexander Downer’s stewardship of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Wheat Board personnel paid nearly $300 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein’s regime, to secure pre-invasion wheat contracts. As an official inquiry showed, Downer then argued the case for Australian participation in the illegal invasion of Iraq, on the basis that support for the US-led war would benefit “Australia’s commercial position in Iraq”. As it happened, exposure of the AWB scandal allowed the US to completely squeeze Australian wheat suppliers out of the Iraqi market.

Neighbouring leaders were treated with contempt. When PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare was forced to remove his shoes in Brisbane airport, Alexander Downer claimed this was a “standard operation” that applies to “everybody”. Yet when US Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Australia, state laws were changed overnight, at Howard and Downer’s request, to allow Cheney’s bodyguards to carry their weapons through the airport and onto the streets of Sydney.

Then as Solomons PM Manasseh Sogavare sought to appoint Australian lawyer Julian Moti as his Attorney General, Canberra and the Australian Federal Police decided they would sideline Moti with charges that he had engaged in child sex in Vanuatu. In fact, Moti had been cleared of all charges and was not wanted in Vanuatu. His real offence, it seems, was that he had advised an inquiry into the role of Australian police in the April 2006 disturbances in Honiara.


When Julian Moti passed through Port Moresby, the PNG Government did not comply with an Australian extradition request, and instead deported him to the Solomons, Howard and Downer then turned on the PNG Government.

With such a history, most Australians and their Pacific neighbours are keen to see the back of Howard. Indeed, regime change in Canberra at the least brings the prospect of some new faces, and perhaps a change of tone in the conversation.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Foreign Minister Robert McClelland may well take a step back from the overt racism that characterised the Howard-Downer regime, where neighbouring governments were bluntly told what was good for them.

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About the Author

Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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