People who laud Tony Abbott's surefooted foreign policy never mention his role in the Pacific islands. It's hardly surprising. Following the precedent set by John Howard, the Prime Minister has not shown much interest in Australia's closest neighbours.
Abbott couldn't even spare a day to attend this year's Pacific Islands Forum (Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss spent just 36 hours in Koror, though you wouldn't know about it since not one press gallery journalist or TV news crew accompanied him to Palau). Abbott's decision to focus on the MH17 crisis overshadowed a crucial meeting, which included the selection of a new Forum Secretary General, preparations for Fiji's first post-coup elections and the development of regional interventions for a series of global summits on small island states, climate and development.
For the first few years of the previous Coalition government, John Howard was also unenthusiastic about attending Forum leaders meetings. However, reality intervened and crises in Fiji and Solomon Islands forced Howard to engage; we ended up with RAMSI and a A$2.5 billion, decade-long overseas commitment.
Is the Abbott Government being penny wise and pound foolish in the same way?
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason have been active around the region, but the Government's focus on 'economic diplomacy' and aid for trade is more directed at Asia than the small island states of the Pacific. Only Papua New Guinea and Fiji are especially committed to Canberra's vision of regional trade liberalisation. The atoll states have long argued that the real barriers to trade are in Australia (through non-tariff trade barriers like quarantine regulations). Canberra's reluctance to address Pacific concerns on labour mobility and funding for structural adjustments continue to delay negotiations for the PACER-Plus free trade agreement.
Meanwhile, the Government has abandoned programs on climate adaptation and cyclone research, which are of particular interest to small island states vulnerable to the effects of climate change. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last year, Australia announced it would not contribute to the Green Climate Fund, which transfers money to developing states for climate-change adaptation and mitigation (even though Australia was co-chair of the Fund's board until October 2013). It was a particularly inapt venue to send this message, given the Commonwealth is full of small island states and developing countries.
The Government's refusal to include climate change on the agenda of this year's G20 meeting has also raised eyebrows in the islands, given this is one of the few times that the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters will gather in Oceania. In Palau, Warren Truss stated that the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat would not even be invited to Brisbane as an observer.
While the Australian commentariat is busy debating the fairness of the budget, few analysts mention the Government's abandonment of the OECD's official development assistance target of 0.5% of gross national income. While the removal of A$4.5 billion from the aid budget over forward estimates is ignored in most domestic commentary, it has not gone unnoticed in the region (especially when the Government has pledged A$1.2 billion to Transfield over four years to run the detention centres in Manus and Nauru).
So the Pacific report card on Tony Abbott's first year in office: must try harder!