Overseeing and overlooking: Australian engagement with the Pacific islands 1988-2007

30 Oct 2012

Since Europeans first settled in the region, Australian policy-makers have understood that Australia has security, commercial and humanitarian interests in the Pacific islands. Despite this stable set of interests, Australian engagement has fluctuated greatly; its underlying approach has changed regularly while Australian governments have found it difficult to achieve their objectives. Explanations for this paradox largely rest on the relative weakness of Australian interests and their consequent inability to drive policy in a sustained fashion. However accurate these analyses, their focus on factors that are lacking posits Australian policy as an aberration from policy norms and provides little explanation for the policies that have been adopted in the absence of strong driving interests.

This PhD thesis seeks to fill this gap through a historical narrative that traces the formation and implementation of Australian policies to the actions of key policy-makers from 1988 until 2007. Building on theories of foreign policy and public policy-making, it develops a model that links the observed fluctuations in Australian engagement and changes in its approach to the Pacific islands with events in the Pacific islands, the advocacy of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ and the personality and predilections of the Foreign Minister. Its sources were qualitative and interpretative elite interviews with participants in the making and implementation of Australian policy, newspaper articles, governmental speeches and official reports.

The key findings of this thesis are that Australian interests in the Pacific islands have weak institutional representation, rendering Australian engagement particularly dependent on ministerial attention. Policy entrepreneurs have played a critical role in attracting this attention through invoking some crisis in Australia’s relationships with the Pacific islands and, crucially, presenting a ready policy response. Between such events, Australian engagement has tended to stagnate as relationships with the Pacific islands are neglected. This pattern has been aggravated, firstly, by the social and political upheaval that has regularly occurred in the Pacific islands, and secondly, by the tendency of Australian officials to incite resistance through insensitive expressions of Australian power. The primary implication of these conclusions is that only strengthened institutional commitment to Australia’s relationships with the Pacific islands is likely to moderate their volatility.

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