When Australia’s new foreign minister Bob Carr appeared before the media to announce his appointment, he said, “you don’t choose the moment – very often the moment chooses you.”
That moment finds Carr facing a myriad of political challenges in Australia’s neighbourhood, from the long, drawn-out stand off with Fiji to the unfulfilled potential of ties with Indonesia.
Carr says the Asia Pacific region is his immediate priority. On his first day on the job he had briefings on Papua New Guinea and Fiji. His first international visit will be to New Zealand, with Indonesian and Malaysian trips likely to follow. “The first visit I want to pay will be to our friends in New Zealand, to pay them the courtesy of some consultation given their expert feel for the politics of the South Pacific,” Carr told ABC radio.
Australia has become increasingly isolated in its position on Fiji and many, including the Liberal Party, believe an opening of relations would benefit both countries. Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama told Australian journalist Graham Davis that Australia under Rudd has neglected the Pacific Islands region, enabling other powers to fill the ‘vaccum.’
The Chairman of the West Australian-based Indonesia Institute, Ross Taylor says Carr will need to address Indonesian unease over Canberra’s decision to allow U.S. troops to be based in Darwin as a matter of urgency. He cites other sticking points including continued Australian warnings for travel to Indonesia, the exclusion of Indonesia from the Pacific seasonal worker scheme, continued controversy over the live-cattle trade, and the holding of Indonesian children in Australian jails.
“The depth of the relationship, and a serious understanding of the complexity of Indonesia by this Government, is still questionable,” says Taylor.
Taylor identifies what he sees as other missed opportunities; the decline in the number of Australians learning to speak Indonesian, and the lack of promotion of West Australian tourism in Indonesia, and says while a “new trade agreement is a good start…What will really count… is how committed the new foreign affairs minister will be to developing a seriously close relationship with Indonesia.”
Former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia Sabam Siagian believes Carr is an excellent choice for foreign minister.
“With Bob Carr as foreign minister, we expect that Australia will conduct a consistent foreign policy — devoid of internal politicking at the top echelons – and will continue to implement [former Prime Minister] Paul Keating’s geopolitical views in developing closer relationships with her neighbors, the ASEAN countries, and the major Asian powers.
“Indonesia and Australia, based on their unique geopolitical positions, should work together as effective partners to speed up the completion of such a security order that will be the underpinning for stability and prosperity in the West Pacific and Indian Ocean regions,” Siagian wrote in the Jakarta Post.
Domestically, organisations like Oxfam Australia have urged Carr to continue with the current review of Australia’s aid program.
The Director of the Development Policy Centre, Stephen Howes says there are five challenges facing Carr in relation to delivery of foreign aid:
- The need for geographic consolidation (exiting Latin America and the Caribbean and working with established international organizations and NGOs in Africa)
- Focus on aid effectiveness. Some 15% of all aid projects are failing, by AusAID’s own admission, and not because of fraud
- Improvements in the way the aid program is evaluated
- Improved transparency, starting with the release of AusAID’s performance data, and
- Changing of the title of the Foreign Minister to reflect the importance of development assistance as part of Australia’s international relationships.
Former Australian foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer says his guess is, Carr will be ok.
“If Australia wants to promote its narrow self-interest as well as its broader interests in security and economic liberalism, then it needs a foreign minister who “knows stuff” and has thought about these issues over a long period of time,” says Downer.
“Senator Carr has, of course, been a state politician so his preoccupations in politics have been otherwise. But intellectually, he has always had an interest in foreign affairs, history and the evolution of civilisations. He is well-read and well-travelled.”
Downer claims “Mr Rudd shamelessly used the job to promote himself and try to win back the prime ministership. He ignored countries which didn’t make good media copy, such as PNG, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. So Senator Carr will have to give them plenty of time.
“He will also have to build a broad-based relationship with the Indonesians. He has to work on solving the people-smuggling racket, of course, but he needs to do so in a broader context of our bilateral relationship; it will be easier to solve if it is just one issue, not the issue.”
For Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, the big question for Australia and Carr, is ”how it positions itself between the United States and China as the strategic rivalry between them grows.”
White believes if the trend towards “mutual antagonism” between the two powers is not reversed, “it will end in disaster for us.”
He says Carr’s position-as a private citizen- was that America should continue to play a central role in Asia, but not necessarily the dominant role. For White, this portends a “truly momentous shift.”