Interests in the South Pacific, Africa and the Middle East :
The South Pacific, Africa and Middle East Division administers this sub-program. The division comprises three branches: the Middle East and Africa Branch, the Pacific Islands Branch, and the New Zealand and Papua New Guinea Branch. The division’s area of responsibility also includes 23 Australian overseas posts: Abu Dhabi, Amman, Apia, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Harare, Honiara, Lagos, Nairobi, Noumea, Nuku’alofa, Pohnpei, Port Louis, Port Moresby, Port Vila, Pretoria, Riyadh, Suva, Tarawa, Tehran, Tel Aviv and Wellington, covering 78 countries. During the year, Australia opened a new embassy in Abu Dhabi, and the division acquired responsibility (from Sub-program 1.2) for the high commission in Port Louis. In addition, the division is responsible for the Torres Strait Treaty Liaison Office on Thursday Island.
n.a.: Not applicable.
Objectives, Performance Indicators and Results
Ministers expressed satisfaction with the department’s reporting, analysis and policy advice on these regions over the past 12 months, especially in relation to Bougainville and our support for an expansion of Australia’s ties with the Gulf region and Iran. Ministers were particularly pleased with the policy and administrative support provided for their overseas travel and for major international meetings in which they were involved. The ministerial visits were to Papua New Guinea and to several countries in the South Pacific, to the United Arab Emirates and Iran, and to New Zealand. The meetings were the August 1998 South Pacific Forum in Pohnpei, the Australia–PNG Ministerial Forum in Cairns and, in the same month, foreign ministerial talks with Fiji in Nadi. In addition, Joint Ministerial Commissions were held with the United Arab Emirates in September 1998 in Melbourne, with South Africa in December 1998 in Canberra, and with Iran in March 1999 in Tehran.
Feedback from the Australian business community was good. Both the new post in Abu Dhabi and the department’s contribution to the conclusion of a bilateral Trade and Economic Relations Agreement with Fiji in March 1999 were welcomed by business. In addition, we supported efforts—which were successful—to include a business segment during the Australia–PNG Ministerial Forum, as well as providing support for the large business delegation that accompanied Mr Fischer to Iran in March 1999.
In what was a difficult year for Papua New Guinea, we concentrated our efforts on reinforcing our strong and extensive links and engaging the PNG Government on issues of importance to Australia’s interests. These relate particularly to the PNG economy (support for economic reform and better economic management, and encouraging Papua New Guinea to re-engage with the IMF and World Bank), and to law and order, overall governance, and a peaceful settlement on Bougainville. With the support of the department, Australia has used ministerial and officials’ level dialogue, and its substantial aid and defence cooperation programs with Papua New Guinea to advance these interests. Visits to Papua New Guinea by Mr Downer and Mr Fischer in December 1998, and the Australia–PNG Ministerial Forum in Cairns in the same month, all helped to underline the importance Australia places on these issues. However, these messages have not always been easy ones and have not always led to improvements. The department also cooperated closely with AusAID in negotiations towards the conclusion of a new bilateral aid treaty with Papua New Guinea. This was initialled by Mr Downer and the PNG Foreign Minister, Mr Roy Yaki, in May 1999.
During the year, we assisted Australian efforts to help Papua New Guinea in the wake of natural disasters. Principal among these problems were the major PNG drought and the Aitape tsunami.
We were particularly active—as the lead agency in the process—in supporting efforts to achieve a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Bougainville conflict. As well as helping to arrange peace-related travel and meetings, our assistance was channelled through Australia’s large aid program to Bougainville (through the PNG Government) and through Australia’s substantial contribution to the Peace Monitoring Group on Bougainville. During the year, we coordinated five rotations of the Peace Monitoring Group and a total of 93 peace monitors: 46 personnel from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 27 from the Department of Defence, 10 from AusAID and 10 from the Australian Federal Police. Considerable progress had been made towards a long-term settlement by the end of 1999, especially through the establishment of a representative Bougainville People’s Congress in May 1999.
The department coordinated inter-agency consultations on regional law and order and associated security issues, which maintained the momentum and focus on implementing the Forum Regional Security Committee’s Action Plan in this area. The department also contributed significantly to Australia’s response to mounting ethnic tension in the Solomon Islands in June 1999. Our assistance was focused on helping the Solomon Islands Government to deal effectively with both the law and order and the humanitarian problems resulting from this crisis.
In close cooperation with Austrade, the department provided assistance to Australian exporters to the Middle East, and worked actively to reduce barriers to Australian exports in the region. With this support, Australian trade with the Persian Gulf countries in particular continued to grow impressively, with exports to the region rising by 12.7 per cent to $4.7 billion in 1998. Exports to the United Arab Emirates also grew very strongly, to reach $1.16 billion in 1998. The UAE became Australia’s largest market for automotive exports in 1998. Our establishment of a new embassy in Abu Dhabi should help in building on these good figures. We also supported visits by both Mr Downer and Mr Fischer to the UAE (in January and February 1999 respectively), which reinforced the importance the Australian Government attaches to expanding the bilateral relationship.
Following extensive negotiations involving both the department in Canberra and the embassy in Riyadh, we reached agreement with Saudi Arabia in June 1999 to recommence the live sheep trade, with a trial shipment to take place during the third quarter of 1999. Regulations affecting livestock exports to Jordan were also improved. In addition, we worked actively to ensure that access was maintained to key Middle East markets for Australian lupins.
In Egypt, our wide-ranging, high-level contacts and intensive representations on a range of tariff, customs, standards and health issues have raised the profile of these issues with our Egyptian counterparts. Notably, these representations resulted in tariffs on wheat being maintained at a reduced level, thus saving Australian industry millions of dollars. We also developed strategies to assist Australian companies penetrate the Egyptian market, intervening to support particular Australian business projects related to cattle, seafood, corned beef and wool. These efforts contributed to an 18 per cent increase in exports to Egypt, despite a drop in wheat sales (for seasonal reasons in Australia).
We also contributed significantly—both in a policy and an administrative sense—to the success of Joint Ministerial Commission meetings with the UAE and with Iran. These meetings resulted in agreement with Iran to pursue dialogue on human rights, arms control and narcotics issues. Other substantial inputs were made to policy development on Iran, especially regarding Australia’s potentially very strong commercial relationship with Iran. A further focus was on exports to Libya (especially of live cattle), to ensure Australian exporters took advantage of the suspension of UN sanctions towards that country.
Also, under the provisions of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, the department facilitated clearance of applications for export to Iraq. As a result, a considerable amount of Australian wheat was exported to Iraq.
The department has worked hard to expand Australia’s important commercial relationship with South Africa. To this end, we contributed actively to the policy and administrative success of the Australia–South Africa Joint Ministerial Commission meeting held in Canberra in December 1998. At this meeting, both sides expressed their commitment to finalising a bilateral Double Taxation Agreement and to continuing to work towards a Mutual Recognition Agreement on Conformity Assessment. Ministers from Australia and South Africa also signed a bilateral Extradition Agreement and senior officials from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the South African Department of Trade and Industry signed a Document of Cooperation.
We demonstrated Australian expertise in the mining and energy management areas during a visit we organised for the Tanzanian Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Mr Patrick Rutabanzibwa. This visit in November 1998, together with targeted high-level representations from the embassy in Nairobi, contributed to the gazettal of a VAT exemption for the Tanzanian mining sector, in which Australian mining service firms continue to secure lucrative contracts.
Australian heads of mission in Africa met in October 1998 in Pretoria, and agreed on ways to improve support for Australian business in the region. Recognising the need to improve the flow of departmental information to Australian business on African markets, we subsequently began producing a series of briefing papers on African countries. We also developed an online version for the Internet of our newsletter Africa Matters, which was launched in June 1999 by the Parliamentary Secretary for Trade, Mr Larry Anthony.
We provided extensive policy and administrative support for consultative visits to New Zealand by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, Mr Downer and Mr Fischer (in February and June 1999 and December 1998 respectively). These activities were designed to enhance further our cooperation with New Zealand, one of Australia’s most important international partners, at both bilateral and multilateral levels. New Zealand is a very significant market for Australian exports (about $5.7 billion in 1998), particularly of manufactured goods, and also represents a major source of foreign investment.
The department contributed to the work of the joint task force established by the Australian and NZ prime ministers in February 1999 to address a small number of unresolved bilateral issues, including more equitable social security arrangements. The task force is expected to issue a joint communique early in the 1999–2000 financial year.
We also coordinated work among agencies in Canberra aimed at further strengthening economic integration under the Australia–New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement. Of particular note in this regard was Australia’s further liberalisation of the trans-Tasman trade in NZ services, flowing from economic reforms in Australia. In addition, we worked closely with Austrade to identify a number of major opportunities for Australian companies in the NZ energy and environment sectors, including a potential $10 million contract for electricity substation software.
Using our contacts in Canberra and Wellington with leading NZ decision- and opinion- makers, we contributed to Australian efforts to emphasise to New Zealand the importance Australia attaches to a credible level of NZ defence expenditure. In this context, Australia welcomed New Zealand’s equipment acquisition decisions for the army and air force during the past year.
The department successfully managed Australia’s active involvement in a wide range of regional meetings (which its representatives also attended), including the South Pacific Forum, the Pacific Community and the Forum Fisheries Committee. Outcomes on economic reform, the proposed South Pacific Whale Sanctuary and climate change at the August 1998 South Pacific Forum meeting in Pohnpei reflected strong Australian influence and advocacy, which were underpinned by the efforts of the department and its 10 South Pacific posts.
Australia has important interests at stake—both in terms of ensuring effective and sustainable management and conservation of the region’s fisheries resources, and as a possible distant-water fishing nation—in the work of the Multilateral High-Level Conference tasked with drawing up a draft fisheries treaty for the Central and Western Pacific. The treaty will cover principles for conservation and management, the scientific basis for fisheries management, and arrangements for monitoring fishing activity. We coordinated the multi-agency preparation of Australian policy objectives, and strategies for achieving these, during the lead-up to the fourth session of the conference. We also led the Australian delegation to that meeting and to relevant Forum Fisheries Agency meetings. As a result, good progress was made towards the conclusion of this major agreement.
A series of meetings over the past year reinforced the importance of economic reform and improvements in governance among South Pacific Forum countries. These meetings, underpinned by a strong Australian contribution coordinated by the department and its posts in the South Pacific, included the South Pacific Forum held in Pohnpei in August 1998 and the second meeting of Forum economic ministers held in July 1998, as well as other ministerial and officials’ meetings convened during the year. Australia’s bilateral discussions with Pacific Island country governments maintained and strengthened this reform focus, although the political challenge of reform for many of them remains great. We also worked with AusAID to provide continuing practical support for improved economic management through Australian and multilateral aid programs.
In addition, the department sought to expand Australia’s economic and commercial links in the South Pacific region, which accounted for about $2.1 billion of Australian exports in 1998. In particular, we negotiated a bilateral Trade and Economic Relations Agreement with Fiji, which was signed in March 1999.
Through our overseas posts we maintained our close links with a wide range of contacts, including academics and others active in this geographic area, especially on PNG and South Pacific but also Middle East issues. We also sought to promote positive images of Australia by sponsoring visits of senior officials from Lebanon, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. During these visits we arranged to showcase Australian expertise, including in the fields of mining, health, large-scale infrastructure development, tourism, environmental management, education and training, and law and governance. While we usually expect results in the long term from such visits, two immediate outcomes were the offer to advise Australian legal/judicial practitioners of employment opportunities in the Marshall Islands (previously largely sourced from the United States), and a new, regular information exchange between the Samoan and Queensland audit offices.
We strengthened our information flow to the general public and to business through our Internet website, and through the launch in June 1999 of our online Africa Matters newsletter. Although still early, initial public reaction to the site, including the newsletter, has been positive.