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Strong ties with Pacific island nations should be Australia's global calling card but instead it is a blind spot.
That's the view of opposition's defence spokesman Richard Marles, who says the lack of a proper strategy to strengthen relationships with Pacific neighbours is the single biggest hole in Australia's national security approach.
Papua New Guinea, with a population double the size of New Zealand, was central to Australia's national security, he told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference.
“We ought to be thinking a lot more about it,” he said, pointing out that there was more talk about the Middle East in Australia than PNG.
He would make “evolving” those relationships a priority for a future Labor government, he told a strategic policy conference in Canberra on Wednesday.
Marles acknowledged Australia had to tread carefully when it came to respecting the sovereignty of Pacific island nations.
But the bigger risk was showing a lack of interest.
“They want to know that we care,” Marles said.
He said the Pacific region was Australia's “global calling card” and the US often scratched its head over why Australia was reluctant to show more leadership in its immediate neighbour.
Pacific nations performed the worst in the millennium development goals which aim to improve poverty rates, health and education outcomes.
Marles, who was a parliamentary secretary for Pacific islands under Julia Gillard, said the development of African countries was set to surpass that of Pacific nations in the 2020s.
He has seen firsthand slums across the world in places like Bangladesh and refugee camps in Africa but the worst human circumstances he had ever witnessed was on an island in Kiribati.
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media