Australian government officials are working to bolster Canberra’s relationship with Kiribati as the rule of law corrodes in the Pacific nation.
The foreign affairs department’s Pacific office head Ewen McDonald led talks with Kiribati officials via video conference on Tuesday.
Discussions spanned co-operation on development, security and the economy and included Kiribati’s foreign affairs deputy secretary Benny Teuea.
Asia Pacific affairs expert Graeme Smith said Australia is right to be concerned about the breakdown of the rule of law after Kiribati’s Attorney-General Tetiro Semilota was appointed acting chief justice.
Professor Smith said the government is trying to stack the judiciary as it tries to cling to power.
“They’re in a situation where the government should be dissolved and there should be an election,” he told AAP.
“If we say we support democratic values, then we should stand up for them.”
A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman told AAP Australia had a strong interest in the rule of law and democratic values.
“We have encouraged the resolution of these issues as part of our ongoing engagement with the government of Kiribati,” he said.
All superior court justices in Kiribati remain suspended, including Australian Justice David Lambourne, who the government tried to deport before the order was blocked by Chief Justice Bill Hastings.
The New Zealand judge was subsequently suspended as well.
A deep dive into regional aid by the Lowy Institute revealed both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands are being targeted by Chinese funds.
But Professor Smith said it’s not as simple as Pacific nations moving away from democracy and towards Beijing.
“It’s Pacific regimes learning from other Pacific regimes,” he said.
He pointed to the passing of media gagging laws in Fiji as an example.
“Others looked at that and thought, ‘If they can muscle journalists, then we can too’.
“That’s how these things can happen and fly under the radar,” he said.