Scott Morrison has returned from summer holidays with a herculean political challenge looming — in only a few months he’ll take his Coalition Government to the polls and try to pull off an unlikely election victory.
But the Prime Minister won’t spend his first week back touring marginal seats or locked in strategic conclaves with his advisers.
Instead, he’ll kick off 2019 by jetting to the Pacific island nations of Vanuatu and Fiji for a state visit.
In a small way, Mr Morrison is making history.
Australian prime ministers typically spend much more time flying over the Pacific than visiting it.
While they often jet into the region to attend annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders meetings, formal bilateral trips like this are almost unheard of.
No Australian PM has visited Vanuatu since 1990, when Bob Hawke attended the PIF leaders meeting.
John Howard went to Fiji back in 2006 for the same reason.
Australian National University academic and former diplomat James Batley — who has represented Australia in several Pacific nations — says there’s powerful symbolism at play.
“It’s extremely unusual for an Australian prime minister to make a bilateral visit of this nature. It’s a very important signal,” he said.
And it doesn’t come out of nowhere.
China’s interest in the region
Last year the Morrison Government made a series of high-profile promises as part of its Pacific “step up”, including a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure bank, several new diplomatic posts, and a permanent new Defence training force.
It’s all part of a concerted push to reassert Australia’s influence and centrality in the region, which is being increasingly challenged by new players like China.
The Prime Minister’s visit is designed to reinforce the message that Australia is taking the Pacific seriously.
“It is part of a refocus of our international efforts on our own region and making sure we can have the biggest possible difference,” Mr Morrison told the ABC’s News Breakfast program.
“This is about demonstrating following through on the announcements I made last year, about stepping up our security partnerships, stepping up our economic and cultural partnerships.”
And Mr Batley says Mr Morrison might have grasped that in order to do so, he must build a strong personal rapport with his Pacific counterparts.
“We have a very strong diplomatic network in the region, but the personal relationships between leaders are absolutely critical to the success of Australia’s policies,” Mr Batley said.
So expect Mr Morrison to be greeted with ceremony and goodwill when he touches down in both countries.
But there are still stumbling blocks and points of tension — including some that have been conjured out of thin air by the Coalition.
Dutton’s stumble with Fiji over citizenship
Three days after Christmas, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced the Government had stripped Islamist extremist Neil Prakash of his Australian citizenship.
The Government said it could take this step because Prakash — who’s currently sitting in a Turkish jail — inherited Fijian citizenship from his father.
But Fijian officials rejected that claim within days, insisting that neither Prakash or his father were ever Fijian citizens, and making it very clear the Islamic State extremist would not be welcome in their country.
Some people in the Fijian Government were also quietly flabbergasted that Australia would make the announcement only weeks before Mr Morrison’s crucial, and meticulously planned, visit.
But Mr Morrison told the ABC that Canberra had been in discussions with Suva over the Prakash debacle.
“We have been dealing with that issue between the governments over the last few weeks, including from leader to leader,” he said.
The issue has revived the most damaging caricature of Australia in the Pacific — as a high-handed power contemptuously indifferent to the concerns of its smaller neighbours.
Mr Batley says the dispute was “very untidy” and showed a “lack of coordination within the Australian Government”.
“It shouldn’t have happened in that way. Now it’s on the table. They will have to deal with it, one way or the other,” he said.
Still, both Fijian and Australian Government staffers have worked to smooth over the dispute, and Mr Batley predicts it won’t overshadow Mr Morrison’s trip.
“It’s not in the interests of either government to have a public spat about it during the Prime Minister’s visit,” Mr Batley said.
Australia increases security ties
Australia’s unease about the increasing strategic competition in the Pacific is fuelled by military anxieties, particularly the prospect of a Chinese base in the region.
There was a mad flurry in Canberra last year when Nine reported that China had approached Vanuatu about establishing a naval base in the country.
The claim has been forcefully and repeatedly denied by the Government of Vanuatu, which is a committed member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
But Australia has still been working overtime to buttress its security ties with Vanuatu, announcing last year it would help it train more than 300 new police recruits and upgrade the facilities used by Vanuatu’s military forces.
During this visit, Mr Morrison will open a new police college refurbished with Australian aid money, and there’s speculation he might announce the two nations have finished their negotiations on a bilateral security treaty.
Pacific observers will also be watching Mr Morrison very closely in Fiji to see if there are any announcements to boost military cooperation.
Last year Australia successfully beat China to fund the redevelopment of Fiji’s Black Rock camp in Nadi, which is being transformed into a training hub for defence forces around the region.
It’s possible the base could be used as the centre for the Australian Pacific Security College, which will offer training to senior police and bureaucrats across the region.
The Australian Government hopes the college will build a powerful alumni network that will instinctively turns toward Canberra — rather than other capitals — when they want to ensure their security.
And while any military announcements will attract headlines, Australia’s equally intent on using the Prime Minister’s trip to push its economic agenda.
So far, Fiji, like Papua New Guinea, has resisted calls to join PACER Plus — a Pacific free trade agreement championed by Australia and New Zealand.
Just before last year’s election Fijian ministers indicated they were close to signing, but there’s been radio silence for the past couple of months.
If Mr Morrison can fly home with Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s signature on PACER Plus then his investment of time in the Pacific will have paid strong dividends.