Australian Prime Minister John Howard yesterday delivered Pacific island countries a blunt message that they should not look to temporary visas in Australia for an economic quick-fix and should instead work harder to attract foreign investment.
Howard spoke to reporters on the sidelines of a day-long retreat of leaders of 16 Pacific Island Forum countries at a resort in the tropical seaside town of Madang.
They were expected to approve an ambitious "Pacific Plan", which aims to improve the economic prospects, governance and security in the region of mostly tiny and poor states through pooling resources.
Pacific island countries, many of which rely heavily on remittances from overseas workers, have long wanted greater access to the region's economic superpower Australia and to New Zealand for their workers.
Kiribati President Anote Tong said this week he believed Australia and New Zealand were more prepared to consider the idea than in the past.
But Howard told reporters the island nations should not be looking for any economic quick-fix from temporary worker schemes.
Australia would help island countries build their economies and this would be of much greater value than some "imaginary relief" from a guest worker program, he said.
"The answer is to build the economies of these countries, the answer is to have good rules of governance to make these countries more attractive to foreign investment, to have clear stable investment laws so that people feel confident in investing ... These are the answers the forum should concentrate on," Howard added.
The prime minister, along with his New Zealand counterpart Helen Clark, has been a major driving force of the Pacific Plan, which was conceived last year in the wake of 2003's regional military intervention to stop civil unrest in the Solomon Islands, the 2000 Fiji coup and instability in Papua New Guinea.
Australia and New Zealand have since stepped up their engagement in the region including providing police personnel and leadership in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
Howard said it was important to maintain the momentum for change which accompanied the launch of the idea in Auckland early last year.
"We must keep faith with the spirit of the Auckland meeting and the Auckland meeting was about pooling resources and a greater emphasis on good governance."
The sprawling plan sets the regional agenda for the next decade and includes 22 proposals for implementation in the next three years.
Many of these 22 proposals, covering areas such as trade liberalization, education and transport, are based on programs which were already underway and are short on specifics.
Howard described the plan as a major step forward, despite any limitations.
"You can always hope for more but these things are developed by consensus," he said.
The plan is expected to be endorsed by leaders who return to the capital Port Moresby for their final session today.
In their closed meeting, they were also expected to discuss ways of dealing with the threat of a bird flu pandemic.