CANBERRA - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed more than New Zealand counterpart John Key's cast when he flew to Port Moresby for the Pacific Forum summit.
He confirmed his Government's intention to shift relations with the islands into a higher gear - including closer co-operation with Wellington in the region - and to shed the "neo-colonialism" tag that had attached to the policies of his conservative predecessor John Howard.
Significantly, Rudd resisted the temptation for megaphone diplomacy by ensuring Australia's much larger profile did not overshadow those of Pacific leaders forging a sharp new direction toward Fiji and democracy across the region.
"It is important for the forum to speak with one voice, and we have," he said after its leaders announced their election ultimatum to Fiji. "This was an important threshold for the Pacific Islands leaders to cross. They've crossed it today, and they've done so unanimously."
While he was in Port Moresby, Rudd also announced "Pacific Partnerships" with the Solomons and Kiribati, adding to others previously signed with Papua New Guinea and Samoa, and a development memorandum of understanding with Nauru.
The partnerships were launched as a centrepiece of Rudd's Port Moresby declaration in March last year, targeting economic infrastructure, private sector development, education, health services and governance.
Rudd also said Australia would host this year's forum in Cairns, north Queensland, in August.
His presence at this week's special meeting in itself sent a strong message to the region. Rudd took time out from a furious domestic schedule to underline Canberra's commitment and the strength of its feelings on Fiji, and brought along Treasurer Wayne Swan to make use of travel time to continue working on further measures to contain the fallout from the global financial crisis.
His attendance continued the emphasis the Labor Government has placed on restoring Australia's severely strained relations with the region.
One of Rudd's early priorities was to appoint a special parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Duncan Kerr, and despatch him and foreign affairs parliamentary secretary Bob McMullan to Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati within months of taking office.
Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith also worked early and hard to repair Canberra's shattered relations with PNG and the Solomons, and to launch new initiatives across the region.
These included a three-year pilot scheme for seasonal workers from PNG, Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu, overturning the former Coalition Government's reluctance to follow Wellington's lead.
Money sent home by seasonal workers pumps millions of dollars into struggling Pacific economies and the pilot scheme has been welcomed not only as an economic pump but also as a practical symbol of goodwill.
And as well as closer co-operation with New Zealand, Canberra is also strengthening relations with France, which it regards as a key regional player.
"The Government of Australia is committed to beginning a new era of co-operation with the island nations of the Pacific," Rudd said in his landmark declaration at Port Moresby .
"Australia respects the independence of the island nations, and the diversity and complexity of development challenges across our region."
This week Rudd shows that he means business.By Greg Ansley Email Greg