Kevin Rudd has rightly been accused of sometimes inflating the idea of Australia’s importance in the world. His plans for a new Asian order, for instance, seem a trifle ambitious for an underpopulated island sitting on the southern fringe. But last week he was unequivocally right: Australia is undeniably the biggest fish in the South Pacific and is entitled and obliged to take leadership in the area.

In practice this has not always been the case: the smaller island nations have often found Australia to be overbearing and aloof, and have turned to New Zealand for a more sympathetic response to the region’s problems.

This was particularly true during the last decade: John Howard seldom bothered to attend the South Pacific Forum and, apart from the occasional initiative like the police intervention in the Solomons, regarded the Pacific as an inconveniently large stretch of water separating him from the United States.

True, it had its uses: a couple of bankrupt and slightly corrupt clients could be bribed to provide dumping grounds for asylum seekers, giving rise to the absurdly named Pacific Solution. But this was symbolic of the contempt in which Howard held the island states.

His flat refusal to even consider their request for shelter should the predicted rise in sea level submerge some of their present homelands made it clear that he saw no real role for Australia beyond that of occasional bully. Thus Rudd’s whole-hearted participation in the Niue forum was welcomed as much for the long-overdue change of direction as for the actual achievements.

Not that the achievements were insubstantial; Rudd’s tactful guidance of the Forum towards a hard line on Fiji suggests that in his time in Foreign Affairs he must have been an outstanding diplomat. But it was his announcement of the guest worker scheme, by which Islanders will be invited to fill vacant seasonal jobs in the rural sector, which really caught the imagination. For the Islanders, this was a turnaround akin to ending the White Australia policy.

Alexander Downer belatedly revealed that he had actually proposed such a scheme to Howard, but Howard had turned him down flat, basically because he was afraid of a Pauline Hanson-style backlash. Any suggestion that shaky National Party seats were being flooded by black people was to be avoided at all costs. The only way Islanders were going to get residence in Australia during the Howard years was if they were exceptionally good at football.

This rejection reflected Howard’s underlying racism, but it is true that, where Islander workers are concerned, Australia has an historical image problem.

The Australian sugar industry was built largely through what was known as blackbirding: entrepreneurs would find an unscrupulous shipmaster and sail empty to the islands. They would then lure the inhabitants aboard with food and trinkets, and take off. On arrival back in Australia the kidnapped victims would be met by plantation owners who would offer to look after them; effectively they became slave labour.

The practice ended not through any moral compunction, but because the Kanakas, as they were called, were seen to be depressing wages and conditions for white workers and taking their jobs during the great depression of the 1890s. It was major issue at the time of federation and led to the adoption of the White Australia policy.

Over a century later the sordid tale has generally been forgotten, but as Downer noted, there still might be something a bit iffy about the picture of imported darkies toiling in the fields while the white master sipped a mint julep on the veranda of the homestead. Nonetheless the Australian growers were desperate for seasonal workers and the Islanders were queuing up to get on the list. It looked like a win-win situation– until the Aborigines complained.

Leading figures like Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson pointed out that there were very large numbers of Aborigines unemployed in rural areas; if there were jobs available, surely it they should go to the locals. And if there weren’t enough locals where they were needed, then they could be bussed in; even if it meant bring them from Cape York to the Riverina, it had to be easier than hauling them half way across the Pacific.

Horticulturists and officials replied that this was all very well, but a lot of the unemployed locals, both black and white, simply didn’t want seasonal work as crop pickers; those that did were snapped up as soon as they applied. The rest, for various reasons — cultural, family, or just personal preference — were content to remain on the dole. Then, said Mundine, they should be compelled to take the jobs, especially if they were young: aborigines from 18 to 21 should be denied the dole altogether.

This discriminatory suggestion was unsurprisingly rejected by the government; after all, it amounted to a form of internal blackbirding. But it may well turn out that the mere presence of enthusiastic imported workers will tempt some of the locals to give it a try as well. It certainly won’t keep them out of work; after all, the scheme is based on the premise that the jobs will only be offered to Islanders if it can be proved that Australians can not be found to fill them. Back to win-win.

And there is a useful spin off: in the unlikely event that Howard’s fear of a racist backlash had any foundation, the small seasonal influx will give white Australians a chance to adjust to the idea of Islanders in their midst. They’d better. There is now no real doubt that the seas will rise and that Australia will accept its share of the resulting climate refugees. Rudd’s Pacific Solution will be lot more humane than Howard’s.