Australia misses another chance to renew its Pacific relationships
Today Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined the ranks of Australian politicians who have rediscovered the Pacific region. The initiatives that were announced are a reaction to China’s emergence and an attempt to strengthen regional security through familiar strategic channels. This is hardly a surprise and it is quite possible that some good will come out of some of it, but in reality this announcement is much more about Australian interests than it is the Pacific Islands’.
Mr Morrison said that the announcement would take Australia’s engagement with the Pacific to 'a new level.’ It may do this, but only insofar as it offers more of what we have already been doing. More security cooperation, more infrastructure, more diplomacy. Seen from the Pacific this probably does not look especially transformative – instead it looks more like dressing up what Australia wants as what the Pacific wants.
This is made clearer in the other two policy announcements in the Prime Minister’s statement. The first, strengthened sporting ties, is a good idea as far as it goes. Sport is one of the interests that are shared by many Australians and Pacific Islanders, and a diverse sporting program that goes beyond the football codes has potential to bring us closer together.
But is singling out sport as the only form of cultural collaboration in the announcement missing an opportunity? Why was there no program to support exchange in dance, theatre or storytelling? How about a scheme to promote ties between Pacific and Australian textile makers and weavers? The announcement privileges male-dominated pursuits at the expense of female driven ones. When Pacific women are so often the region’s change-makers, this is a strange omission.
The second announcement is the decision to support commercial Australian media to transmit ‘quality Australian media content’. It is in this announcement that the reversal of this government’s past mistakes is most evident, but it appears that the new service will miss a chance to be truly relevant to Pacific audiences. This initiative could have been framed as ‘developing a new service that meets the information needs of Pacific Island people as well as showcasing the best of Australia’s media’. Instead it comes across as looking like an opportunity to blast Australian TV shows across the islands: "What better way to stay in connection than through the lifestyle and everyday experiences we are all lucky enough to enjoy," he said. This runs the risk of being little more than a chance for an Australian commercial media corporation to secure a lucrative contract.
Today’s announcement responds to the situation on China’s terms rather than capitalising on the distinctive features of the relationship between the states and peoples of the Pacific and Australia. For whatever reason, successive governments have failed to consider that relationship in depth. Here are three ideas that speak to things that Australia is uniquely placed to offer, in addition to what was announced today:
Act like we are close. Geographically, historically and culturally Australia and the south west Pacific countries truly are neighbours. Yet Australia does its utmost to keep Pacific Island people – and especially its young people – at arm’s length. Mixed signals on labour migration mean that Australia’s promising Pacific labour mobility schemes are at risk. Visa requirements for Pacific Islanders are administratively and financially onerous, while Australians can roam the region at will. We have a vast and untapped reservoir of shared history, especially between Aboriginal people and Pacific Islanders. We can do so much more with this, and the renewal of Australian broadcasting represents a perfect place to start.
Respond to climate change. Mr Morrison’s announcement referenced the Boe Declaration, but in doing so ignored its top headline: Climate change is the greatest threat to the Pacific’s security. We can only assume that the region’s newly coordinated militaries will collaborate, Canute-like, to turn back the waves. Australia’s blindness on this has to end. Being seen to take climate change seriously, and on the region’s terms, would be the single biggest step that Australia could make in strengthening regional cooperation.
Build human security. The things that matter most for Pacific women, young people and people with disabilities are access to basic services and livelihoods, protection from violence and the effects of climate change, and a chance to be heard. Security through effective policing and defence is only ever part of the job of keeping them safe. Thriving societies powered by healthy, safe and productive people are just as important. This requires that Australia’s aid and foreign policy put on its feminist glasses to correct the myopia evident in today’s announcement. Even though there are numerous good programs for women and youth in the Australian aid program, their absence from today’s announcement is telling.
Prime Minister Morrison missed an opportunity today. Rather than taking Australia’s relationship with the Pacific up a level, he could have taken it deeper. We can have a future in which in which the women, men and young people of the Pacific and Australia truly know and respect each other, but this announcement is not going to take us there.