Listening more, listening better
Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Around the world, governments have rediscovered the Pacific. The political leaders of Australia and many other countries are talking a lot about engaging with the region through strengthened relationships through business, aid, sport, community contacts and more. Everyone who is seeking to (re) engage in our region comes with the assurance that they are ‘here to listen’.
But how good is their listening? Which Pacific voices are doing the talking, and do Pacific island people feel that they are really being heard?
Peacifica and the Whitlam Institute are undertaking an exciting new research project, which aims to take listening to a new level – and to lay a foundation for deeper long-term dialogue. We will be listening to a diverse range of people in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and asking questions that allow them to tell us what really matters to them in terms of where they see themselves in the world and how they feel about relationships between their countries and other countries, including Australia. This work contributes to Peacifica’s wider goals to support development by building and sustaining peace. It contributes to the Whitlam Institute’s public policy theme Australia in the World,
which is focused on building long-term mutually respectful relationships between Australia and its partners in the region and beyond.
The term ‘Pacific step-up’ trips off the tongue of ministers and officials when they are talking about the Pacific here in Australia, or during their visits to Pacific island countries. But it is a term that originated in Canberra, at a time when Pacific island people are also facing New Zealand’s ‘reset’, the UK’s ‘uplift’, China’s ‘belt and road’ and more. Do any of these resonate among Pacific islander people? Whilst there is every reason to believe that the Pacific step-up is welcomed by Pacific islanders and their leaders, it follows a history of inconstant Australian attention. Australia has consistently been the region’s largest aid donor but has tended to react to crises rather than invest in long term partnerships. Pacific island peoples want to be heard – a partnership between Australia and the region depends on respectful, genuine dialogue.
Our project will ask Pacific islanders what they think about how these initiatives fit into their world. It will amplify Pacific voices, which are not yet given sufficient space in critical conversations.This project will allow us to learn from people in Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.
Our research takes as its starting point that Australia’s national interests are best served when informed by a deep understanding and respect for the perspectives and priorities of its close neighbours. We will contribute to closing this gap by collecting the views of diverse Pacific islanders from Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu on their countries’ and region’s future place in the world. We will be learning not only from prominent individuals in Pacific island countries, but also from people from the wider community. We will ask young people, women, members of civil society and the business community how they see their own country, how they see where their country sits in the wider Pacific region, and what they want foreign policy engagements (whether with Australia or other countries) to deliver for them, their families, their communities, and their nations. From there we will identify what role and opportunities there may be for Australia in that future.
We are excited to be working with research partners in each of the countries that our project covers – Development Services Exchange in Solomon Islands, Linda Kenni in Vanuatu, Citizen’s Constitutional Forum in Fiji and others, as well as our Australian based researchers Dr Tess Newton Cain, Dr Geir Henning Presterudstuen and James Cox. Our partners bring a wealth of experience and understanding to the project. As this project progresses our relationships will deepen and form the basis of more collaborations in the future. We are also fortunate to have the guidance provided by an expert advisory group, led by Dr Michael Mel, Manager of the Pacific and International Collections at the Australian Museum and comprising members from Sydney’s Pacific community and a number of specialists in development, peacebuilding and Pacific affairs.
We hope that what we learn from listening to Pacific island people in their own countries will contribute to Australia’s foreign policy thinking and effectiveness and enrich its political, economic, developmental and cultural engagement with the Pacific.
We also hope that our findings will be useful as an advocacy resource for Pacific islander policy makers and civil society groups.
Most importantly, we hope that this is just one step in a longer dialogue that enriches us all.