Pacific Perspectives on the World: Initiating a dialogue on the path to peace
When we read about the Pacific, whose voices do we hear? Who is informing the policies that affect the lives of Pacific islander people? What do Pacific islanders think about what is most important in their lives and how do they perceive the role of Australia, China and other countries?
It was in reaction to questions like these that Peacifica was engaged by the Whitlam Institute to conduct research into Pacific Perspectives on the World. Both organisations were concerned that international interest in ‘the Pacific’ was growing without giving attention to the views and experiences of Pacific islanders themselves – that their input was not being sought on things that have a direct bearing on their daily lives. At Peacifica we were particularly concerned that this could affect regional peace and stability. The Pacific Perspectives on the World research project sought to listen to Pacific voices, and thereby contribute to the articulation of a Pacific agenda.
As an organisation dedicated to promoting peace, a priority for Peacifica is to create space for all groups to contribute their ideas and expertise to address shared concerns. It’s a simple and well-tested concept: inclusive dialogue increases the likelihood of benefit to all and improves the sustainability of peace and prosperity. The profusion of new Pacific-focused initiatives has resulted in significant opportunities for the region, but has also generated competing interests and has the potential to create new instabilities. This makes it all the more important to engage in dialogue with Pacific islanders to ensure that their interests are met, and that damaging assumptions are avoided.
It was in order to avoid such assumptions about the identities and desires of Pacific islander people that our research team, led by Dr Tess Newton Cain, asked 150 Fijians, Ni-Vanuatu and Solomon Islanders, from government to the grass-roots, about their identity and priorities and how they see themselves in relation to the rest of the world. The participants embraced the chance to discuss these issues. Their thoughtful and passionate conversations show how much they value their identity as Pacific islanders and own their responsibility to resolve their own problems. But they also recognise that some of their problems can’t be solved in isolation: like all of us, they are part of the world.
As the research progressed a number of common themes became apparent. From these
three key messages ultimately emerged that offer a useful frame through which to engage with the Pacific:
Values, norms and ways of doing things matter a great deal to Pacific islanders.
For Pacific islander people, the quality of international relationships is more important than quantities of aid or trade.
Pacific islanders recognise that they have many international relationships to choose from.
These three points carry important implications for people, organisations and countries in our work with Pacific islanders.
Pacific values, norms and ways of doing things vary widely and this diversity is itself a cherished facet of Pacific life. Many participants pride themselves on the cultural literacy that enables them to negotiate this diversity. But across the region there are also common threads of interest, respect, trust and reciprocity. Recognising and working within this ‘Pacific mode’ of relationships is essential for anyone who wants to form lasting bonds with Pacific islanders.
It was evident from many conversations that Pacific islanders use the ‘Pacific mode’ when they consider Australia. We are bound by strong ties of history, culture and ethnicity, but there are weaknesses in these ties. The first is that Australians are not very good at recognising and working within the Pacific mode. The second, as many research participants observed with sadness, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – their cousins – are all but absent from Australia’s public face. There are very few Indigenous Australians among its diplomats, INGOs and businesses, and no evidence at all that Indigenous perspectives inform its external relationships.
The Pacific mode informs what Pacific islanders value in the quality of their relationships. Relationships built on trust and reciprocity are valued much more than those that are purely transactional in nature. The right transactions will emerge from a good relationship, rather than the reverse. This does not mean that a partner needs to behave like a Pacific islander, but rather that each side finds things to respect in the other and values their point of view. Australia failed spectacularly at this when, at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum, the country’s intransigence on coal trampled on the shared ambitions of the other Forum members.
As one of many international relationships from which Pacific islanders can choose, the importance placed on Pacific values should encourage any potential partner to consider carefully how best to engage. This applies to Australia too, even if history and geography does give it a huge head start. Australia’s support for the region is universally recognised and valued. But Australia, and Australians, are not universally accepted. ‘Distant’, ‘demanding’, ‘standoffish’, even ‘racist’ were all descriptions given to them, on multiple occasions. Despite the country’s ambitions to step up, Australia is not yet stepping right.
There is plenty that Australia could do to more effectively reset its Pacific relationships, much of which is readily achievable:
Ease visa restrictions for Pacific islanders
Boost Pacific cultural literacy in Australia
Encourage Pacific-led dialogues with Australians
Build links between Indigenous Australians and Pacific islanders
Facilitate Pacific trade access to Australian markets.
Pacific Perspectives on the World will be an important guide for Peacifica’s own work. We appreciate more than ever the depth of understanding that Pacific islanders have of their own context and are committed to work with them as they address their own problems. We will continue our advocacy, informed by the views of Pacific islanders. With the Whitlam Institute we have already communicated the report to five government enquiries. And as we all prepare to respond to the global trauma of COVID-19, we will work alongside our partners to understand and address the risks to peace and security, from the household to the region.
We’re moving ahead with these values in mind: respecting and championing the voices of Pacific island people, promoting dialogue and seeking to work within the Pacific mode. Together we will work to promote a Pacific peace.
Peacifica is grateful to everyone who enabled this research. Thanks to the Whitlam Institute for commissioning and funding it and to our excellent research team: lead researcher Dr Tess Newton Cain, Citizen’s Constitutional Forum (Fiji), Linda Kenni (Vanuatu), Development Services Exchange (Solomon Islands), Dr Geir Henning Presterudstuen, and to the University of the South Pacific and Australian National University. Thanks especially to the 150 Pacific islanders who generously gave their time and ideas.
 To name a few of these initiatives: Australia’s Step-up, NZ’s Reset, America’s Pledge, China’s Belt and Road, UK’s Uplift and more from France, India, Indonesia and Japan  While the research reflects the views of a selection of people from only three countries, reactions from the wider Pacific community have given the research team confidence in the broader relevance of these points.