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  • Writer's pictureJames Cox

Standing on the shores of the Blue Pacific Continent

Have you heard? Solomon Islands has signed a security agreement with China and the reaction has been torrid. The ensuing commentary has been turbocharged by the Federal Election campaign. Some has been dreadful, inflaming what need not have been a tense situation. Other writing has been incisive, critical and constructive, looking beyond the moment to reflect more on Australia’s relationship to the Pacific. It’s been tempting to jump into the discourse but instead I’ve held back and tried to focus on the question: just what is Australia’s role in bringing about a peaceful Pacific? This article represents work in progress.

In 2005 at World Vision Australia I researched Papua New Guinean perspectives on a good life. In Gutpela Tingting na Sindaun (still available here), I heard from Papua New Guineans in Port Moresby, Madang, Goroka and on Buka about what constituted a good life and of their fears and hopes for the future. Their views were encapsulated most succinctly by a woman as we talked in her vanilla bean plantation outside Madang:

“We just want enough, plus a little bit more: good clothes, a tin roof and to be able to send our children to school.”

Digging further the issues that were on people’s minds included life’s basics – health, education, decent livelihoods and, especially for women, safety. Grappling with the tensions between the respective benefits and risks of both customary life and ‘development’ was also pressing. It’s a far cry from what a senior Australian bureaucrat had said to me in my public servant days: “They want what we’ve got!”

Gutpela Tingting na Sindaun offered an intimate picture of one country’s aspirations, purely on their own terms. In 2020, as part of the Whitlam Institute’s Australia in the World research program, Peacifica and our partners talked to people in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji to get a picture of Pacific Perspectives on the World, which the Institute has this week replicated for PNG. Both these reports echo some of the findings in the earlier work in that they show how much Pacific islanders value doing things their way, and that wealth is not as important a measure of success as strong relationships, sufficiency and a sense of security, particularly in the face of a changing climate.

Australia is important in Pacific islanders’ visions of the future. As Tess Newton-Cain observed this week, “this is where we live.” Australia’s contribution is widely recognised and valued across economic, educational, religious, humanitarian and development spheres (and more). For those Melanesian countries, that, with Australia, wrap around the Coral Sea, there is no country that is more important.

But it is also abundantly clear that Australia is not the only important country for the Pacific, especially as we don’t always do the best by our neighbours. Our climate change programs in Pacific countries don’t count for much in the face of our refusal to give up coal. Our labour migration schemes, though necessary and valued by all, are very flawed. And time and again we have shown that our attention span is limited when it comes to the Pacific. We are always there when bad things happen, but in between those times we’re not always so present. For Pacific islanders who value deep and lasting relationships so highly, this inconstancy is a problem.

Also (and there’s no delicate way to put this), many Pacific islanders see Australians as being racist. High-handed. Not trusting. In our research, when broaching this subject they would do so with care, and with examples ranging from individual encounters to describing the structural barriers that hinder their travel to Australia. Compounding this, they recognise with concern the continued disadvantage of First Nations Australians and our failure as a nation to weave their perspectives and experience into our national fabric. The significance of relationships for Indigenous Australians is one value that could on its own be transformative in our engagement with our near neighbours.

So the Pacific does, from time to time, look elsewhere. Their climate advocacy has steered right around Australia for decades and they are giants on the stage of the world’s climate diplomacy. They are building relationships with China, the USA, Malaysia, Japan, France, New Zealand and so many more. And in positioning themselves as the Blue Pacific Continent, a mass defined by the collected land and waters under their control and all of the resources and culture therein, they are asserting their place in the world independent of Australia, or indeed anyone. The Blue Pacific Continent has many countries on its borders.

As Australians we need to have a good think about what we want out of our relationship with the Pacific, and what we have to offer. How can we work together for a shared future of peace and prosperity? How can we overcome our past inconsistency and the perception that we’re racist and paternalistic? What is it for Australians and Pacific islanders to truly know each other? There is something fundamental, almost spiritual, to this question.

Papua New Guinea is only a short tinnie ride from our northernmost point. We share the Coral Sea with a chain of beautiful island countries. Myriad ethnic, cultural and historical ties link us together. Many thousands of Pacific Islanders live here, and some Australians live on the islands. We’re close. We’re neighbours and we’re friends. We have the potential to be so much more, but there is work to be done. We stand on the shores of the Blue Pacific Continent, looking in.

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