Australia’s voice and the China duel in the South Pacific
30 May 2022|

Australia and the South Pacific need to talk.

The immediate conversation is about the duelling trips to the islands by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong.

Starting with Fiji, Wong has pledged a series of island visits to recover Australia’s status as the partner of choice in the Pacific.

Wong has a strong hand. Australia would have to play this hand incredibly badly to lose its primary role.

What we share with the islands is a potent combination of interests, institutions and values, framed by geography. Yet Australia and China have moved beyond en garde. The diplomatic duel is launched. The foreign ministers probe, parry and promise. China thrusts with strategic intent.

In the quest to recover stuff we’ve mislaid or undervalued, Australia’s polity slowly awakes to the need to remake and rebuild our media voice in the South Pacific.

We haven’t ‘lost’ the islands, but in the past decade we did lose much of our broadcasting voice. The China duel didn’t cause the voice fade. We lost a lot of ground because we just vacated the ground, by the absent-minded trashing of Australia’s international broadcasting.

Australia degraded a key foreign policy instrument, comfortable in our South Pacific pre-eminence. The trouble with having such a strong hand in the islands is taking too much for granted—what Canberra wise owl Nick Warner laments as ‘Australia’s long Pacific stupor’. The budget of our Indo-Pacific media voice has been cut by two-thirds.

Domestic politics has damaged what the Australian Broadcasting Corporation should deliver internationally for Australia. ‘All Governments Loathe the ABC Equally, but Some Loathe It More Equally than Others,’ Mathew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins state (their capitalisation) in Who needs the ABC?

Of course, governments loathe the ABC. So they should. Aunty is a unique and powerful voice, defined by its independence. The reality the polity gropes towards is to peer beyond the domestic fights to see the foreign policy needs wonderfully served by the ABC, to understand hard news and free media as the sharp edge of Australia’s soft power.

The new Labor government is starting the job with its Indo-Pacific broadcasting strategy, promising the ABC an extra $8 million a year for international programs, plus a review of whether shortwave radio broadcasts should be restored.

The need to cast aside the domestic argy-bargy about Aunty, to empower our international voice, is the underlying consensus of Strengthening Australia’s relationships in the Pacific, the report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, presented in the final days of the previous parliament.

The bipartisan report calls for an expansion of our ‘media and broadcasting footprint’ in a more contested South Pacific to ‘retain our role as a trusted and accessible source of information for these countries’, and for the consideration of:

  • expanding Australian public and commercial television and digital content across the Pacific;
  • reinvigorating Radio Australia;
  • creating an Australian International Media Corporation to formulate and oversee the strategic direction of Australia’s international media presence in the Pacific.

The AIMC was suggested in my submission to the inquiry. The aim is to resolve the domestic–international tensions at the heart of the ABC’s charter, by setting up a separate corporation under the ABC’s act. The AIMC would be a foreign policy instrument with its own identity, not subject to the domestic fuss and furies that must ever be the ABC’s lot.

In creating a purpose-built international voice for the digital age, draw three principles from the strange up-and-down experiences (mostly down) of Radio Australia and the myriad versions of ABC international TV. A 25-year span starts with the 1997 Mansfield report which recommended the closure of Radio Australia because ‘the requirement for the ABC to broadcast programs to audiences outside Australia should cease’.  Canberra knocked back Mansfield’s idea. But, equally as significant, the polity has yet to come up with a definitive view of what international media should do for Australia’s foreign policy (a huge gap in the soft power discussion in the 2017 foreign policy white paper). The three principles are:

1. Value independence. The things governments loathe about the ABC make it a strong and valuable foreign policy instrument. An AIMC must have exactly the same strength.

Independent public service broadcasters have far more credibility than state broadcasters which serve only as the mouthpiece and megaphone of a government. Trust built by honest information and strong journalism is part of the secret sauce of democracy; it’s called ‘soft power’ but the key word is ‘power’.

In dealing with other governments, smart Australian politicians and diplomats always value the ‘deniability’ of the ABC, offering an angry foreign leader a version of, ‘Yes, Mr/Madam president, we hate it too, but it’s independent of government. That’s the Australian way.’

2. Step beyond the domestic wars. The sorry saga of the last 25 years is how often our international voice has been harmed by those wanting to attack Aunty for domestic reasons.

The ABC’s charter calls for it to do both domestic and international duty. The proper domestic priority means the international need is starved or ignored. Resolve the tension between the two demands. The AIMC must embody Aunty’s values as it gives total attention to meeting the international requirements of the ABC charter.  

3. Create a foreign policy instrument. Don’t expect the ABC to deliver Australia’s foreign policy on the cheap.

Nobody wants to pay for good foreign policy, but everybody pays for bad foreign policy. Australia must fund an international instrument for international purposes, to serve our interests, influence and values. Give the AIMC its own line of funding, its own board and its own identity. Grow Radio Australia and the international television service, ABC Australia

In Australia’s duel with China, we need to speak loudly and clearly.

It’s time for new thinking in what we say and how we say it, in the vital conversations to come with the South Pacific.