Bainimarama visit to show state of Pacific family ties
9 Sep 2019|

My colleague Graeme Dobell declared recently that ‘Scott Morrison’s embrace of the “Pacific family” is goddamn genius.’

I have expressed a more cautionary view that claiming a place in the Pacific family could have unintended consequences that might complicate Canberra’s regional relations.

As tempted as I am to claim vindication in the wake of the political fireworks at the recent Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in Tuvalu, there are reasons for not rushing too quickly to dismiss the Pacific family notion.

We’ll get a better idea of the state of the familial relationship when Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama visits Canberra to meet with Morrison later this week.

Clearly the gambit wasn’t a political success at Funafuti and, arguably, it served to intensify the regional pushback on Australia’s climate change policy.

Solomon Islands opposition leader Matthew Wale pointedly used familial expectations to underscore his disappointment. ‘Pacific islanders were hoping for sincerity when we hear ‘we’re family’. We were mistaken’, he said.

Wale’s was not a lone voice. There were reports that Morrison’s constant references to being part of the Pacific family were offensive given his unwillingness to support the family consensus.

Even Australian critics of the government’s lukewarm position on climate change at the forum piled on, with headlines like ‘Morrison’s monumental dysfunctional Pacific “family” failure’.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s comment that islanders could survive climate change by picking Australian fruit suggested nothing short of a paternalistic view that they should be grateful for an allowance for doing the chores.

It could be argued that Morrison was simply guilty of over-reach. Taking what started as a bilateral rapprochement with Fiji, he rebranded it as his ‘step-up’ policy with a warmer regional image of inclusiveness.

Morrison’s ‘Pacific family’ motif grew out of a meeting with Bainimarama in January. Using vuvale, an iTaukei word meaning ‘family’, the two PMs announced the ‘Fiji––Australia Vuvale Partnership’ to enhance their long-troubled bilateral relationship.

The extent to which even the bilateral familial ties have survived Tuvalu reasonably intact might be questioned. Bainimarama appeared to downgrade the relationship, saying, ‘I thought Morrison was a good friend of mine; apparently not.’

There will be a couple of occasions this month to see how much rebalancing might be needed to recover friendship much less kinship.

Bainimarama is due to make his first official visit to Australia since the 2006 coup that put him in power, so that he and Morrison can see what a working party has done to implement their vuvale partnership.

Perhaps more telling could be an appearance at the UN General Assembly at the end of the month, when Bainimarama will report on climate change progress along with other regional leaders.

It’s difficult to see how this won’t rekindle the passions of Tuvalu unless the Canberra meeting achieves an accommodation that the leaders’ meeting in Funafuti failed to find.

Defenders of the Pacific family concept may see criticism as one-sided, but was there ever another side? It was a bilateral initiative unilaterally extended to a region asked to accept it in good faith.

The heat in Tuvalu demonstrated that the region wouldn’t accept it sola fide but wanted something to justify Australia’s claim of family membership.

Nevertheless, many regional leaders seemed to have it both ways. They appeared willing to hope that a ‘family’ tie would deliver positive regional outcomes but then used it as a cudgel against Australia for failing to meet their expectations of it.

So, was there a double standard here?

The island leaders were certainly well within their rights to criticise Australia for not behaving like they might expect of a member of the Pacific family. It was the Morrison government that created these expectations.

Yet, the elephant was sitting in the same room with Morrison and Bainimarama when they met in Suva in January to agree to the vuvale partnership. It was there again when Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with Bainimarama in June to further the family rapprochement.

Opportunities, both bilateral and regional, existed to find a way within the Pacific family to avoid the ‘domestic’ punch-up that was the Tuvalu meeting, but somehow no Dutch uncle emerged from the island side to find a family-friendly workaround to deal with the imbroglio.

Quite the reverse. The draft Tuvalu declaration (subsequently revised as the Kainaki II declaration for urgent climate change action now) seemed to be crafted to ensure a punch-up given the region’s awareness of Australia as a global coal producer and the Morrison government’s political alignment with the industry.

The Morrison government now must confront a serious post-Tuvalu image challenge. Has the ‘Pacific family’ badge been too badly damaged?

The evidence, both bilaterally and regionally, suggests that a rethink is necessary.

Bainimarama’s public ire immediately after the forum was such that he revived his 2010 suggestion that Australia should not even be in the regional forum—a thought later echoed, albeit more softly, by Kiribati’s former president, Anote Tong.

History may support a long view that Australia’s relationship with the region will survive the current quarrel, but this doesn’t guarantee a kindred relationship.

Perhaps Australia should concentrate on being the ‘partner of choice’ or a proper best friend?

As I noted out in my review of Chinese and Australian soft power in the region, Australia has depth and reach that China can’t match even if, occasionally, island elites like to portray Beijing as a better friend than Canberra in the heat of the moment.

But familiar is not familial. If Morrison wants to make membership of the Pacific family a reality and thus an act of genius, the family has to want to see us in this light.

For my part, despite my caution, I hope Dobell might be right—someday.