Putting Pacific people in Australia’s Pacific policy
20 Apr 2020|

Cyclone Harold crashed through the South Pacific. Covid-19 creeps towards the islands.

Pandemic and cyclone should sharpen Australia’s thinking about what it can and must do in the South Pacific.

My single most important suggestion: Australia must put Pacific people at the centre of its South Pacific policy.

The idea seems simple and obvious, a policy prescription worthy of a sarcastic, ‘Duh—brilliant, Sherlock!’

Yet Australia struggles with the people dimension of its Pacific policy.

Canberra has strong thoughts about aid, geopolitics and geoeconomics in the islands—and the China challenge. ‘The Pacific is our home,’ observes Australia’s Defence Department, and this ‘deep and enduring relationship’ aims to ‘build a region that is strategically secure, economically stable and politically sovereign’.

A crowded canvas can obscure rather than highlight the Pacific people who should be in the middle of the picture.

A telling illustration of the people point: there aren’t many islanders in Australia.

Contradicting geography, Australia’s population has more Polynesians than Melanesians. Few Melanesians come to Australia to visit or settle, while Polynesians can enter and settle in Australia, coming in easily via New Zealand.

The Kiwis have done us a great, indirect favour. Still, it’s deeply strange that New Zealand drives the people dimension of our Pacific policy and which Pacific people live in Oz.

The former diplomat James Batley notes that the Pacific islands population in Australia—around 200,000 people—is heavily dominated by Polynesian communities:

Our nearest Melanesian neighbours—Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu—are seriously under-represented. It’s a surprising fact that, according to the census, in 2016 more people in Australia claimed Cook Islands ancestry (over 22,000) than claimed ancestry from PNG (under 19,000), particularly given that PNG’s population is around 500 times the size of the Cook Islands’.

All other dimensions of Australia’s Pacific policy have at their core the chant, ‘Melanesia, Melanesia, Melanesia’. So the absence of Melanesians in our population tells much about the absence of Pacific people from our policy. We live in the South Pacific, but not many islanders live here.

The Melanesian arc is also Australia’s arc, the islands that frame our Pacific policy as well as our geography.

Using the phrase ‘Australia’s arc’ means that the sweep of policy and geography starts in Timor-Leste, then swings through Papua New Guinea (and Bougainville), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. That is where most islanders live. And it’s where we’ll find the countries that are most likely to face problems of political stability and human security.

My hierarchy of threats, risks and challenges in the South Pacific is an Australia view, deeply flavoured by Melanesia.

In building Pacific policy over the past 60 years, there’ve been only two occasions when Canberra had big thoughts about getting islanders into Australia.

In 1966, federal cabinet considered a submission on the future of one of Australia’s territories, Papua New Guinea. An option that was canvassed was statehood for PNG within Australia’s federation. The submission dismissed the idea of making PNG the seventh state as ‘impracticable’. But it noted that cabinet had never ‘made a decision on Australia’s position in relation to the ultimate status of PNG’.

In 1968, the Oz territories minister was still musing on PNG as a ‘seventh state’ as a convenient way of referring to a close association with Australia without implying total integration.

The winds of change that’d blown through Africa and Asia seemed a gentle zephyr when Canberra looked at PNG; the illusion persisted that Australia still had decades in the territory. Reality arrived in a hurry. Decolonisation came with the tropical winds as PNG became independent in 1975.

Our Pacific policy became about diplomacy, defence and aid—not the people who were the responsibility of these newly independent nations.

Australia’s welcome move to a non-discriminatory immigration policy meant we’d do nothing to discriminate in favour of the islands. Special access to Oz for Pacific workers became a taboo topic in Canberra. When the Pacific Islands Forum was being created in the early 1970s, Australia feared that the new regional body would be used to attack our migration policies, and worked hard to impose the taboo.

The second big rethink on people policy evolved over the past decade as Australia inched open the door for Pacific workers. The Pacific people are coming temporarily, but now they’re coming. Score this a major achievement of island leaders, working through the forum, to change Australian thinking and dismantle the taboo.

The Australian pilot scheme for Pacific seasonal workers announced in 2008 (following New Zealand’s lead) was made permanent in 2012 as the Seasonal Worker Programme.

By 2018, Australia added on the Pacific Labour Scheme and opened it to all the islands, a decision that meant—at last—people from PNG have a chance to work in Oz. This was Australia listening to the islands and acting for Pacific people.

The presence of islanders in Australia under the seasonal worker and Pacific labour schemes has become part of the Covid-19 story.

On 3 April, The Strategist published a typically thoughtful piece by Richard Herr about what the pandemic means for island workers caught in Australia and unable to return home. Coincidentally (although Richard is a powerful professor), the following day Australia announced that their visas would be extended for up to 12 months: We want to assure our Pacific neighbours that Australia stands with them during this crisis and we are doing all we can to support Pacific workers in Australia.’

Australia speaks easily of our ‘home’ and our ‘neighbours’. And Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s use of the term ‘Pacific family’ is goddamn genius. Acting on that language means putting Pacific people at the centre of our Pacific policy.