Recruiting Pacific islanders
17 May 2023|

The concept of recruiting Pacific islanders into the Australian military is neither a new nor a good idea. And yet in the past few weeks it has seen commentators in the media, in think tanks and even a politician singing its praises.

The first criticism of this particular thought bubble is that it does away with the long-held norm in Australia that there is a nexus between citizenship and military service. Members of the Australian Defence Force should be drawn from the body politic and be reflective of the same. Of course, there have been exceptions in the past when citizenship can be fast-tracked for technical specialists or to plug particular gaps through service transfers where fully trained members of like-minded militaries (often the UK) become ADF members.

It is also interesting that while some people advocate that Australia recruit Pacific islanders to protect the country through service in the ADF, there doesn’t appear to be any such advocacy to recruit Pacific islanders to protect the community through service in police forces. Western Australia wants recruits from the UK and Ireland, South Australia used to want bobbies and Victoria is keen to recognise prior service of only UK and New Zealand police officers. It seems anomalous that Pacific islanders are somehow deemed suitable to plug gaps in the military and yet not deemed suitable to plug gaps in the various police forces.

The most important concern over the practicality of the issue is the lack of discussion about exactly what type of personnel the future ADF requires and precisely why the Pacific islands are likely to have them. There is no doubt that the future growth pattern for the ADF is ambitious. But the exact nature of that future growth path is not yet known, although there is no doubt that it will require higher rather than lower skilled personnel. This article sheds some light on what might be required in the years ahead—a more than doubling of the submarine force to introduce our nuclear submarine fleet, additional cyber and information warfare personnel and the further growth of space command.

Yet even though we are likely to require nuclear submariners and cyber and information warfare personnel in the years to come, proponents of the Pacific island recruitment strategy appear fixated on infantry battalions. Hence, we find an author assuring us: ‘If Australia wanted to recruit Fijians into the ADF tomorrow, it would have no problem raising a battalion in one day.’

The fact that Fijians serve in the British military is also used as an argument as to why they could serve in the ADF. Yet it is really only the British Army that does this. In all, 93% of Fijian-born UK military personnel were in the army, according to 2019 figures. They served mainly in line infantry and supporting arms units. Over 70% of the more than 640 Fijians recruited into the British Army in 2020 filled vacancies in infantry and artillery units—again, not the areas where the ADF is short of manpower now, or where it’s likely to be in the future.

The idea of a Pacific island regiment, whose role, composition and command status is never particularly defined, has also been given a run in a 2021 inquiry into Australia’s defence relationships with Pacific island nations and was resurrected in the most recent calls for a Pacific islands recruitment plan.

And there is also the issue about whether personnel shortfalls in the ADF are more about the inability to recruit individuals, or the inability to retain them. The government has already signalled its willingness to address the retention issue with its announcement of bonuses for those who continue to serve after their initial commitment expires. There is nothing to say that Pacific islander recruits’ retention rates would be any better, particularly if they had their citizenship fast-tracked and were free to enter the Australian labour market after their initial commitment expired.

In addition to traducing a long-held practice in which citizenship should be tied to military service by advocating that Australia recruit Pacific islanders to fill vacancies that we don’t know exist or whether they are suitable to fill them, there also appears to be a little bit of selective labour market Magic Pudding about this proposal—as though the Pacific islands are an inexhaustible well of workers that we can just draw from when we need.

Need some aged-care workers? Pacific islanders can do the trick. Agricultural workers? Ditto. And while nobody argues that the flow of remittances is not good for Pacific island economies, there are potentially negative consequences too. The rush to recruit healthcare workers to Australia, for example, can leave the donor country short of the very skills it exports.

This idea of recruiting Pacific islanders into the ADF has appeal at a very superficial level. But even the shallowest of analyses of the concept reveals how flawed the idea is, starting with the fact that nobody has articulated the problem that their solution is designed to fix, let alone how a Pacific islands recruitment strategy can actually fix it.