Six inquiries on Australia’s South Pacific step-up
16 Mar 2020|

Australia is doing a lot of thinking about what steps to take in the South Pacific.

How high does the ‘Pacific step-up’ have to go? How many different steps? Step style? Step hierarchy? How to avoid oversteps or missteps or just stepping in it? Can the step-up hit its stride?

Canberra hums. Six step-flavoured reviews and inquiries are afoot. Yep, six! Buzz, buzz, buzzzz …

The Defence Department review of defence strategy and capabilities is almost complete. ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge judges that ‘the strategic assessment has to be that China’s power and military reach have grown faster than expected, including its ability to reach into and operate in Australia’s near region’. In the ways of Defence, the demands of Oz geography mean the South Pacific is central to the strategic pondering.

Across the lake from Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is conducting its inquiry on a ‘new international development policy’ to support ‘security, stability, prosperity and resilience in the Indo-Pacific’. As with defence, Pacific calculations are crucial in foreign policy; the islands will continue to get the biggest share of Oz aid.

Just up the hill from DFAT, in the building with the big flag, parliament’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is holding four separate step-up inquiries:

  • Australia’s defence relationships with Pacific island nations—looking at Defence’s activities; the ‘needs, requests and feedback’ from the islands; the level of coordination between Defence and the rest of Canberra; the chances for cooperation with ‘other nations seeking to invest and engage in the South West Pacific’.
  • Activating greater trade and investment with Pacific islands—focusing on the potential of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus; the chances and barriers for ‘trade, investment, aid for trade and employment links’; ‘the views, norms and cultural practices’ on trade and investment in Australia and the islands and ‘how differences can be accommodated’.
  • Human rights of women and girls in the Pacific—covering the role of island civil-society groups in gender equality and responding to domestic, family and sexual violence; the key figures and groups which advance the human rights of women and girls in the Pacific and how Australia can help.
  • Strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific—examining the implementation of Australia’s step-up as a whole-of­-government effort; the prospects for broadening non-government and community-based linkages to leverage the Pacific diaspora; measures to ensure the step-up reflects ‘the priority needs of the governments and people of Pacific island countries’.

Australia’s promise to take ‘our partnerships with the Pacific to a new level’ prompts valid questions from the islands, based on our record.

The attention Australia gives the South Pacific has waxed and waned, belying our deep and abiding interests. A while back (2003), I described this cycle of Pacific forgetfulness and rediscovery—attention not matching interests—as a form of recurring amnesia about what we do and want in the Pacific.

We might be at the high point of another cycle. Or maybe Australia can, as it promises, lock in a ‘new level’ of partnership. The islands ask whether Canberra is on the level and what level it can go to, and whether it can maintain this level of enthusiasm. Six inquiries will provide a report card and a prognosis.

In her assessment of the state of the step-up, Tess Newton Cain says the quantity of Australia’s ‘showing up’ in the region has increased dramatically since November 2017, when the step-up got going. The plan is ‘embedded in political and bureaucratic rhetoric’, she writes, and is a key element of the government’s foreign policy. The 28 components of the step-up she lists constitute an ambitious to-do list.

Newton Cain points to the need for quality to go with the quantity, to get big steps not silly stumbles. She reports that the South Pacific has ‘a degree of healthy scepticism as to whether Australian policy makers can sustain this level of policy focus, let alone the financial commitments that may be required’.

A truth about inquiries is that while they wear an outward-looking face, much of the true focus is inward, staring at the eternal Canberra issues. The external question is about what’s to be done; the internal issues are who gets the power and who wins the money.

The parliamentary inquiries will quickly come to the fault line that separates official Canberra from the academics, aid groups and NGOs that work in the Pacific. The bureaucrat characterisation sees responsibility and authority on one side, facing enthusiasts, activists and narrow specialists. The academics characterise it as those with knowledge trying to educate those with cash but no clue.

The ABC’s former Pacific affairs reporter, Stephen Dziedzic, has done a fine piece on the fault line. It’s always useful when a good journo puts on the sociologist/anthropologist hat to analyse the tribes they’re reporting on. Dziedzic nails it with a description of a robust discussion that too often becomes, ‘Pacific good, Australia bad.’

Climate change policy is where the strongest blows are exchanged. Then things get personal.

As Dziedzic reports, many Australian diplomats in the Pacific believe academics are ‘naive, ideologically rigid, and utterly indifferent to Australia’s national interest’. Officials grouch that they’re accused of ‘paternalism or cultural insensitivity’ by a group with a hopelessly romanticised view of traditional cultures, ‘too quick to ignore the way corruption and patronage networks cripple local economies’.

Dziedzic summarises what academics think about their official counterparts:

Australian diplomats (and contractors) are often unforgivably ignorant of local conventions and display a patronising sense of superiority towards Pacific leaders and officials. They are quick to dismiss Pacific island expertise and sometimes impose solutions hopelessly mismatched to needs on the ground.

Diplomats (and Australian politicians) often view Pacific island nations as pieces in a grand geopolitical game of chess. This denies the agency of Pacific Island countries and is deeply counter-productive.

Lots there to step over and step up to. Many steps still to come.