Doing smart stuff with shortwave in the South Pacific
27 Apr 2017|

Pick the anomaly in this list of what Australia does and desires in the South Pacific:

  1. Australia wants a leadership role in the South Pacific, a fundamental foreign policy interest explicitly stated in 1901 in the Australian Constitution.
  2. Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper gives a defence and security guarantee that stretches from Timor-Leste through Papua New Guinea to all of the South Pacific. Australia offers its strategic weight, proximity and resources to be the South Pacific’s “principal security partner”.
  3. Australia spent about $3 billion to restore order and rebuild the government of Solomon Islands over 14 years.
  4. Australia is giving $560 million in aid to Papua New Guinea. And Australia’s total aid to Pacific Islands this financial year is $1.14 billion.
  5. An independent media is an essential element in Australia’s overarching interest in South Pacific states that are free, democratic and growing. Yet, to save $2–3 million, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in January closed down shortwave broadcasts to the South Pacific, killing off a service with a 75-year history.

Number 5 is the clanger. The ABC Board decision to mute Radio Australia’s (RA) voice in the South Pacific trashes Oz interests.

The ABC exits as the region’s needs increase. The Pacific’s geopolitical potpourri is ‘crowded and complex’ with implications for ‘stability, security and cohesion in the region.’ (See the new ASPI report on the changing geopolitics of the South Pacific by the ANU’s Joanne Wallis).

My previous column argued that a shortwave re-think is the moment to end the ABC’s decade-long shredding of its Island service. A shortwave U-turn should embrace a new Pacific future: time to shift from exit to engagement, from retreat to renewal.

South Pacific Radio

Imagine the South Pacific not as a big ocean with specks of land, but rather visualise and hear a space full of overlapping radio voices with a musical soundtrack. Radio is vital. Radio is a key way the Pacific talks to itself: for example, the campaign to get MPs in Solomon Islands to donate high-quality radios (solar powered, battery or hand cranked) to their communities. Here are some reasons why the South Pacific shortwave service should be restored:

  • Shortwave isn’t ‘outdated’ technology in the South Pacific—it’s an essential element in the mix and will be for decades. The 21st century future of shortwave is the move from analogue to digital.
  • Natural disasters: shortwave isn’t blown away by a cyclone as local FM transmitters can be. Shortwave saves lives.
  • Shortwave resists political winds: FM relays can be closed by government directive—as Frank Bainimarama did to Radio Australia’s Fiji transmitters after the 2006 coup.
  • Serve rural and remote communities as well as cities: by all means broaden the reach by building FM transmitters in the South Pacific (although if FM is the future, the ABC needs to explain why it recently closed FM transmitters in Pohnpei, Palau, Kiribati and Cook Islands). FM reaches only the capital or a region, not the whole country. Australia wants to talk to everyone in the South Pacific.

Papua New Guinea

PNG must be at the centre of Australia’s South Pacific understandings. The restatement of constant interests was the theme of the 8 April joint press conference by Australian and Papua New Guinean leaders. This year’s an election year in PNG which, coupled with the chance of a Bougainville referendum in 2019, ought to catch Canberra’s attention.

  • The ABC should rebuild its PNG Tok Pisin service from two broadcasters towards the team of eight Tok Pisin broadcasters once fielded by RA.
  • Until the ABC can get FM transmitters right across PNG, it must maintain shortwave.

The ABC should read its own reports on the problems confronting PNG’s National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC): ‘Citizen Access to Information in PNG’ and ‘Governance and the Role of Media in Papua New Guinea’.

NBC’s issues are equally important for RA. A big problem causing a notable drop in PNG radio usage is the ‘worsening radio signal in some provinces.’ So the ABC’s answer to a deteriorating NBC signal is to turn off RA’s shortwave signal to PNG?

Rebuild RA and serve South Pacific media

RA’s South Pacific service must serve the region on every available platform from shortwave to social media. The rebuild needs lots of money and people—a cascading conversation involving many Pacific voices, not just a one-way Oz broadcast.

The ABC should be in the centre of the South Pacific ‘town square’ offering broadcast conversation and digital dialogue. The future isn’t a monotone old-media monologue. How might Aunty go about that task? Some ideas:

  • Double the RA team of Pacific broadcasters from six to 12, so that the evening service isn’t just a repeat of the morning program.
  • Create a combined News and Digital desk with people to do everything from Shortwave to social media. (Though Facebook is going to matter as much as the hourly bulletin.)
  • Bring a regular stream of Pacific journalists to work with the ABC in Brisbane and Sydney, as well as RA in Melbourne. Build a team of journalist “stringers” across the Islands to file regularly to RA. Journalists/broadcasters in the Islands face constant, controlling pressures from their governments; the ABC must help local media  serve the South Pacific.

Australia’s has abiding interests in South Pacific states that are free, democratic and growing. An ABC that acts as an independent, accurate journal of record for the Islands will serve Australian policy priorities as well as Island needs.