South Pacific thought bubbles: travel and TV
1 Jun 2020|

The thought bubble of a travel bubble for Australia and New Zealand is transforming from bubble into action.

The official title is ‘a trans-Tasman Covid-safe travel zone’ but it’s gotta be the ‘travel bubble’.

Bubbles float and are fun (think balloons and champagne). For politicos and wonks, thought bubbles are flights of imagination which catch the breeze. If they don’t fly, they pop. But good bubbles become policy.

The Oz–NZ working group on the bubble is to report this week. Australia and New Zealand are on track to open their borders to each other this month.

Traditional Kangaroo–Kiwi cousinly congress can resume. Then the cousins can turn to helping the rest of the South Pacific family, as foreshadowed by prime ministers Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison in launching work on the zone on 5 May:

Our relationship is one of family—and our unique travel arrangement means we have a head-start for when it is time to get trans-Tasman travel flowing again.

Once we have established effective travel arrangements across the Tasman, we will also explore opportunities to expand the concept to members of our broader Pacific family, enabling travel between Australia, New Zealand and Pacific island countries. We will work with interested Pacific countries on parameters and arrangements to manage the risks.

The travel zone touches the three themes Morrison put to the extraordinary G20 leaders’ summit in March: health response, economic response and ‘supporting the Pacific and Timor-Leste’.

The first two points, you’d have expected from any Oz PM. Having the islands as the third major point was distinctly Morrison: ‘I explained to G20 leaders that our Pacific island family must be a focus of international support. There has never been a more important time for Australia’s Pacific step-up as we all face these massive challenges.’

From Papua New Guinea to the Cook Islands, the Pacific family is eager to join to create a South Pacific bubble. Fiji is at the head of the queue and Australia promises to act ‘very quickly’ to include it. Tourism makes up about 40% of Fiji’s GDP and 65% of its tourists arrive from Australia and New Zealand.

Bringing the islands inside the bubble can restart the flow of seasonal workers heading to Australia and New Zealand. Expanding the travel zone will speed the journey along what the islands call the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19.

Advantages of geography and community mean Oceania can reopen borders and economies, as ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge argues: ‘Australia and New Zealand have the capacity to expand our Covid-safe protective bubble to the smaller Pacific states. We have a “Covid management dividend” available in the now excess capacity in our healthcare systems, and the South Pacific is where we should invest it.’

The region can aim for a clean bubble, linking countries that have controlled infections and share how they test, trace and isolate. The basis of trust and cooperation already exists—as does the habit of looking to Australia and New Zealand for money and system-muscle in confronting crisis.

Even so, as The Economist notes, the public health requirements for creating a travel bubble are ‘vexing’; a trade analogy is that creating a regional travel zone resembles ‘an extreme version of non-tariff negotiations’.

The trade parallel brings to mind the torturous and tortuous eight-year trek to create the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus. The Oz–Kiwi refusal to offer much on labour mobility in the PACER negotiations meant Fiji and Papua New Guinea refused to sign.

As the travel bubble is all about mobility, it blows aside troublesome PACER ghosts. And rather than the tortuous timetable of a trade pact, the bubble will be built at pandemic pace.

Lots of other thought bubbles froth in the suds of the Kangaroo step-up and Kiwi reset. A Morrison bubble hit the policy start line last week: spending $17.1 million over three years to give commercial TV shows to the islands.

Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji will be the first to see programs via the PacificAus TV initiative, to be joined soon by Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru.

While sporting rights are still being negotiated, the islands will get the venerable soap opera Neighbours and the cooking combat of MasterChef Australia. A natural, joyful choice is the singing program The Voice, disproving my joke line that Australia is the one member of the Pacific family that can’t sing.

No doubt the islands will be intrigued by Border Security: Australia’s Front Line on immigration, customs and quarantine checks at our international airports (‘Welcome to Australia—now the search of your luggage …’).

A well-intentioned TV bubble is not the best we could do, as shown by regional responses. Fiji felt ‘lukewarm’ and one Vanuatu reaction was that it was a ‘silly’ idea, while PNG would like some of the cash to make local content.

Australia’s Neighbours-driven effort contrasts in philosophy and approach with New Zealand’s new Pasifika TV service to the region. Pasifika seeks to fill the hole left by Australia’s disgraceful trashing of its media voice in the islands.

Our shuffle away from the news and journalism contest in the Asia–Pacific is lousy policy and appalling judgement, hugely damaging to Australian foreign policy. An 80-year tradition of Oz broadcasting to the South Pacific is tattered and threadbare. Pressures on South Pacific journalism haven’t gone away, but Australia has gone absent.

Spending $17.1 million to supply Australian commercial TV to the South Pacific is a facile and clumsy initiative that doesn’t amount to strategy. The positive point is that it’s a sign Canberra understands Australia needs to get back into the media game in its region. A strange first step is at least a step.

For a bigger, better thought bubble on Oz broadcasting in the South Pacific, turn to the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (of which I’m a member).

The short version of AAPMI’s response to Neighbours diplomacy is that Australia has to talk ‘with’ not ‘to’ our region: ‘Watching rich white people renovate their homes will not “deepen the connection” with the Pacific or overcome perceptions that Australia can be paternalistic. Nor will providing Border Security in a region in which visa access is a sore point.’