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The South Pacific mirror reflects tough truths for Australia

Posted By on March 23, 2020 @ 06:00

Merge a couple of fairy tales for some judgement lines on Australia’s Pacific step-up [1].

Canberra likes to think of itself as the handsome prince. The Pacific islands, though, can perceive a sleeping beauty or a slumbering giant—part of the story, potentially important, but not always alive to what’s happening.

Playing on the ‘step’ theme leads to the fact that often Australia is seen as the ugly stepmother or selfish stepsister (think climate change and the ‘Pacific solution’ [2]).

Awoken, Australia pushes to be the king of the castle: the top economic and security partner for the islands. The self-proclaimed partner of choice is anxious to be chosen.

Looking in the magic mirror, Canberra asks, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ Trouble is, the mirror replies that this is a complex question with different answers. And, by the way, China is looking good these days.

The mirror offers Canberra a sharp instruction: ‘Toughen up, princess! Time to get going.’ This wisdom informs Australia’s six inquiries and reviews touching on the step-up [3].

The toughen-up line also applies to the tough insights offered in the Whitlam Institute survey [4] of island attitudes to Australia in Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu, based on field research conducted in late 2019. The report, Pacific perspectives on the world, shifts us from tales to the truth of poetry, rendered by Robert Burns: ‘Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us!’

The Whitlam Institute said the focus groups and one-on-one interviews with 150 Pacific islanders offered these messages:

– The quality of Australia’s relationships matters more than the quantity of our aid or trade;

– Our values, norms and ways of doing things are a vital part of how we conduct our engagement with the Pacific;

– Australia, and its historical relationship, is valued but we are one of many partners for Pacific islanders.

The institute’s director, Leanne Smith, says the step-up is a step in the right direction, but it’s ‘perceived to be a unilateral Australian initiative, something being done “to” the Pacific rather than with countries of the region’.

Australia is seen as an important partner, but as Smith observes, there’s also ‘a perception of a certain level of racism and disrespect directed towards people from the Pacific’.

When I was reading the report, my mind went back to a conversation with a great Fiji journalist and fine bloke, Robert Keith-Reid, the founder of Islands Business magazine. It was the year 2000 and Suva was under military rule because rebels had seized parliament, holding the prime minister and cabinet hostage (covering my third Fiji coup, I called this ‘The strange saga of Speight’s siege in Suva [5]’).

Keith-Reid’s house near parliament had a temporary military post in its front yard; typically wry, he reported that his young daughter had been taught by the troops how to strip down a weapon in near-record time.

After making what turned out to be accurate predictions about the ambitions of the military commander, Frank Bainimarama (he’ll always be the supremo, to me), Keith-Reid mused on Australia’s role in the South Pacific. We were drinking wine, but it should have been Fiji Bitter, because Keith-Reid delivered the tangy truth with characteristic Suva bite: ‘Everyone around here [the South Pacific] knows that Australia is needed. But that doesn’t mean you’ll ever be loved.’

If I have a creed for Australia in the islands, that’s it, in the words of Robert Keith-Reid. We’re needed. The need cuts both ways. We need and want much from the region, just as the region needs much from us. The mutual needs offer a lot to work with.

As ever, the islands know they need us, but it doesn’t mean they have to like it, or us—or like their dependence. It’s what my grandpa called the 10 quid rule—if you loan a mate 10 quid, he’ll owe you, but he mightn’t repay you with mateship. The Labor Party version of this goes: ‘Why does he hate my guts? I never did him a favour.’

Australia wants the power and the central place in the South Pacific. Again, the need goes in both directions. We matter and what we do matters greatly. We’re always a big target—as we should be, because we want to loom large.

Writing about Oz in the Pacific over five decades, I often use the line that Australia always presents as the leader, but has a lot of trouble getting followers.

An easy demonstration of this—a twin version of the islands conundrum—is to look at the relationship we have with New Zealand. Here is the 10 quid rule writ large.

The Kiwis are our brothers and sisters and often know what we should be doing in the region before we work it out for ourselves. But the push-pull, shove and biff, and slagging and sledging are constants. Again, the Kiwis know they need us but they don’t have to like it—or love us. Mutual need provides plenty of the needed glue.

We should expect no more love and devotion from the islands than we get from the Kiwis.

The security calculus tells the story. I jest that there’s an envelope in the big safe at the centre of the NZ defence ministry with a single piece of paper giving their fundamental defence strategy: ‘To get to us, they have to go by Australia. Take a deep breath, relax, put on your serious voice, and ring Canberra to check what they’re doing.’

Works for the islands as well.

Australia’s security guarantee to the region doesn’t buy much love, because it’s a commitment to our interests as well as theirs.

Australia is big enough and strong enough to roll all of that into our role. We had better, because that’s the way it is—and we must work to make it continue. We must put ever more breadth and depth and listening into our relationships with New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific—plus Timor-Leste as the start of the arc.

A lot of shared history, along with shared interests and values, should both drive and steady Australian approaches. Toughen up and get to work, prince.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-south-pacific-mirror-reflects-tough-truths-for-australia/

URLs in this post:

[1] Pacific step-up: https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/pacific/Pages/the-pacific

[2] ‘Pacific solution’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Solution

[3] six inquiries and reviews touching on the step-up: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/six-inquiries-on-australias-south-pacific-step-up/

[4] Whitlam Institute survey: https://www.whitlam.org/publications/2020/2/13/pacific-perspectives-on-the-world

[5] The strange saga of Speight’s siege in Suva: http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p97751/pdf/ch22.pdf

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