Professor Wadan Narsey is an Adjunct Professor at The Cairns Institute.
Jonathan Schultz's recently completed PhD thesis, Overseeing and Overlooking: Australian Engagement with the Pacific Islands 1988-2007, presents a somewhat scathing indictment of Australian foreign policy towards the Pacific, and has attracted the attention of Radio Australia and Rowan Callick at The Australian.
Drawing on recent crises in Australia's relations with PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji, Schultz concludes that Australian interests in the Pacific islands have 'weak institutional representation' worsened by the 'low status of Pacific island desks in the Australian bureaucracy; the dearth of fora for debate and production of alternative approaches; the primacy of personalities in setting the tenor of the relationships; and the particular tendency to adopt models developed elsewhere' (the 'failed state' syndrome).
This then encouraged 'policy entrepreneurs' to supply a 'ready policy response', often implemented 'through insensitive expressions of Australian power' by ministers and personalities of the time.
Schultz concludes that the result was inevitably a 'repeated learning of the same lessons' and a repetition of the same weak response cycles. Schultz suggests that the way to break the cycle is by a significant strengthening of 'the institutional commitment to those relationships'. He recommends the 're-establishment of the post of minister for Pacific island affairs, with greater departmental resources and a higher public profile than a parliamentary secretary'.
Schultz rightly warns that the Australian Government has to go beyond just a more effective projection of 'purely Australian national interests' towards a 'more sustained attention to the Pacific islands' and a strengthening of Australian policy-making. Unfortunately, Schultz offers no substantive pointers in this critical direction.
The Schultz study could have been improved with two additional perspectives.
First, have Australian foreign policy makers ever had a vision of where Australia's relationships with Pacific countries should be in twenty years time, to enable policy making to have a clear long term objective? Second and related, are there any alternative kinds of relationships that Australia could have had with these Pacific countries?
Australian vision for the Pacific?
The first question inevitably requires a focus on the failure of Australia (and New Zealand) to foster the deeper economic, political and social integration with the Pacific islands promised by PACER Plus (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations), which has been on the drawing board for a decade.
Such integration is a global phenomenon, with the EU (however problem-ridden) a good example of former warring nations coming together to meet the challenges of globalisation and realignment of world powers.
Had such integration been a reality in the Pacific today, many of the ad hoc and weak Australian interventions and angst that Schultz documents may not have been necessary. At worst, the problems could have been resolved far more amicably.
In an article a decade ago (PICTA, PACER and EPAs: Weaknesses in Pacific Island Countries' Trade Policies) I outlined why and how a visionary Australia should fast-track PACER negotiations. I pushed this message again pushed in a recent Islands Business article, which put forward several crucial benefits for Australia.
Crucially for the Schultz narrative, such wide integration would easily obtain for Australia the unshakable good will of the Pacific people, whose long-term interests are often jeopardised by their political leaders in their periodic jousting with Australian political leaders.
New Zealand's alternative model
Schultz's study could also have benefited by comparing Australia's experience with the Melanesian countries with that of New Zealand's arguably successful model of close and friendly relations with the Polynesian countries of Cook Islands, Tokelau, Niue, Samoa and Tonga. White New Zealand has not just come to terms with the Maori and Pacific Island cultures, presence and needs; the latter have in fact become an expression of national celebration and international identification.
In contrast, white Australia is a long way from achieving anywhere near that kind of relationships with Aboriginals, whose standards of living are not just way below that of white Australians, but even way below those of the Pacific peoples to whom Australia devotes considerable aid.
Culturally sensitive staff
Most Australian staff in the Pacific are professional and well intentioned, but thrust into a deceptive cultural world that Epeli Hauofa describes with great humour in his Tales of the Tikongs. By the time they have learnt the ropes they are moved on to higher things, and another new set of appointments begins.
Australia could learn from New Zealand, which has had great success in appointing Maoris and people of island origin both in Wellington and in their posts in the Pacific. Australia, which is also now quite multicultural (including people with Pacific Island origins), should have little difficultly appointing staff to their Pacific desks and in the Islands who are already in tune with the local politics and people. Similar suggestions could be also made about the many Australian think tanks on the Pacific and journalists reporting on the region, who are nearly all white Australians.
Another weakness of Schultz's study is that it focuses primarily on relations between political leaders in Australia and the Melanesian countries. While this is understandable, given Schultz's discipline, it weakens his study to not deal with the trade, economic and aid relationships which have quite a significant bearing on the political relationships Schultz explores.
For instance, in aid alone, the qualitative differences between the burgeoning Chinese aid (which focuses on infrastructure) and Australian aid (which focuses on institution strengthening in areas of education, health, and gender) are evincing quite different political responses from Pacific leaders.
To be fair to Schultz, being so comprehensive would have made his thesis into an encyclopedia needing another five years to complete. Schultz's study has enough merit in the rich material he has put together, his analysis and conclusions, and his suggestions for further study and debate.