Highlands mushrooms ready for market
Capital punishment in PNG

Australia's Pacific hypocrisy unveiled

Ben Bohane
Ben Bohane exposes the shallowness (and insincerity) of Australia's relationships with the Pacific

| The Age (Melbourne) | Extracts

You can link to Ben Bohane’s complete article here

MELBOURNE - One of the reasons Pacific nations like Vanuatu are turning to China is because they fear Jakarta more than Beijing.

As previously reported in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, China is making a bold play for influence in Bougainville, the resource-rich PNG-governed territory that looks set to become the world's newest nation after its people voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence earlier this month.

For years Pacific leaders have been telling Australia at annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) gatherings that the two most serious security threats in the region are climate change and events in West Papua, yet Australia insists Chinese influence is the more pressing concern.

On climate change, the Australian government claims it is working proactively with its Pacific allies.

"Climate change was identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper as one of the factors that will contribute to state fragility – including within Australia’s immediate neighbourhood – and exacerbate the challenges of population growth and environmental degradation," a spokesperson for Defence said in a statement.

"Climate change-related risks are regularly reviewed as part of Defence’s planning processes.

"As part of the Australian government’s climate change effort, Defence is working with its Pacific partners to find solutions to help address the security impacts of climate change and build resilience, including through strategic dialogue with security leaders at the Joint Heads of Pacific Security event, Defence cooperation programs and new measures under the Pacific Step-Up."

Pacific leaders are mostly unconvinced.

The PIF meeting this year was an unmitigated disaster for Australia, prompting normally jovial and non-confrontational Pacific leaders into calling out prime minister Scott Morrison, with host Tuvalu saying: “You’re worried about your economy. I’m worried about the survival of my people.”

Fiji’s PM called him a “bully” while Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong claimed “China is now the lesser evil compared to Australia”.

While these issues are fraught with diplomatic pitfalls, there are simpler ways Australia can strengthen ties with its Pacific neighbours.

Almost every day in Port Vila, Vanuatu, Australian container ships arrive full of Australian produce for supermarkets, hardware stores and other shops. These same ships then return to Australia largely empty of any island produce. The trade is almost all one-way.

For islanders, trade is not just about business but about relationships and culture.

Perhaps the PM could take the heads of Coles and Woolworths on his next trip to help place one trade item from each neighbouring Pacific country into their supply chains.  Australia could buy PNG coffee, Solomons tuna, Vanuatu kava and Fijian sugar.

How about creating a Pacific Village in Brisbane and Sydney, with peppercorn rents so they have a focal point to bring in produce at wholesale prices for national distribution just as Chinatowns do in each city?

At the same time, a stream of Australian tourists arrive at Port Vila airport getting visas on arrival, while a small straggle of Pacific islanders goes the other way, arriving at Australian airports having completed onerous and costly visa applications just to visit.

What kind of family demands you get a visa before visiting?

This scene is replicated across the Pacific islands.

It is just one way in which Australia’s Pacific “step up” is missing the most important and obvious elements - policy that actually embraces our neighbours at a time when they now have alternatives.

By contrast, China wants to buy almost anything the Pacific produces and gives its citizens visas on arrival, as does much of Europe.

Morrison has been putting in “face time” and engaging leaders in a way no Australian PM has done before, having understood the Pacific is a region which operates on personal relationships, not ideology.

But in calling our Pacific neighbours “family” as the Morrison government does, the question is also being asked by islanders: “What kind of family demands you get a visa before visiting?”

According to the most recent immigration statistics, nearly 10,000 Malaysians were recorded as having overstayed visas in 2016-17, together with 6500 Chinese nationals and 5170 from the United States, yet there has been no change to their visa requirements.

More than 40 countries get a visa exemption when visiting Australia, but none of our Pacific neighbours do. It seems our Home Affairs Department remains terrified that a few islanders might overstay if we relaxed visa requirements.

They mainly want to visit relatives and have a holiday, or do seasonal work or maybe study and then go home.

Our Melanesian neighbours can travel visa-free across Asia and Europe but not, it seems, to their “family” friend Australia.

Ben Bohane is an Australian journalist based in Vanuatu with 25 years' experience covering Pacific nations


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

 Chips Mackellar

Graham, Paul and Phil - No one in authority in Australia will listen while Australia is preoccupied with our problems of bush-fires, droughts and electricity prices.

But remember how Chris Viner-Smith OAM got the Police Overseas Service Medal for us. He pestered prime ministers and politicians so persistently, that even the Queen agreed to change the criteria so that the POSM would include kiaps.

So while the current prime minister is sorting out our problems of bush fires, drought and power prices, why don't you (as not so old kiaps) begin a campaign for better recognition of the problems of our Pacific neighbours, just like Chris did with our POSM. He used the squeaky wheel principle, and so could we.

Graham King

PNG passport holders have to obtain a Schengen visa to travel to Europe. Not easy to get as the applicant has to apply in person at a mission outside PNG. The French Embassy in Port Moresby is no longer able to issue these visas.

Paul Oates

Australia's Pacific 'step up' slogan should be: 'More trade, less aid'.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This is all stuff that we have been writing about for years but the twits in Canberra just don't get the message.

Our Melanesian neighbours can travel visa-free across Asia and Europe but not, it seems, to their “family” friend Australia.

Australia, which has no voice in the region because of Coalition government cuts to the ABC, is losing the Pacific.

It is losing it because its immigration policies remain discriminatory,

it is not buying enough of their stuff and it is not acting on their stated security concerns.

And Australia keeps telling them they should be worried about China."

You have all the material for a sensible policy shift if only someone would listen.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)