CANBERRA - An Australian government supported think tank has been accused of racism and infantilising Pacific islanders following commentary on the departure of five Micronesian nations from the Pacific Islands Forum.
The Sydney-based Lowy Institute has faced a barrage of criticism over views expressed by the managing editor of its online The Interpreter magazine, Daniel Flitton, who compared a major regional dispute to a “toddler’s tantrum” and said Pacific island nations have “some growing up to do”.
Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia have initiated action to leave the Forum because of disagreement over the selection of a new secretary-general for the important regional organisation.
The Forum had previously rotated the role of secretary-general between Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia – an unwritten convention comparable to good-faith leadership sharing arrangements used by many multilateral bodies.
Eminent Papua New Guinean commentator Martyn Namorong said the article was “typical Australian snobbery” and accused the Lowy Institute of being tone-deaf and getting worse.
“I’m glad the Lowy Institute ran this article because it explains how Australians think about us,” Namorong wrote in response to Flitton’s article.
“They basically think of us as riff raff.”
Māori activist Sina Brown-Davis also minced no words in her analysis, stating the commentary was “absolutely racist and patronising”.
The media-friendly Lowy Institute is heavily supported by the Australian government – including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and eight other agencies – and has maintained an interest in the Oceania region for more than a decade.
The Institute claims to have particular expertise in Asia-Pacific affairs and to be “at the centre of Australia’s foreign policy and national security debates”.
It also says it is a “world-leading online think tank” whose “magazine, The Interpreter, was the first of its kind among foreign-policy think tanks” and “publish[es] groundbreaking interactive research.”
However the magazine’s recent commentary has demonstrated a residual colonial mindset – filled with contemptuous opinions and anachronistic stereotypes - rather than demonstrating a solid evidential base.
It is a trend that will alarm Australian officials, business leaders and NGOs committed to regional collaboration and who are desperate to cast off Australia’s longstanding reputation for paternalism at a time when the growing influence of China need to be contained.
Responding to Namorong, regular PNG Attitude contributor Corney Alone pointed out that colonial-era sentiments about the Pacific are alive and well in Australia.
“That shouldn't be seen or read as an epiphany moment,” he wrote.
“From the genesis, we as people and the land have been viewed as the exploitation paradise for plunder and wholesale extraction site with zilch hint of value addition or creation.
“Believe them when they tell you [the truth].”
More sombre was the disappointment of University of Papua New Guinea academic Maholopa Laveil, who said he was saddened by the Lowy Institute piece.
“I've corresponded with Dan [Flitton] for two Lowy articles, who struck me as a nice person,” said Maholopa, who holds a master’s degree in economics from the Australian National University.
“Where's the objectivity and sensitivity of a foreign policy think tank?”
Flitton’s confused polemic included rants about Nauruan connections to the Kremlin and an alleged link between the Marshall Islands and Hezbollah – neither of which seemed relevant to the Forum leadership dispute.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute Pacific program, described his colleague’s opinion as “blistering” and made his own contribution to an article in The Guardian suggesting Pacific Island leaders were too constrained by culture to hold effective meetings by video link.
“They are accustomed to seeing each other regularly, used to these things taking time, as they talk through and think through these decisions,” he told The Guardian.
“The Pacific Islands Forum prides itself on consensus decision-making.
“Decisions can be contentious, but they always do reach that consensus.
“How that will work over Zoom, with possible internet bandwidth and connectivity issues, we don’t know.”
The only voice to jump to the think tank’s defence was Ben Packham, foreign affairs correspondent at The Australian.
He tweeted – and later deleted – a suggestion that the Lowy Institute was subject to a pile-on by the “woke” Pacific, a negatively framed allusion to Black Lives Matter and other movements to advance racial equality.
The Lowy Institute got one thing right however, the Pacific island nations are right to emphasise their own agency. They did, they are and they will again.
But mindless hot takes and patronising commentary will do nothing but further damage the Lowy Institute’s reputation and degrade Australia’s relationships in the Pacific.
Seems like Lowy would do well to undertake some serious introspection, mend a few bridges and eat a slice of humble pie.