NOOSA – The book's title is a strained pun and the 2,000 word extract he allowed the Sydney Morning Herald gives the impression he’s struggling to kick an invisible ball at hidden goal posts.
And, if this chapter is any indication, 'Tides that Bind: Australia in the Pacific’, by Australia’s deputy opposition leader Richard Marles, is a strange piece of work.
A Herald sub-editor entitled the extract ‘Pacific in peril: Why our region needs us to step up and lead’, but the only answer seemed to be ‘climate change’ and Australia is not much of a performer on dealing with this.
Marles opens the extract by stating that “now more than ever, the Pacific needs a champion”.
And he would have us believe that “the Pacific desperately wants Australia to assume this role.” And so does the rest of the world.
The only obstacle to us leading, according to Marles, is that we do not expect to lead – and we should.
In March 2012 , as parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Marles gave a speech in Port Moresby in which he said “raising the profile of PNG in Australia [is] a subject which is indeed very much close to my heart and one which I think is ‘core business’ for me [in my role]”.
He went on to regret that “many Australians – particularly those born post-PNG independence – don’t know as much about Papua New Guinea as they should. To put it simply, PNG does not play in Australia’s national discourse in the way that it deserves.”
And so Marles sets himself a task and emphasised its importance. He had a few ideas: a PNG academic symposium; the Today show taking on some PNG content; a PNG Independence Day Oration. But there was little that was new.
As I wrote at the time, there was “no mention of the role of the social media. No mention of how the Australian press can be better engaged. No mention of professional exchanges. No mention of interchange at the level of rank and file politicians.
“No mention of how the many civil organisations in Australia beavering quietly away to assist PNG could be better supported to tell the story in Australia.
“And, worst of all, no strategy, no objectives, no analysis and no plan. And no metrics by which we may judge Mr Marles’ success at prosecuting his ‘core business’.”
Yeah, I know, I can be a tough judge. But now that Marles has been elevated to a distinguished position in politics, what does he have to convince us that “the Pacific desperately wants Australia” to be its champion.
In a word, nothing.
The nearest he gets to it is to write “we must lead in the Pacific by listening, learning and respecting. If we do this, we will start to change our relationship with the region for the better.”
Marles makes many saccharine references to the Pacific: it is “a place of wonder”, its people display “intimacy and uniqueness”, it has “a humanity the world should cherish” and there are many references to 2011, when he paid a visit that provided him with some anecdotes.
But there is no evidence, no support, for his assertion that the Pacific desperately wants Australia to be its champion.
It’s more like Australia desperately wants the Pacific to desperately want Australia to be its champion.
Marles does, however, offer a vague reason why the Pacific may not have uttered those words.
“While Australia clearly has committed substantial resources to the Pacific, something is lacking: intent…. What we are left with is policy drift. Whenever an Australian government representative provides a Pacific report card …. very rarely does it explain how a specific problem is being solved.”
And, of course, the Morrison government, which has “patently failed the Pacific on the question of climate change. And Australia’s development assistance has drifted away from supporting health outcomes. While the talk is strong, the walk is weak”.
Strong political rhetoric perhaps, but it takes us no closer to being a champion desperately required.
And, if Labor should best the Coalition in the national election due by next May, what is the Marles Plan for the Pacific.
Well, it looks something like this. “Providing access to our economy, and to our government’s service delivery, for example, offer much bigger opportunities for positive change than a simple focus on aid. But unlocking all forms of engagement in the Pacific requires one critical key: Australia must have a credible position around action on climate change.”