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Patronising the ‘Pacific family’ we never had

“The 'family' construct is inappropriate in a context where Australia should be seeking to forge mature, meaningful and equivalent relationships with Pacific Island nations. The whole theme is patronising, inane and quite weird” – Keith Jackson

Morrison pacific

| Pearls & Irritations

MELBOURNE - When will this nonsense on familial connection between Australia and the Pacific end?

In 2018, Australia’s then Pentecostal prime minister, Scott Morrison, drew upon a term that his predecessors had not.

On 8 November that year, he announced that Australia’s engagement with the region would be taken to another level, launching a “new chapter in relations with our Pacific family.”

In an address to Asialink prior to attending the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Osaka, Morrison was again found talking about the Indo-Pacific, which “embraces our Pacific family with whom we have special relationships and duties, our close neighbours, our major trading partners, our alliance partners and the world’s fastest growing economies.”

Such language had all the resonances of white European paternalism, ever watchful over the savage dark races who would only ever advance with the aid, and management, of civilised powers.

It was a sentiment reflected in the views of British explorer and anthropologist William Winwood Reade, who opined in his 1872 work The Martyrdom of Man that “children are ruled and schooled by force, and it is not an empty metaphor to say that savages are children.”

While he accepted slavery as “happily extinct”, he thought it wise for a European government “to introduce compulsory labour among the barbarous races that acknowledge its sovereignty and occupy its land.”

The language of the family imputes the existence of stern, guiding parents and wayward, mischievous children who might dare show some disobedience.

The parents, in the ‘Pacific family’ are never assumed to be any of the Pacific Island states, who are seen as merely squabbling siblings in need of control.

Morrison’s coining of the expression had the benefit of unmasking a Freudian truth.

Pacific Island states had long been considered charity cases and laggards in development, useful only as a labour source for Australian markets or security outposts.

Concerns about climate change had barely been acknowledged.

When needed, Australian police and military forces had also intervened to arrest any supposed sliding into instability.

The term became even more problematic in the wake of independent security decisions made by Pacific Island states with China.

A central premise of the charity-child relationship between Canberra and its smaller neighbours has been of one compliant behaviour.

We give you money and largesse from the aid budget; you stay loyal and consistent to Australian interests.

Of particular concern, even terror, was the Solomon Islands-China security pact which had, on the face of it, the potential to facilitate the establishment of a Chinese military base.

In his April visit to Honiara, Senator Zed Seselja, Australia’s international development minister, proved unsparing in reiterating the familial script.

He told the Solomons Island prime minister Manasseh Sogavare that, “the Pacific family” would “always meet the security needs of our region.”

Sogavare would be wise to “consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency, consistent with our region’s security frameworks.”

The concern from Australian security wonks at Honiara’s willingness to go so far with Beijing caused an outburst of neo-imperial candour.

The parent should take full control of the situation and initiate an abusive, punitive invasion, ostensibly in the name of protecting the sovereignty of another state.

A rattled Solomon Islands prime minister rebuked such views in parliament, claiming that “we are treated as kindergarten students walking around with Colt .45s in our hands, and therefore need to be supervised.”

Australia’s then opposition Labor Party, vying for government in the May elections, quickly fell in with the language, extending it and bending it to suit.

In fact, it went so far as to scold the Coalition government for sending a junior minister to the Solomon Islands to argue against Honiara’s signing of a security pact with Beijing.

Instead of sending Seselja, Labor campaign spokesman Jason Clare argued, foreign minister Marise Payne should have been on that plane.

“What happened instead, the foreign minister went to a business function and some bloke called Zed got sent there.” Then savages were simply not wooed.

Building on the theme of coaxing and pressuring Pacific neighbours to do the right thing by Australia’s security interests, Clare insisted on a more aggressive pose.

“You can’t sit back on the deck chair in the Pacific and just assume that everything’s going to be okay.” The dark children, in other words, might play up.

The new Labor government of Anthony Albanese revelled in the same language of paternal condescension, letting Pacific Island states know that Canberra was keeping watch on any errant behaviour while still claiming to respect them.

Just prior to visiting Samoa and Tonga in early June, foreign minister Penny Wong boasted of embarking on her second visit to the Pacific since assuming her cabinet post.

“We want to make a uniquely Australian contribution to help build a stronger Pacific family – through social and economic opportunities including pandemic recovery, health development and infrastructure support, as well as through our Pacific labour programs and permanent migration.”

Pacific states were also assured that parent Australia had heard their concerns about climate change in a way that the previous parent had not.

“We will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Pacific family in addressing the existential threat of climate change.”

The persistent use of the term ‘Pacific family’ has not gone unnoticed among some Australian critics.

Julie Hunt is unimpressed. “If someone tries to inveigle themselves into our family, or continually tell us that we are part of their family, how would we feel? Isn’t it a bit presumptuous?”

The utterance of such familial terminology brought with it a range of unpleasant neo-colonial connotations.

For Hunt, the term would remain meaningless till “we show by our actions that we understand their perspectives and respect them.

Dare I suggest that we wait until they return the feelings, and wait until they call us family?” And a long wait that may prove to be.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne


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Bernard Corden

Another symbolic artefact I have noticed is that during media conferences Anthony Albanese has dispensed with wearing a lapel badge depicting the Australian national flag.

Nationalism breeds militarism, which eventually degenerates into war.

Imagine there's no countries it isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too.

Stephen Charteris

I particularly liked the way prime minister Ardern opened her address in Maori and then acknowledged the traditional elders of the land on which the meeting was taking place.

Ms Ardern is very comfortable with Pasifika culture and during her address popped in and out of Pasifika references as a natural part of who she is.

This is a far cry from the previous Australian administration that showed not a jot of understanding, knowledge or respect for the region in which we live.

I am particularly impressed by the way our new foreign minister also moves with ease among her Pasifika counterparts and prime minister Albanese is a breath of fresh air.

He mentioned he is looking forward to attending the forthcoming Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji at which time I believe he will reset Australia’s relationship with much of the Pacific.

Philip Fitzpatrick

From Jacinda Ardern's recent address at the Lowy Institute:

"For us the regional architecture of the Pacific is critical. New Zealand is committed to the Pacific Islands Forum as the vehicle for addressing regional challenges.

To that end, Forum members have been working together to develop the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent to provide a long-term vision of what we want to achieve together for our region.

We have a strong commitment to supporting broader ambitions for our region’s security, as set out in the Biketawa and Boe Declarations. Importantly we see local security challenges being resolved locally, with Pacific Islands Forum Members’ security being addressed first and foremost by the Forum family.

That’s because we have a history of meeting one another’s needs, including most recently through the regional deployment of personnel to Honiara to support the re-establishment of peace and stability following unrest.

The model exists, we need to use it.

That is not to say that there will not be others who have an interest in the Pacific – there are. France, Japan, the UK, US, and China have all played a role in the Pacific for many, many years. It would be wrong to characterise this engagement, including that of China, as new. It would also be wrong to position the Pacific in such a way that they have to ‘pick sides.’ These are democratic nations with their own sovereign right to determine their foreign policy engagements. We can be country neutral in approach, but have a Pacific bias on the values we apply for these engagements. .

But Priorities should be set by the Pacific.

They should be free from coercion.

Investment should be of high quality.

And issues that affect the security of all of us, or may be seen as the militarisation of the region should come through the PIF as set out in the Biketawa and Boe declaration, as such a change would rightly effect and concern many.

Ultimately, rather than increased strategic competition in the region though, we need instead to look for areas to build and cooperate, recognising the sovereignty and independence of those for whom the region really is home.

And so while we each maintain our independence, and New Zealand certainly does, we are part of a family. One that is incredibly important to us and central in our decision making."

Keith Jackson

I think you’ll find that Jacinta Arden uses the more measured ‘neighbours’ not ‘family’.

There’s a big difference. You don’t invite yourself into someone’s family, nor do you plonk them in yours because you feel like it.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I agree with you Kindin. I don't think the term has any derogatory connotations. The problem seems to be about Scott Morrison using it. Jacinda Ardern uses the same term with little criticism, although NZ probably has more reason to use it because they are more embedded in the Pacific.

With regard to nuclear families I might point out that a couple and their children occupying a single house doesn't necessarily constitute a nuclear family. Anyone looking at a PNG village will see plenty of couple and children occupied dwellings. The difference is that they are surrounded by similar households occupied by their extended families. This was the same style that occurred in the English village where I lived in the 1950s.

It was in the industrialised towns in the north that true nuclear families lived. There such families were starkly isolated from their extended families and open prey for capitalism.

Kindin Ongugo

At least in PNG, where the extended family system is a big part of one's life, a phrase such as 'Pacific family' would not be out of place, rather inclusive.

Words like brother, sister, uncle and aunty can be used as sign of respect in some cultures.

I am guessing Mr Morrison was probably advised to use the phrase. I can see a fine line between respect and patronising.

Stephen Charteris

Corney, we agree.

Our former PM’s effort at winning friends and influencing people was trite, puerile, infantile and condescending.

But hey he was so culturally inappropriate, so incredibly bad that he was actually quite funny. The faux hugging and slaps on the back. You couldn’t have scripted it better if you tried.

Reminds me of the actor John Cleese in the hugely funny/cringeworthy episode of Fawlty Towers, the Germans are coming.

Corney Korokan Alone

We the Pacific Islands darkies, the so-called 'civilized and educated' stock might want to refer to, are not easily swayed by condescending familial gestures or words.

We may not be that forthright with our interactions but we don't lack any ounce of "thinking ability in the observation and historical trends department".

The Solomon Islands prime minister's outright rejection of the Pacific Islands as being tagged as someone's backyard is shared and supported widely by the citizens of the respective islands countries.


The 21st century citizens of the Pacific Islands refuses to be treated as 'boys and children' as was fashionable during the days of plantation economics (last centuries).

We care less about boomerang aid and will never ever bow down in prostration for another 400 years.

Those to continue to harboUr and peddle those imperial tendencies must learn how to smell the coffee and get used to the multi-polar world of business, trade and politics.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A minor point Stephen. The nuclear family is an invention of capitalism and the doctrine of individualism. It is designed to sell more stuff.

An extended family can make do with one washing machine but if you split it up into several nuclear families you can sell them a washing machine each.

Back in the 1950s there was still a sense of extended family among people in England and Australia.

In England I was part of an extended rural family but when we migrated to Australia I was reduced to being a member of a nuclear family.

It is true some historians propose that the emergence of industrialisation and early capitalism caused the nuclear family to emerge as a financially viable social unit. But it is a contested view.

Research by historians Peter Laslett and Alan MacFarlane famously found that the nuclear family (mother, father, child/children in one household) was the dominant arrangement in England stretching back to the 13th century - KJ

Lindsay F Bond

Noting "Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge" a search shows from Wikipedia: "Selwyn College...is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge [and] was founded in 1882 ...in memory of George Augustus Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand, and subsequently Bishop of Lichfield."

Also a worthwhile read is found at: https://www.sel.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/assets/about/history/Selwyn-1882-1973.pdf
"George Augustus Selwyn fetched Patteson from England to work in the Pacific Islands. [Patterson] became the first Bishop of Melanesia, and was murdered while trying to land on an island in 1871... The College has always retained a connection with the diocese of Melanesia."
"...College should be a community of people who think, and study, and seek to diminish the ignorance both of themselves and of the world."

For closer details on Archbishop Selwyn, see: http://anglicanhistory.org/nz/selwyn/blain_acta.pdf
(Compiler Rev'd M Blain in New Zealand had also appointments in Papua New Guinea.)

As a surprising note of 'connectedness', it can be found "Selwyn worked at Eton College, becoming assistant master and tutoring the sons of Edward Herbert, 2nd Earl of Powis" thus Edward Herbert, styled "Viscount Clive between 1804 and 1839." One son, Edward James Herbert became 3rd Earl of Powis and for many years the employer of a Head Gardener, a chap who it appears was one of my forebears. Can it be that through Powis, Selwyn had goodly effect on my forbears?

One of my own sons treads and trenches in New Zealand (Wellington).

Now, in what manner did an Australian politician suppose connectedness of family across the Pacific?

Stephen Charteris

Our Pacific Family? In the context of Australia, the term is cringeworthy.

Culturally our Anglocentric ideal of the nuclear family bears no relationship to the concept of family throughout the Pacific. A bit like comparing a stick man cartoon to a mural in the Sistine Chapel.

Generally, one would wait to be invited before informing them you’ve appointed yourself as the patriarch.

Add Australia’s history vis a vis “our” first Australians and any claim to being part of the whanau would likely induce an uncontrollable fit of projectile vomiting.

The whole idea is, well laughable. If Pacific nations actually thought our former PM was serious, they would of course have accused him of insincerity, ignorance and hypocrisy of the worst kind.

But, they knew he was only joking. How good is it? Situation normal then.

Chris Overland

I think that Binoy Kampmark makes a very good point.

International relationships are not familial in nature although such analogies are much beloved of politicians.

Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of Britain (1855-1865) reputedly said that ‘In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests’. This axiom is as true today as it was one-and-half centuries ago.

That said, we want and need to have friendly relations with the Pacific states. They are important to us for both historic and strategic reasons. The relationship needs to be based upon a clear understanding our of respective interests not confected notions of a familial relationship.

Morrison's coining of the the term 'Pacific family' needs to be recognised as the disingenuous marketing ploy that it is.

I hope that, in private at least, Penny Wong has dispensed with such nonsense and engaged in the plain speaking for which she is justly noted.

The establishment of some sort of significant Chinese economic or naval presence in the Solomon Islands should rightly be regarded as a strategic threat to Australia's defence and other interests.

China is a one party authoritarian state which fully intends to extend its influence and power into the Pacific by whatever means necessary. It is doing so in an effort to at least reduce if not negate the influence of the United States and its allies, including Australia.

The Solomon Islands government may conceive of itself as capable of adroitly negotiating deals with China that are advantageous to it and without strings attached.

However, history shows that small nations are poorly placed to resist pressures from their much more powerful 'friends', as Australia's client state relationship with the USA has often revealed.

The Solomon Islands may find itself under pressure to acquiesce to demands from China for things that it believes are outside the scope of the current relationship.

These 'requests' may prove very hard to resist once China achieves, as it will, a significant degree of economic and political influence.

Chinese money will buy both of these things over time, just as US money has done the same thing in other places.

As we enter a new era of great power rivalry, small states like the Solomon Islands need to be very wary about the nature and extent of their relationships with any of the rival states.

History is littered with the stories of how such rivalries have resulted in unplanned, unforeseen and unwanted developments for small states caught up in the affairs of the great powers.

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