Australia’s downgrading of relationships with the Pacific has left a broken regional diplomacy model in urgent need of repair, writes Sandi Logan.
Another week where Australia’s relationships with its Pacific “family” go through the wringer. Somehow we have managed to have a stoush with the Solomon Islands, even when we offer to pay for their election.
Is Australia really a member of the Pacific “vuvale” – a Fijian word slapped onto the region holus-bolus by former prime minister Scott Morrison as a branding exercise? Or is Australia the region’s historical “bad/distracted boyfriend?” or a mixture of both?
Labor’s victory in this year’s federal election has unleashed a torrent of thinktank advice about Australia’s true ‘Pacific identity’, and what to do to repair our tattered relationships with the neighbours.
The new government is giving signs of having listened and thought about how to be better friends with the island nations to our north – and south, if you count in the New Zealand cousins.
PM Anthony Albanese announced in a June 10 press conference with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern that Australia had “come out of the naughty corner” after nine years of Liberal-National coalition rule.
And in July, at the ABC’s 90th birthday celebrations in Sydney, the PM said Australia needed to explain itself better to the Pacific, as part of a more respectful conversation with our neighbours.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong sped around the region within days of taking office, visiting Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Solomon Islands and New Zealand. International Development of the Pacific Minister Pat Conroy has been to Fiji and Solomon Islands. And the PM joined Wong in Fiji for this year’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting (PIFLM) in July.
But amid all the talk, one “insider” group’s voice has been muted, apart from a pre-election public statement by the (retired) Diplomats for Climate Action Now group. People with past hands-on experience working on Pacific foreign policy for previous Coalition and Labor governments have been largely silent on how Australia’s Pacific diplomatic sausage is made.
For the first time, this piece reflects their first-hand knowledge and insights, suitably disguised and unattributed.
What happened in Tuvalu …
First, what these old and not-so-old hands have to tell us is that the problem has deep historical roots – it can’t be blamed on one political side or the other; both are guilty of sins of omission and commission when it comes to Oceania.
For example, Australia’s climate change denial problem goes back more than three decades, to the Hawke and Keating days.
In the early 1990s, Hawke government foreign minister Senator Gareth Evans paid one of his regular visits to Tuvalu, with a party of Australian diplomatic officials. At the welcome ceremony in the Maneapa on Funafuti, the Tuvaluans performed a traditional, kneeling “action dance” with hand gestures, depicting ocean waves and rising water, and praying gestures entreating Australia to act to protect them from the rising ocean. Even then, high tides regularly flooded the country’s main airstrip, which runs alongside the Maneapa and Funafuti’s town centre.
Asking what the dance was about, the DFAT party was told it was an appeal to Australia to offer Tuvaluans sanctuary if their islands were swamped by sea level rise. Embarrassed, and privately acknowledging the Tuvaluans’ fears were justified, Australia established in 1991 the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project across the South-West Pacific as a compromise gesture. This offshore network of sea level monitoring stations continues to measure rising sea level rates to this day.
Almost 30 years later, back in Tuvalu at the 2019 PIFLM, visiting leaders including then prime minister Scott Morrison were greeted by a row of local children sitting in a shallow pool, garlanded with frangipani. The same message, sent in a different way, was received with the same deafness by Australia. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.
Learn from history – fix soft power
Australia’s downgrading of relationships with the Pacific in recent years, its defunding of regional initiatives across climate, soft power and more, and its failure to maintain strong ministerial person-to-person ties has left a broken regional diplomacy model in urgent need of repair and reinvention.
Our default ‘bang on the table’ – our way or the highway – approach to negotiations with the Pacific has, to use an Australianism, bitten us badly on the bum. It’s failed us most recently in Solomon Islands, where mercurial PM Manasseh Sogavare and his government are throwing up real challenges.
How do we fix this?
Along with more climate ambition, soft power is a good place to start. It’s no secret that DFAT’s soft power effort in the Indo-Pacific and beyond has been severely curtailed in recent years, as noted by foreign policy analysts such as Graeme Dobell and Melissa Conley-Tyler in The Interpreter.
Public diplomacy (including cultural diplomacy) is the soft power medium through which Australia explains and promotes our climate and other key policies, communicates national aims and identity, shares information, strengthens social, economic and cultural connections, and builds international constituencies of support.
In the Pacific, our media engagement, cultural diplomacy and overall public diplomacy activities are narrow, poorly conceived and planned, under-resourced and unimaginative.
As a result, Australia consistently misses valuable opportunities to connect with and persuade key government, business, and community audiences.
Right now, the biggest gaps in Australia’s Pacific public diplomacy/soft power strategy include:
- Pacific islander and South Sea Islander diaspora engagement
- DFAT’s 2018-2021 Soft Power Review remains unpublished, with no public dialogue on its findings after the Review process was suspended in October 2021.
To begin to restore Australia’s Pacific/Indo-Pacific soft power effectiveness through public diplomacy, the government can take inspiration from what worked before, as well as exploring new ideas and approaches.
For example, under the Hawke and Keating governments, Australia had a high bang for buck aid-funded public diplomacy scheme called the Australia Pacific Cultures Fund. It funded fellowships and familiarisation tours of Australia by Pacific artists, writers and journalists, as well as the usual regional tours by Australian musicians and travelling art exhibitions. DFAT now has the Australia-China Council, the Australia-India Institute, the Australia-Japan Foundation, and more. Why not an Australia-Pacific Council?
In Fiji in the early 1990s, the then Australian embassy funded a pioneering anthology of Fiji writing, “Trapped”. The embassy also funded the first-ever (and to our knowledge, the only) visit to Fiji and other Pacific countries by a First Nations DFAT officer, the late Roni Ellis, to introduce senior host government executives to Australia’s First Nations’ cultures.
Similarly in PNG in that era, a high commission-led initiative seed-funded the international careers of many talented PNG musicians, some of whom became regular members of bands such as Yothu Yindi and Not Drowning Waving.
Australia was walking the talk on engagement with its neighbours – it was a conversation, not a monologue. Australia now needs to:
- Review and redesign DFAT’s public diplomacy strategy (including for the Pacific) so it is coherent, evidence-based, fit for purpose and adequately resourced.
- Review, update and publish the suspended Soft Power Review; discuss and assess its recommendations for effectiveness with key external stakeholders; and implement these as a priority.
- Incorporate the refreshed Soft Power Review as part of a wider strategic review of DFAT as proposed by Mercedes Page in the The Interpreter.
The new Labor government’s commitment to an Indo-Pacific Broadcasting strategy which will increase funding to boost ABC International’s new broadcasting push in the Pacific is a good start as announced recently by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. But with time and effort, even ‘‘bad boyfriends’’ can transform into partners of choice and better neighbours.
Sandi Logan was a journalist from 1974-1984 (Fairfax, Toronto Sun, ABC-TV & Radio); a DFAT diplomat from 1984-2002, serving in Port Moresby (1988-90), Bonn (1993-96) and Washington DC (1998-2002); a media adviser to federal Liberal and Labor ministers; a communications executive and spokesman for the AFP and the Department of Immigration; and most recently an author of the non-fiction book BETRAYED (Hachette). Originally from Canada, he has also played ice hockey for more than 60 years.