Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s late 2018 announcement of Australia’s shift in Pacific engagement policy called for a turn to a “new chapter in relations with our Pacific family”. The “Pacific Step-Up’’ aims to tie-in the region’s strategic and economic preparedness for future challenges. This is of strong interest to the AIIA Queensland audience as no state is better situated to act as Australia’s “gateway to the Pacific”.
These issued were discussed in detail on October 8 when Tess Newton Cain, Principal of TNC Pacific Consulting led a panel discussion, entitled Deepening the ties between Queensland and the Pacific Island Region.
Denise Johnston, Executive Director at the Department of State Development, Manufacturing, Infrastructure and Planning, explained the Queensland Government’s current approach as interlinking material assistance and security. Most prominently, Johnston referred to the provision of Guardian and Pacific Class patrol boats to Pacific Island nations, an example of the aerospace, maritime and defence focus of the Pacific Step-Up interlinking with Australian industry. Similar industry-focused programs seek to engage with peak bodies to maximise their capacity for positive impact.
Ema Vueti, President of the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, spoke of the precious domestic resource that is Queensland’s Pacific Islander diaspora community. This community is endowed with the cultural sensitivities and understanding necessary for meaningful engagements abroad, but also domestically. According to Vueti, these communities, although unsure of the strategic direction of the Step-Up, play an integral role in facilitating arrivals as a part of the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme. She said that diasporas were Queensland’s best moderator of cultural appropriateness and best source of mostly untapped connections and knowledge.
Brian Atkin is a social entrepreneur who represented the position of private enterprise on the deepening of Australia’s economic linkages with the Pacific. His Makira Gold business aims to tie the Pacific’s primary producers into global value chains in a way that ethically generates mutual benefit for trading partners. With particular reference to the Solomon Islands, Atkin cited low-yield, high-value premium cropping (such as spices or cacao) as ideal market activities, suited for subsequent consumer sale or value-added transformation. The Australia-Pacific economic exchange, according to Atkin, favoureds the Pacific’s production of not easily mechanised niche products, processed in Queensland and on-sold around the world.
Stefan Armbruster, a Brisbane based correspondent for SBS World News, noted the cultural implications of Australia’s historical tendency to operate with “little regard for our neighbours’’. He pointed to a need to view the Pacific as more than a single homogenised other and to recognise its rich cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. “Opportunity,” Armbruster said “comes from understanding”, and this called for similar awareness in the Pacific’s portrayal within the media. China and the region’s security concerns dominate the Pacific narrative, and this securitisation further flattened conceptual diversity and understanding.
AIIA Queensland extends its thanks to this exceptional panel which illuminated valuable perspectives on Queensland as the “gateway to the Pacific”. Together they offered an informative view of Australia’s Pacific approach from the outside looking in, broaching ideas such as the need to generate shared value and two-way trade. From the inside-looking-out perspective, the panel highlighted the role of diasporas, media and Australian industry.