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Singing the Same Tune? Scott Morrison and Australia’s Pacific Family

13 Jun 2019
By Dr Debra McDougall
Scott Morrison and Manasseh Sogavare, June 2019. Source: Australian Prime Minister's Office handout

The Christian faith of Australia’s prime minister powerfully connects him to the Solomon Islands, but the “family” relationship between the two countries will be strained unless his government changes immigration policy and takes action on the climate crisis.

“Who likes singing? Put your hand up if you like singing!”

When Scott Morrison posed this question to an audience of secondary school students in Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara last week, he knew the answer. He was among people who sing — among people who close their eyes, raise their hands, and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit — just as Morrison himself does each Sunday.

Since he became prime minister, Morrison’s faith has set off a flurry of media commentary, some of which has portrayed Pentecostalism as a strange sect with alarming doctrines. Yet any attempt to pin down the political significance of this Holy Spirit-focused version of Christianity runs up against a fundamental problem: the spirit seems to direct the lives of believers in radically different ways. Churches seem to shape-shift in response to the charisma of the leader and the demands of the times. Morrison’s church is a “seeker-centred” church. The sermons are more self-help than fire and brimstone, the buildings have performance venues not sanctuaries, its online presence has the vibe of property developer not a place of worship, and the logo features a coffee cup not a cross.

No church in the Solomon Islands has these features. Yet, even in remote rural villages, youth groups fundraise to buy generators, fuel and sophisticated keyboards to emulate the feeling of these new style churches. Since a region-wide revival in the 1970s, evangelical worship styles and Pentecostal prayer practices are widespread even in Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches.

Solomon Islanders know that Morrison is more devout than an average Australian. They saw how few of the thousands of Australian police, technical assistants, and bureaucrats who have lived in or passed through Honiara during the decade-long $2.6 billion dollar Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) joined them in local churches. When I posted a question two weeks ago about Morrison’s upcoming visit on a Solomon Islands Facebook Forum, several responses mentioned that Solomon Islanders feel warmly toward Morrison because of his religious faith. His conservative stances on issues of same-sex marriage are also popular among many self-identified Christian Solomon Islander social media users. According to long-time Solomon Island resident journalist Mary-Louise O’Callaghan, Morrison has close connections to the Pacific through decades of church-related trips to the region.

Will these religious connections and affinities shape the Morrison government’s engagements with Australia’s Pacific neighbours? One possible manifestation is Morrison’s constant invocation of “family” in describing the Australia’s relationship with the Pacific. Morrison’s rhetoric of family marks a shift from that of earlier Coalition governments. In 2003, then-Prime Minister John Howard justified the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands by depicting the country being in “our patch”: a failing state in Australia’s neighbourhood that could allow malign influences into Australia. Australia and Solomon Islands were “neighbours” or “friends,” but not “family.”

The rhetoric of family was strong earlier in the year in Fiji when Morrison and Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced a “Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership,” the title including the Fijian word for family. In an address at the University of the South Pacific, Morrison said that the two countries were more than partners or neighbours. To talk of family, he said:

is to go beyond diplomacy, it’s to talk about something deep and something rich, something that is very local, something that is very “home” and something which connects peoples more than any words or any documents can…When you see yourselves as family, a relationship moves beyond a shallow transactional lens.

Last week, Morrison described the Pacific Step-up Program as “all about supporting each other like a family.” More than assistance or cooperation, “it is a deep and abiding protection and connection” that moves beyond transactional relationships to shared values. Morrison and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Mannaseh Sogavare declared their countries to be “true wantoks,” using a Solomon Islands Pijin term that indicates the close relationships between people who come from the same place and speak the same language.

These visions of a family that extends beyond one’s own kith and kin is deeply rooted in the Christian imaginary. For Solomon Islanders, the idea of a God who is father of all humanity opens the possibility of positive relationships with strangers who speak different languages and are descended from different ancestors. For many Australians and others living in post-Christian, post-industrial and highly mobile societies, churches promise authentic relationships with God and fellow people in an alienating world defined by market economies. Morrison, Bainimarama, and Sogavare do not need to mention God to evoke such associations.

Yet, Morrison’s talk of deep affinity and abiding relationships is also clearly directed toward broader geo-political tensions. The Australian government denied that the trip to Solomon Islands was about countering China’s influence, yet it is hard not to read China as the foil for Morrison’s talk of family: China transacts money for support; Australia supports its family out of love.

Moreover, this celebration of the Pacific as Australia’s family does not involve any reflexive critique of Australia’s previous presence in the region. During the RAMSI era, a range of actors — including Sogavare in an earlier term in office — lamented failures of Australian leadership to listen to Solomon Islanders. They became sceptical of the ways that the millions of dollars poured into the country seemed to go into the hip pockets or superannuation funds of Australian consultants paid exponentially more than ordinary islanders.

Back on Facebook, praise of Morrison as a good Christian and gratitude for Australia’s generous assistance was soon followed by more critical comments, reflecting some scepticism about the good will of Australia and its government. Many forum participants denounced the injustice of immigration processes: why can rich Australians enter Solomon Islands without a visa while poor Solomon Islanders must pay high fees and wait long periods to visit Australia? The issue that came up most often was the current climate crisis, an issue of urgent concern all around the region. Like religious leaders and political leaders, including former Prime Minister Rick Hou, many of my Solomon Islands interlocutors on Facebook were disappointed that Morrison had so little to say about climate change and that Australia’s efforts to reduce emissions have been so disappointing.

Scott Morrison sings many of the same tunes as his sisters and brothers in the Pacific. But it is not yet clear that he has really heard the words of their song.

Dr Debra McDougall is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Melbourne and author of Engaging with Strangers: Love and violence in the rural Solomon Islands (Berghahn 2016). She has written extensively on religion, politics, and language in the Solomon Islands.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.