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Stepping-Up With Australia's "Pacific Family"

03 Nov 2021
By Professor Joanne Wallis
Staff from the Australian High Commission in Honiara greet the arrival of an Australian funded COVID-19 support package. Source: DFAT

The Australian government has vowed to “step-up” its engagement with its “Pacific family,” emphasising that its relationships with Pacific states will be characterised by respect for, and listening to them, as equals. While this advances the government’s strategic interests, puzzlingly, leaders and officials continue exhibit beliefs and behaviour that undermine this goal.

At the 2017 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meeting then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (2017) made a “commitment to ‘step-up’ Australia’s engagement in the Pacific.” The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper said that the step-up would include “promoting economic cooperation and greater integration within the Pacific and also with the Australian and New Zealand economies,” “tackling security challenges,” and “strengthening people-to-people links, skills and leadership.” But it was not until a speech at Lavarack Barracks in November 2018 that Prime Minister Scott Morrison fleshed out a range of initiatives focused on: development, including infrastructure financing and enhanced labour mobility opportunities; security, including the creation of the Australia Pacific Security College and greater Australian Defence Force (ADF) presence in the region; and diplomatic and people-to-people links, including sports, education, media, and church partnerships. Implementation of the step-up is overseen by a dedicated cross-agency Office of the Pacific.

Importantly, in his Lavarak Barracks speech, Morrison began to describe Australia and Pacific states being “connected as members of a Pacific family.” He later used Pacific languages to describe “our Vuvale, our wantok, our Whanau.” To reflect the rise of the family analogy as a framing device, leaders have shifted to referring to the Pacific as Australia’s “home,” rather than its “neighbourhood.”

Although the family analogy is not new, it has recently been used to frame Australia’s policy with three apparent intentions. The first seems to be a desire to frame Australia’s relations with Pacific states as being of equals. Morrison has claimed that the familial relationship is based on “respect, equality and openness.” Reflecting this, there is a rhetorical emphasis on Australia listening to Pacific priorities. Head of the Office of the Pacific, Ewen McDonald, has emphasised that the “Step-Up is taking place in consultation with our Pacific partners, in response to Pacific priorities.” In response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the government has emphasised that its assistance to the Pacific is “responsive to the evolving priorities of partner countries.”

The Pacific family discourse could be interpreted as a welcome continuation of the change heralded by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “Port Moresby Declaration.” That saw a new emphasis on “partnership” in the language of Australia’s engagement, including the negotiation of bilateral Pacific Partnerships for Development. However, Pacific states could be forgiven for being sceptical about Australia’s commitment to treating them as equal partners—they have heard this language before. For example, former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans articulated a policy of “constructive commitment,” whereby Australia would deal with Pacific states “on a basis of sovereign equality and mutual respect.” This approach soon lapsed and was followed by a period of interventionism in the region.

The second intention of the Pacific family discourse is an attempt to characterise Australia’s step-up in moral terms, “because it’s right.” Australian politicians and officials have a history of framing Australia’s engagement in terms of “a special responsibility,” rather than self-interest. Morrison has repeated this language.

What is new is the more explicitly affective dimension of the Pacific family discourse. Morrison has spoken about “respect, love, commitment” and then-Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke about “the love of the Pacific” in Australia. This appears intended to encourage Australians to feel an emotional affinity with the Pacific to help the government justify its increased activism (and spending); to encourage Pacific Islanders to identify Australia as their preferred partner; and by implication to exclude states that are not perceived to share the same apparently warm relationship.

Indeed, Australian leaders have used the Pacific family discourse to implicitly critique Chinese engagement. For example, Morrison made a veiled reference to China when he said, “When you see yourselves as family, a relationship moves beyond a shallow transactional lens.” Similarly, Hawke has commented that Australia provides assistance to the region “willingly; we do it for our family; we do it for our neighbourhood; we do it because we actually care.”

To further differentiate Australia from China, Morrison has tried to underpin the Pacific family discourse as being based on “our geography and our history … [W]hen you share the beginnings of colonisation and these issues there is an understanding there is an appreciation … that many others will struggle to understand.” Yet this seems disingenuous. Only indigenous Australians experienced European colonization, and the Australian government is yet to properly reconcile with them. Australia was the colonial power in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru, and it has failed to fully account for, or reconcile, the wrongs committed during its administration.

Morrison has also explicitly foregrounded the importance of religion, reflecting that he is the most overtly religious prime minister in recent Australian history. The Pacific family discourse reflects Morrison’s religious beliefs and the time he has spent undertaking church visits in Fiji. In December 2019, Morrison met 15 Pacific church leaders and welcomed more than 200 Australian Christians to Parliament for the launch of the “Friends of the Pacific” parliamentary group and to discuss what it means to be part of the “Pacific family.” This emphasis on religious linkages has played out in practical policy terms with the creation of the Pacific Church Partnerships Program under the step-up.

For these reasons, the Pacific family discourse has been described as “goddamn genius.” However, even Australian officials have expressed caution. High Commissioner to Samoa Sara Moriarty reported that she asked her Samoan colleagues, “Are we overplaying this ‘family’” given that, “in the Samoan context family is really important and everyone in the family as a place. It’s a hierarchical structure?” While her colleagues replied that “we do think of Australia as family,” particularly because of the large Samoan diaspora in Australia, Moriarty commented, “I think we still need to work out what our role is in the family.” This exchange highlighted the unclear nature of Australia’s assumed role in the Pacific family: is it a “big brother,” “uncle,” “cousin,” or “parent”? Each potential role portrays different power and gender perceptions and dynamics. This exchange also highlighted a resource the government has seldom drawn on in its diplomacy—the Pacific diaspora in Australia.

The emotional resonance of Morrison’s initial Pacific family framing was somewhat undermined by the fact that it was made at a military barracks, and he spent considerable time describing an increased role for the ADF. In August 2020, Hawke reported that “in celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Vanuatu’s independence” Australia had docked HMAS Choules and Huon in Port Vila and staged flypasts by Royal Australian Airforce Super Hornets. While it is unclear how this display was perceived by ni-Vanuatu onlookers as contributing to celebrations of their independence, it constituted an unambiguous gesture of Australian military presence.

The emphasis on defence and security in the step-up has been noted by Pacific leaders, particularly the joint Australia-PNG redevelopment of the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island. Vanuatu’s then-Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu stated, “we are not interested in militarization,” a sentiment repeated by then-Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Dame Meg Taylor. Former Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi similarly observed that, “As Pacific leaders we strongly believe in being … free from military competition.”

This third intention of the Pacific family discourse seems to be to minimise the impact of policy differences on Australia’s relationships in the region. Morrison has emphasised that it is “not to say we will always agree. But that’s not the true test of friendship or family. Tell me a family that always agrees.” With respect to the example of climate change, this obscures the origins and importance of policy differences.

Australian leaders and officials contradict themselves with respect to the Pacific—they recognise the strategic importance of the region, and articulate a desire to enhance Australia’s relationships through stepping-up its engagement with its Pacific family as equal partners and sovereign states. Yet they simultaneously demonstrate beliefs that undermine this, such as their habit of perceiving Pacific states as small, weak, and vulnerable to external influence. The government also engages in behaviour that undermines this, by securitising the region through emphasising geostrategic competition and by adopting policies that directly undermine Pacific priorities, most notably with respect to climate change. Ironically, while the discourse of the Pacific family is intended to enhance Australia’s relationships in the Pacific to counter other powers, the government’s hypocritical approach to climate change risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of encouraging Pacific states to seek closer relations with China.

Examining these contradictions is important, because for the step-up to succeed, and for Australia’s strategic anxiety about the Pacific to be allayed, Australian leaders and officials must recognise how their beliefs and behaviour contribute to tensions in Australia’s relationships with the region, to challenges facing Pacific states, and to insecurity within the region. The Pacific Islands Forum “Blue Pacific” discourse offers a way for Australian leaders to achieve consistency in their approach to the Pacific, recognising that this will always be challenged by the competing interests and compromises that characterise a complex entity such as the Australian government.

Joanne Wallis is Professor of International Security in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. Her research focuses on peacebuilding, security, and Australia’s strategy in the Pacific Islands. She is the author of editor of seven books, including Constitution making during State building (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and Pacific Power? Australia’s Strategy in the Pacific Islands (Melbourne University Press, 2017).

This is an edited extract from Wallis’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled “Contradictions in Australia’s Pacific Islands discourse.” It is republished with permission.