Australia is attempting to maintain its influence across the Pacific. But this soft power campaign will not work if viewers are shown the wrong content.
In May 2020, the Australian government announced $17.1 million for the PacificAus TV. As Chinese investment grows in the Pacific and Australia steps up to deter Beijing and maintain its influence, soft power initiatives like the PacificAus TV program are key to “strengthening links between Australians and people across the Pacific.”
The program licenses a selection of Australian television content to existing Pacific broadcasters, allowing them to air the shows at no cost. The chosen shows are intended to represent a particular image of Australia, and the program demonstrates how Australia aims to influence viewers overseas. According to Marise Payne, the carefully selected programming choices are meant to “deepen the connection with our Pacific Family.” Outside of a large selection of sports and sports commentary programs, PacificAus TV is broadcasting Neighbours, Royal Flying Doctor Service, Better Homes & Gardens, Paramedics, and 60 Minutes. The program will air 1,000 hours of Australian shows through free-to-air television in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru.
The image of Australia on Neighbours and Home & Away does not align with the experiences of Australia or its neighbours in the Pacific. The perfectly decorated homes of white middle-class families are a pipedream for most Australians, let alone the citizens of less economically developed Pacific Island nations. The PacificAus programming is out of touch in other ways too — airing Better Homes & Gardens feels particularly insidious as climate change threatens the homes and lives of many in the Pacific.
One of the only shows filmed in the Pacific included in the line-up is Survivor Australia, which has filmed seasons in Fiji, Vanuatu, and Samoa. This follows a trend of Western television going into the Pacific to film content, such as Channel 10’s Bachelor in Paradise. Instead of utilising local experts, these productions will generally bring over their own filming teams.
While some of the chosen shows promote pristine images of middle-class Australia, such as Neighbours and Home & Away, others attempt to showcase the proficiency of Australia’s domestic security and emergency services, including Border Security, Beach Cops, and Paramedics. Interestingly, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and media outlets reported in 2020 that Border Security: Australia’s Front Line was included in the package, with PacificAus TV even featuring it on their website as recently as 7 May 2022, it has since been removed. The decision to broadcast Border Security to “our Pacific family” was a bold one — a very hard display of soft power.
Border Security, a “fly on the wall”-style reality television program, documents migrants and tourists entering Australia and the various problems they might face at the border. This includes attempted drug trafficking, the use of fake passports, and visa issues. The more cruel side of the program follows immigration officers on raids to arrest migrant workers who have overstayed their visas.
Academic research on Border Security argues that “securitainment” — entertainment produced with the aims of securitising issues for its audiences — commercialises nationalism and acts as public relations for immigration departments. In the case of Border Security, by portraying the show’s “hero characters as predominantly white-looking and English-speaking, Border Security constructs a White-English identity complex as the default identity of representatives of the Australian nation.” Immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds are portrayed as the “other” and a threat to Australia’s security and whiteness.
A 2015 investigation by The Guardian, revealed that Seven Network, which airs Border Security, “will provide the commonwealth with a DVD disk of each completed episode for approval.” This has given the federal government “ultimate editorial control” over the program. In 2017, Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg spoke of the department’s close relations with the Seven Network through Border Force, stating that the show is “one of the best public relations capabilities that we have, and it is all for free.”
Border Security is not the only media funded by the federal government. In 2016 Journey was released, a $6 million feature film funded by the Department of Immigration to dissuade asylum seekers from the Middle East from travelling to Australia. The film follows the story of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia via people smugglers in Indonesia. It tells the harrowing tale of their failed attempts to seek asylum in Australia without any Australians or Australian government agencies appearing in the film. In the closing scenes, families travelling to Australia from Indonesia capsize and are left for dead somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The film was shown on television in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
There is a clear link between soft power, Border Security, and Journey. The federal government immigration departments use these programs to deter migrants and sensationalise their work. There is a hard power edge to Australia’s soft power — demonstrating Australia’s strict and securitised border to potential migrations.
Collaborative Soft Power
PacificAus TV has received backlash from the Australian and Pacific communities. Airing reality television and soap operas are unhelpful — language barriers and cultural differences between Australia and the Pacific make most of the chosen shows “irrelevant to most Islanders.” In a Whitlam Institute study on Pacific Perspectives on the World, one respondent stated, “I was disappointed when the investment into Pacific media was to be the provisioning of television programs… I really don’t need to see The Bachelor or Married at First Sight. That amount of money could have actually been given to local media organisations to produce content.”
There is an opportunity within the $17.1 million budget of Pacific Aust TV to support and work with the local film and television industries. Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke said that the “initiative is a terrific demonstration of shared cultural ties and links between Australia and the Pacific.” But it only broadcasts a particular version of Australian culture. Pacific Islanders rarely feature in any of these programs. The PacificAus TV program is a one-way cultural exchange.
In 2018 New Zealand announced the creation of the Pasifika television channel. The $10 million program will establish a dedicated Pacifika Channel with the Pacific Cooperation Broadcasting. It includes free-to-air broadcasting, training for Pacific broadcasters, and supporting Pacific-made television. Australia should look to the New Zealand program for lessons on engaging with Pacific television makers. The PacificAus program should go beyond encouraging Pacific viewers to watch Australian shows and try to ensure that Australia is seeing Pacific stories too.
Vanuatu soap opera Love Patrol is an excellent example of supporting local film industries. The show, airing eight seasons and 80 episodes between 2009 and 2012, received funding from AusAid, NZAid, and the Asian Development Bank. Love Patrol covered issues such as HIV, domestic violence, gender inequality, and politics. The show aimed to increase awareness of sexually transmitted infections as their prevalence increased among young people. The TV show was popular in Vanuatu and Fiji and streamed in Guam and Australia through the National Indigenous Television (NITV).
If Australia wants to strengthen its relationships with Pacific Islanders, it must be more mindful of the shows in the PacificAus TV program. Border Security, Beach Cops, and Neighbours do not improve relations or shape the strategic environment. Investing in local television networks and working with Pacific Islanders to tell Pacific stories in the Pacific and Australia will improve ties more than Home & Away.
Kate Clayton is Research Officer at La Trobe Asia. Her research areas include Australia, China, the Pacific Islands, and the United States. Her focus is on security, geopolitics and climate change. Kate is also Chief Operations Officer at Young Australians in International Affairs. Twitter: @kateclaytn.
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