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The Pacific Family and Neo-colonialism

Published 10 Dec 2022
Grace Papworth

If colonialism is the direct political and economic control of one nation over another, modern neo-colonialism is not. It does not involve direct control and leaves substantial ‘leeway’ for a developing nation to act with the oversight of a domineering nation.

For reasons relating to size, geography and Western ideals of success Australia has viewed itself as somewhat of a leader when it comes to Pacific Island nations. The Albanese Government has embraced this notion by making bold assertions that Australia and its neighbours are part of one large ‘Pacific family’. This does not appear to be insidious. But if we are “one family”, Australia needs to own up to the injustices that it has and potentially still does commit as a neo-colonial power in the region.

Our relationships with the region are draped in historical colonialism. We have engaged in blackbirding in Fiji and Vanuatu as early as 1859. In the 1970’s Australia had direct colonial control of Nauru and PNG – draining the countries of natural resources such as phosphate. To this very day Australia exploits its Pacific Island neighbours. Under the PALM scheme 30 workers have reportedly died since 2012. These workers receive as little as nine dollars a day in unregulated, low skilled and seasonal work. The scheme itself has been likened to “modern slavery” and “blackbirding” – where Australia lures pacific islander workers away from their homes and their employers undertake in rampant wage theft, exploitation and unsafe working conditions. It also needs to be noted that Australia maintains a presence of troops in the Solomon Islands and our 2017 bilateral agreement explicitly allows “Australian police, defence and associated civilian personnel to be deployed rapidly to the Solomon Islands in the event of an emergency.” How is this not neo colonial influence?

In April 2022 China entered into an unprecedented security arrangement with the Solomon Islands. This isn’t an isolated act of interest in the area. Between the years of 2013 to 2018 Chinese investment in the Pacific has risen from $900 million to $4.5 billion. This is a 400 percent increase. It alone tells us that Australia is no longer the only country attempting to assert some sort of influence in the Pacific.

Our response to this deal demonstrates the continued neo-colonial nature of our relationships. Australia’s former Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, aggressively criticised the Solomon Island’s sovereignty by implying that China has simply bribed the countries leaders into submission We [Australia] don’t pay off, we don’t bribe people, and the Chinese certainly do.” Karen Andrews, the Morrison administrations Home Affairs Minister vehemently supported this view by explicitly describing the Pacific as “our backyard”. Underlying these (and other) official Australian statements are concerns about security. But it needs to be questioned whether this outward stress on security concerns can be continued without damaging Australia’s relations with its neighbours. In the Defence White Paper of 2016, Australia argues that climate is what will drive instability and state fragility in the Pacific nations. Why then are our actions so focussed on defence and security? Is the aim of balancing the rising influence of China in the region driving out consideration of other objectives in Australia’s relations with its Pacific neighbours?

Grace Papworth is in her fourth-year undergraduate law degree and has a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in politics at the University of Sydney. She has formerly worked for Australian Senator Andrew Bragg and as a law clerk, developing broad policy interests (and how they overlap in the law and legislation). Her work abroad with US Senator Tim Scott and subsequent research project on US compulsory voting and extremism has fostered a strong interest in US political structures, soft power and notions of party government. Grace completed a consulting cross-disciplinary program in 2021, undertaking an analysis of Australia’s international commitments to disability education. This passion stems from her lived experience as a carer. She will continue her critical thinking research at Deloitte in 2023.

Grace is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.