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Schultz on Australian foreign policy towards the Pacific [Islands Business, 21 February 2013]


Jonathan Schultz’s recently completed PhD thesis at Melbourne University (Overseeing and Overlooking: Australian engagement with the Pacific islands 1988-2007), presents a somewhat scathing indictment of Australian foreign policy towards the Pacific.


Drawing on the recent crises in Australia’s relations with PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji (all Melanesian countries), Schultz concluded that Australian interests in the Pacific islands had “weak institutional representation”, worsened by the “low status of Pacific island desks in the Australian bureaucracy; the dearth of fora for debate and production of alternative approaches; the primacy of personalities in setting the tenor of the relationships; and the particular tendency to adopt models developed elsewhere”  (the “failed state” syndrome).


This then encouraged “policy entrepreneurs” to supply a “ready policy response”, which often were implemented “through insensitive expressions of Australian power” by the particular Ministers and personalities at the time.


Schultz concluded that the result was inevitably a “repeated learning of the same lessons” and a repetition of the same weak response cycles.


Schultz suggests that the way to break the weak engagement cycle was by a significant strengthening of “the institutional commitment to those relationships”.


He recommended the “re-establishment of the post of minister for Pacific island affairs, with greater departmental resources and a higher public profile than a parliamentary secretary”.


Schultz rightly warns that the Australian government had to go beyond just a more effective projection of “purely Australian national interests”,  towards a “more sustained attention to the Pacific islands”  and a strengthening of Australian policy-making.  Unfortunately, Schultz offers no substantive pointers in this critical direction.




The message that Australia needs to pay greater attention to the Pacific is not new, especially a response to China’s meteoric rise in the Pacific.


While PhD theses cannot cover everything related to the topic, the Schultz study could have been substantively improved with two additional perspectives.


First, have Australian foreign policy makers ever had any vision at all, where Australia’s relationships with the Pacific countries should be in twenty years time, to enable policy making to have a clear long term objective?


Second and related, are there any alternative kinds of relationships that Australia could have had with these same Pacific countries?


Australian vision for the Pacific?


The first question inevitably requires a focus on the failure of Australia (and NZ) to foster a deeper economic, political and social integration with the Pacific islands as offered through PACER Plus (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations) which has been on the drawing board for a decade.


Such integration is a global phenomenon, with perhaps the EU (however problem ridden) as a  good example of former warring and apparently disparate nations coming together to meet the challenges of globalisation and realignment of world powers.


Had such an integration been a reality in the Pacific today, many of the ad hoc and weak Australian interventions and the angst that Schultz documents, may not have been necessary, or, at worst, the problems could have been resolved far more amicably.


In an article a decade ago (PICTA, PACER and EPAs: weaknesses in Pacific island countries’ trade policiesPacific Economic Bulletin, Vol.19 No 3. 2004) I outlined in the concluding section, why and how a visionary Australia should fast-track PACER negotiations  into a “Win-Win” situation for Australia and the Pacific Islands..


This message was again pushed in a more recent Islands Business article which put forward several crucial benefits for Australia:


Crucially for the Schultz narrative, such wide integration would easily obtain for Australia, the solid unshakable good-will of the Pacific people,  whose long-term interests are often jeopardized by their political leaders in their periodic jousting with Australian political leaders.


NZ’s alternative model


Schulz’s study could also have benefited by comparing Australia’s experience with the Melanesian countries, with that of NZ’s arguably successful model of close and friendly relations with the Polynesian countries of Cook Islands, Tokelau, Niue, Samoa and Tonga.


White NZ has not just come to terms with the Maori and Pacific Island cultures, presence and needs, but the latter have become an expression of national celebration and international identification.


In contrast, white Australia is a long way from achieving anywhere that kind of relationships with Aboriginals whose standards of living by all MDG criteria are not just way below that of white Australians, but even way below those of the Pacific peoples to whom Australia devotes considerable aid.


Culturally sensitive staff


Most Australian staff in the Pacific are professional and well-intentioned, but thrust into a deceptive cultural world that Epeli Hauofa describes with great humour in his Tales of the Tikong.


By the time they have “learnt the ropes”, they are moved on to “higher” things, and another new set of appointments begin the cycle of relearning the ropes.


Australia could learn from NZ which has had great success in appointing Maoris and people of island origin both in Wellington and in their posts in the Pacific.


Australia, which is also now quite multi-cultural (including people with Pacific Island origins), should have little difficultly appointing staff to their Pacific desks and in the Islands who are already “in tune” with the local politics and people and can hit the ground running.


Similar suggestions could be also made about the many Australian “think tanks” on the Pacific and the journalists, who are nearly all white Australians.


Another weakness of Schultz’s study is that it focuses primarily on relations between political leaders of Australia and the Melanesian countries.


While this is understandable given Schultz’s discipline, it weakens his study to not deal with the trade, economic and aid relationships which have quite a significant bearing on the political relationships that Schultz explores.


For instance, in aid alone, the qualitative differences between the burgeoning Chinese aid (which focuses on infrastructure) and Australian aid (which focuses on institution strengthening in areas of education, health, and gender) are evincing quite different political responses from Pacific leaders.


To be fair to Schultz, being so comprehensive would have made his thesis into an encyclopaedia needing another five years to complete (which no PhD student can afford).


Schultz’s study has enough merit in the rich material he has put together, his analysis and conclusions, and his suggestions for further study and debate.

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