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“Learning from Fiji’s Australian vuvale: it is easy as ABC” (ed in FT 3/8/2019)


Learning from our Australian vuvale: it is easy as ABC (ed in FT 3/8/2019)

Some of Fiji’s cynics would have justifiably burst into laughter when the Australian Prime Minister (Scott Morrison) recently declared with a big smile that Australia regarded Fiji as “vuvale” (“family” in the Fijian language).

But even some Australian observers were skeptical at the obvious hyperbole (read below).

Given that vuvale in Fijian refers to the family of blood relatives within a house, not workers and retainers (Capell’s A New Fijian Dictionary), skeptics know all too well that in practice, Australia does not treat Fiji as vuvale: Fiji citizens have great difficulty getting Australian visas; they do not have good access to Australian labor markets (indeed, Australia only started long after NZ did); Fiji (and the Pacific countries) are refused entry into the lucrative Super Rugby competitions; and Pacific politicians have long suffered the paternalistic attitudes underlying all donor-recipient relationships.

Pacific politicians also know that the increased attention that the Australian Government is paying to Fiji and the Pacific is not due to any concern for their development, but almost entirely to their belated realization that China has now become extremely influential with Fiji and other PICs.

Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Australia without some part of the media bringing up the China bogey, whether it is belated concerns about a Chinese company acquiring a 99 year lease on the Darwin port or banning Chinese companies from bidding for some Australian IT projects, or even concern that some PICs (eg. Vanuatu and Fiji) have been considering giving a port to China.

It is understood that countering Chinese influence in the Pacific is behind the Australia’s PM recently announced large increases in aid programs (and refocused on infrastructure where Chinese aid has largely been); his symbolically digging the soil to initiate a project to turn Fiji’s Black Rock military base as a regional hub for police and peace-keeping (thereby apparently pre-empting China’s interest in the same base); and, the subject of this article,  Australia also announced a A$17 million dollar funding of Australian TV content to the Pacific audiences.

But paradoxically, the Australian Government has apparently decided to fund only Australian commercial television providers while excluding the ABC and SBS/NITV who, apart from being funded by Australian taxpayers, are well known to have the most extensive Pacific expertise and solid educational content.

While Fijian political leaders could score cheap political points to call out the Australian Prime Minister’s hypocritical vuvale claim, I suggest that it would be far more productive for Pacific voices to call the Australian bluff by demanding that the “head of the Australian vuvale” (i.e. the Australian Government) consult the junior members of the vuvale on exactly what kind of improvements they would like to see in their “family relationship”.

Some areas have been suggested above: significantly greater access for Fiji into the Australian seasonal labor scheme; allowing Fiji (and Pacific) sports (rugby, netball, soccer) teams to Australian/NZ competitions; and the subject of this article, access to the quality Australian television programs of ABC and SBS, so that ordinary Fiji people can learn from Australia’s science and technology.

I can attest (and give some glimpses below) that there is much that ordinary Fiji producers can learn from the quality programs of ABC and SBS about how ordinary hard-working Australian producers are coping with the harsh disciplines of globalization.

Just keep in mind that the economic history of both Fiji and Australia has been that it is not Governments and Members of Parliament who actually grow the economy but ordinary citizens and producers, who need to be educated and encouraged.

I give just two examples below from last week’s landline program of the Australian sugar cane farmers diversifying (a perennial futile call in Fiji) and making innovative use of the humble jackfruit (kathar in Hindi) often popular fare in Indian weddings.

Why only commercial TV?

The Australian Government decision to fund only commercial TV content to the Pacific has been soundly criticized by knowledgeable Australian media experts Bruce Dover and Ian Macintosh writing in the influential Lowy Institute publication, The Interpreter (“International broadcasting: raising Australia’s Pacific voice”).

Dover and Macintosh noted that while PM Morrison wanted the Australian and Pacific peoples to “stay in connection through the lifestyle and everyday experiences we are all lucky enough to enjoy… and to make sure that our friends in the Pacific have access to more quality Australian content on television and other platforms”, commercial TV programs was not the way to go, given that they thought that the “backbone of every one of their programming schedules is reality TV made almost exclusively for Australian, not Pacific audiences”.

Dover and Macintosh noted that in contrast, ABC and SBS had far more experience and expertise in covering Pacific affairs, and were highly cognizant of Pacific people’s development experiences and needs, and indeed of the developing world.

Dover and Macintosh were thoroughly critical of the “paternalistic” approach of the Australian Government in not even asking the Pacific peoples what they would like from Australian media.

They proposed that Australia complete the reviews that were already in progress and perhaps establish an  international broadcasting corporation or foundation [that] would operate in close consultation and in partnership with Australia’s Pacific neighbours. Such partnerships, including co-productions and training initiatives, would seek to build and strengthen ties between all involved rather than simply transmitting or, worse, dumping Australian content on unsuspecting regional audiences without thoughtful consideration of their particular needs and cultures”.

I could not agree more.

However, I suspect also that even if not stated by Dover and Macintosh, the Australian Government’s decision to not freely broadcast ABC (and SBS) television content to the Pacific, was probably a very deliberate policy decision to not expose Pacific people to programs which subject Australian governments to greater public scrutiny.

While there are a few quality commercial TV programs such as 60 Minutes, the ABC has by far a more solid and consistent history of producing wonderful critical programs such as the daily 7.30 Report, the daily Drum (with a panel of intelligent observers); the weekly Q&A again with solid panels often including government and opposition MPs facing questions from the public; the weekly Insiders program with an astute panel critically assessing the week’s political events, the weekly Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent programs targeting particular issues, to name just a few.

Such critical ABC programs subject all the powerful players in society (Government, Opposition parties, Members of Parliament,  powerful corporations and unions) to incisive scrutiny, thereby encouraging greater public accountability.

They also publicize issues of grave social concern, sometimes even forcing reluctant governments to set up powerful Royal Commissions of Inquiry, as most recently into trade union corruption, child protection and youth detention, misconduct in banking services, age care quality, and abuse and neglect of people with disability (see Wikipedia for a full list of Australian Royal Commissions for over a century).

Not surprisingly, the current conservative Coalition Government has long threatened the cutting of the ABC budgets and long demanded that they become more privately funded.

So why on earth would the Australian Government choose to exclude ABC programs from being offered freely to the Pacific while flooding them with commercial entertainment programs?

After all, no genuine and caring head of a “vuvale” would encourage their “children” to watch only commercial entertainment and turn off the TV when it comes to educational programs, as the Morrison Government has decided when it comes to the Pacific members of the Australian vuvale.

Again, this suggests not just paternalism, but political objectives of regulating Pacific Islanders’ thinking into uncritical directions, usually entertainment and sports.

While I do not reject Australian television programs that entertain, let me sketch just three non-political ABC programs which I passionately watch every week, and which could be of immense educational benefit to Fiji producers and the public in general, enhancing their abilities to cope with the rigors of globalization: Landline, Gardening Australia and Backroads.

The power of Landline

From ABC’s website Landline is intended to cover regional / rural issues and events, “ranging across agri-politics and economics, business and product innovation, animal and crop science, regional infrastructure, climate and weather trends, regional and rural services, music and lifestyle”.

The ABC website thinks that Landline’s “enduring popularity is based on its ability to explain and contextualise the issues affecting Australians living and working in the bush to those living in our big cities”.

Having devotedly watched two years of these programs, I believe however that the far more valuable contribution is to explain how very ordinary hardworking Australian families (men, women and children), can and do battle the odds to make a better living on land and sea, and coping with intense competitive pressures of globalization and cheaper products from other countries in the world.

These programs also explain how modern, scientific research and technology by not just state funded institutions like CSIRO but also individual producers themselves, enable the producers to produce quality innovative products at competitive prices.

You can go through the archives and see the hundreds of examples ranging from various meat products, grains, fish and shellfish farming,  fruit and vegetables that have incredibly direct relevance to the rural people of Fiji and other Pacific islands, who comprise more than fifty percent of all their populations.

Landline is a veritable university for ordinary Fiji and Pacific people, conveyed with great often dusty imagery, in simple easy to understand dialogue and honest hard-hitting journalism, showing with great clarity the strength and decency of the human spirit in rural and regional Australia.

Landline gives the real substance to Scott Morrison’s political objective of wanting Australian and Fiji people to “stay in connection through the lifestyle and everyday experiences we are all lucky enough to enjoy”.

Let me just give two Landline examples.

Sugar cane diversification

In contrast to Australia. Fiji has for decades struggled and largely failed to foster its sugar industry, fundamentally handicapped by small holdings (10 acres as opposed to 10,000 acres in Australia), lack of mechanization, dependence on outside labour, etc.) all explained in great detail by researchers such as Dr Padma Narsey Lal, Dr. Mahendra Reddy, Dr. Andrew McGreagor, and numerous studies, all conveniently ignored.

Orders to cane farmers by sugar industry executives (often former military officers) to increase productivity or diversify have had no impact, while calls for taxpayer subsidies can be no long-lasting solution to an industry which is in terminal decline.

But in a world where sugar consumption and prices are under stress because of its impact on NCDs like diabetes, even Australian sugar farmers with massive mechanized farms assisted by modern technology and research, are struggling and looking to diversification.

Last week’s Landline program had a wonderful segment on how one farmer was diversifying into macadamia nuts, a crop which has got great nutritional value and is becoming a fantastic culinary item for the top chefs in Australia and the world.

Do not take my word for it but go through this archive of stories here stretching back to 2000, all available here: weeks of learning for those with access to the Internet.

There are wonderful stories about mangoes, bananas, fish farming, prawn farming, pearl oyster farming, crayfish, rice, and of course sugar cane, dealing with pests, floods, droughts and cyclones- all stories of great relevance to Fiji and Pacific rural people and producers.

The humble jackfruit

Fiji people all know that the Fiji jackfruit (or kathar) is a must serve curry at Indian weddings.

But how many people know that if the unripe jackfruit is cooked slowly over 8 hours with the appropriate spices, that the end product has the texture and taste of slowly cooked meat, with tasters not able to even tell the difference!

Yet watch this episode of Landline to learn how an innovative development by an Australian farmer, celebrity chefs and restauranteurs have made the jackfruit the rage in Australian cuisine among vegetarians and vegans.

There are now large plantations being set up, in similar climates to Fiji’s, with specially selected and bred dwarf varieties of trees with smaller fruit to make these “largest fruit in the world” more manageable to producers, wholesalers and end users.

This is just one example of a tropical fruit that Australian farmers are doing innovative things with.

Gardening Australia

Any Fiji tourist to Australia cannot but be amazed at the incredible variety of flowers, shrubs and trees that are grown in the ordinary Australian garden.

Get to know these householders and you have be amazed at the depths of knowledge that these ordinary Australians have, clearly representing one incredible aspect of a civilized society, built up over more than a century of planting, selecting and scientific caring.

An important part of this knowledge building are programs like Gardening Australia, where on a weekly basis, teams of specialist presenters and horticultural experts try to provide   “practical, realistic, and credible horticultural and gardening advice, inspiring and entertaining all Australian gardeners around the nation… . a valuable resource to all gardeners through the television program, the magazine, books, DVDs and extensive online content.”

Again, do not take my word for it but look at the archive of programs and stories presented here, going back to 2005.

There are amazing sensible tips for growing flowers, fruits and vegetables and even preparing meals. There is professional advice on soils, drainage, pests, pesticides, fertilizers, urban gardens, and much more.

Again, this program is a university for the common person on all things to with nature, not the least with the increasing number running commercial businesses with flowers.

A blast from the past

A couple of months ago, I watched a Gardening Australia program on a hippy looking Brian Noone in his late sixties doing incredible things with caper farming and processing in South Australia.

Surely not the same Brian Noone, Australian IDA researcher that Rev. Aquila Yabaki, Jone Dakuvula, Claire Slatter and I worked with some forty six years ago producing that radical 1974 booklet Fiji A Developing Australian Colony? Yet it was.

Brian Noone was not just developing a minor industry in Australia, but also linking up with Indian agribusinesses and using tissue culture, starting plantations of millions of caper bushes throughout India.

Read that story here:

You will find that this ABC Gardening Australia program is teaching not just incredible growing science and skills to ordinary Australian farmers, but also processing and marketing skills, and linking up with international businesses.

There are hundreds of stories like this which can be of great relevance to Fiji and Pacific rural producers and householders.

The power of Backroads: integrating the rural into urban life

For more than a century, Australia, has seen rural:urban drift with young people usually reluctant to live and work in the rural areas, for very understandable reasons.

Backroads is a weekly ABC program in which ABC journalists, led by the effervescent Heather Ewart, takes Australian viewers (mostly urban) around Australian’s vast outback regions, visiting small towns and rural communities. Have a look at the following website:

The stories are incredible of small resilient communities fighting all the odds of poor health and education facilities, entertainment that cannot match that of urban areas, and a quality of life that most urban people would  not withstand. Nevertheless, the stories all convey the strong battling human spirit that rural Australian communities, including remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, display in making a life full of rich culture, while keeping the rural economies going, providing food security to the urban dwellers. These programs are also a wonderful introduction to the wonders of this great Australian continent, no doubt attracting tourists off the beaten track.

Most Pacific countries like Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands are of course facing similarl rural:urban drift problems, and all their government are attempting to foster policies that retain their populations in rural areas and keep agriculture going.  Theirs is also a losing battle.

I can envisage incredible programs like Backroads developed for the hundreds of islands in Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, also strengthening their rural communities, and encouraging tourism to all the areas which usually miss out on development.

Local television stations can surely learn from ABC’s Backroads.

What access?

Many of these programs I mention here are freely available in Australia on demand (IView or SBS on Demand).

I am not sure whether Fiji and Pacific people can watch these archived segments on the Internet, but of course, not all Fiji people and especially the target rural population, will have easy and affordable access to the Internet.

Which is where Scott Morrison’s $19 million offer to Fiji and the Pacific for free television content can be quite useful, especially to the operations of Fiji Television, FBC and Mai TV.

But ultimately it is for Fiji and Pacific governments and people, to politely but firmly inform the Australian Government what kinds of Australian programs that they would like to air to their peoples to expedite their development.

Or all they will get will be more entertainment, of which they have no shortage whatsoever.

Which would be a wasted opportunity at a time when Australia is desperately keen to show Fiji and the Pacific that they are vuvale.

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