Australia and the Pacific-The Next 20 Years

Article excerpt

Charting Two Decades of Change in the Pacific

In July 1989, Social Alternatives published a special issue on Australia and the South Pacific, subtitled 'Trouble in Paradise'. In 1989, 'trouble' seemed to be an appropriate label, with two recent coups in Fiji, an uneasy truce in New Caledonia between Kanaks, French settlers and the French State, and a long civil war about to break out on Bougainville Island. In the preceding decade, the Solomon Islands, FSM, Marshalls, CNMI, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Kiribati had joined the already independent nations of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. In the 1989 issue, thirteen analysts tackled labour, land, unions, reform, technology and security. The editorial claimed Australians 'have urgent economic and political interests and concerns on our very door step' and Senator John Button suggested a move has been made towards establishing 'Australia's partnership in the South Pacific'. Instead, the 1990s was an era when three catchphrases dominated Australian thinking on the newly independent nations of the region - arc of instability, doomsday scenario and failed states.

Twenty years later, the Pacific Islands Forum, comprising the leaders of all independent Pacific nations (plus Australia and New Zealand), met for the second time in Australia, in Cairns, for its annual regional meetings. This Social Alternatives special issue of the Pacific has a much different tone because Australia now faces eastwards towards a dynamic region and one that requires a new set of parameters, paradigms and perceptions. The turning point was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Port Moresby Declaration in March 2008, and subsequent statements at the 2020 Summit. He called for public acknowledgement and understanding of Australia's deep engagement with the Pacific Islands, and a new era of cooperation and partnership. This was a welcome change. This new relationship, symbolised in 2007 in the appointment of two Parliamentary Secretaries, one for the Pacific Islands and one for International Development Assistance, has taken concrete shape in the last two years and the essays below now tackle, for example, Australia's involvement in the regional Pacific Plan for development, a new Guest Worker scheme, and regional responses to climate change.

However, there is still a lot of talk - talkfests - and many observers note that considerable energy is expended on planning in the Pacific without much in the way of actual implementation and progress. Russell Hunter in the Samoa Observer (8 Aug 2009) noted sarcastically 'we are rather good at planning in this part of the world" and rhetorically asked what the Cairns meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum did - "well, it plans of course'. In a specific example, David Robie noted that train-the-trainer programs in journalism rarely had the desired outcome, citing research by Konai HeIu Thaman that not one person had completed a train-the-trainer program and gone home to apply those skills in journalism programs in their local Pacific universities where journalism was taught. Faced with a long list of regional and international conferences, workshops and symposia, Russell Hunter had asked - 'How does all this effort benefit the people of the region?'

Talkfests

The outcomes or benefits of a workshop and conference system were highlighted in 2008 when the University of Papua New Guinea revived the Waigani Seminars. Three hundred academics, practitioners and interested observers conducted a three day introspective analysis of plans laid out at independence in 1975, and asked why, after thirty-three years, Papua New Guinea (PNG) had not achieved these goals. The 'talk' over the previous thirty years at Waigani Seminars, a series which had begun in 1967, suggests that PNG had confronted recurring levels of intensity and change in the political, economie and social domain, and that a sense of being overwhelmed was real. But, at the Waigani talk-fests, it was claimed these problems were being challenged with enthusiasm and confidence. …