Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Pacfic Solutions? the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme as a Symbol of Australian Relations with the Pacific Islands

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Pacfic Solutions? the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme as a Symbol of Australian Relations with the Pacific Islands

Article excerpt

The announcement of the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme in August 2008 was welcomed throughout the Pacific region as much for its symbolic message of Australia's willingness to engage with the nations of the Pacific as for the economic assistance it would provide. In the twelve months since its announcement, however, progress towards its implementation has been slow, especially in the largest of the Pacific nations, Papua New Guinea. This paper examines some of the reasons for the welcome that was extended to the Scheme and looks in some detail at how it has been received in Papua New Guinea. It concludes by expressing the concern that the Scheme may fail due to the continuing problems in administration and management that have beset the region in the past.

Introduction

The Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme was announced by the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Stephen Smith, before the meeting of Pacific Forum leaders in Niue in August 2008.It envisaged that as many as 2,500 Pacific Islanders, from Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu, would participate in a pilot seasonal work program in Australia over three years. At the end of the pilot, the scheme would be evaluated with a view to expanding it to help fill the gap in employment in Australia's horticultural sector (Smith 2008).

Reaction to the scheme's announcement was very positive from Pacific Island nations: at least, from those which had been included as members of the pilot program. Others, which had missed out, were not dismissive of the scheme's intent, however, merely their failure to be included in it. The general sense was that at last Australia was doing something constructive. In following the lead of New Zealand and other developed nations outside of the region, it was seen as responding to the lobbying and promotion of the concept that had been under way for some years (see for example Maclellan and Mares 2006; Hayward-Jones 2008, 2).This paper will examine some of the reasons for this favourable response, and will examine in some detail the scheme's impact in Papua New Guinea, the largest of the Pacific Island states, before concluding on a note of some concern about its future implementation.

Symbolism: Australia in the Region

Income from remittances has played an important role in the economies of Pacific island states for some time, in common with many other developing nations. For some, it has been vital: in 2005, remittances accounted for 40% of Tonga's GDP1 and 15% of that of Kiribati (Browne and Mineshima 2007, 12). However, as important as the income from remittances can be, the reason for the favourable response to the Australian scheme transcends the purely economic. It has been welcomed as much for its symbolism as for any other reason, as a further sign of the warming of Australia's relations with its Pacific neighbours. Such a softening of approach, it is felt, may mean the door will eventually open to longer term settlement, study, or work opportunities for the region's peoples, that will go some way towards addressing problems of economic uncertainty and environmental threat.

Beginning with the election of the Rudd government in November 2007, there has been an overt and deliberate policy of rapprochement with the region's small island nations. The rhetoric of policy has shifted from caution over 'failing states' to a constructive building of partnerships. This was articulated in the Port Moresby Declaration of March 2008, in which Rudd set out his government's vision (Rudd 2008).The Declaration acknowledged the problems afflicting the region, particularly in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. It emphasised, however, that the path to their solution would lie in a cooperative approach characterised by mutual respect and responsibility. In this it differed markedly from the dismissive approach contained in the 2003 foreign policy white paper, Advancing the National Interest, which declared that 'Australia cannot presume to fix the problems of the South Pacific countries' (DFAT 2003, 93). …

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