Understanding a failed relationship: Australia and Melanesia

This liberal triumphalism led to the US withdrawing from the Pacific Islands and delegating Australia the task of the invigilator in the region in the early 1990s.

By Sanjay Ramesh

Australia has not been successful in cementing sound inclusive democratic political governance in Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea due to its own failures and at home, overwhelmed by the increased dominance of China in the region and an ill-conceived political response to China’s Belt and Road initiative based not on evidence but on emotions and a firm belief on playing the role of Deputy Sheriff of a declining hegemon: the USA. 

There are many parallels in history where proxies of hegemonic powers miscalculated the strategic pathways and ended up in a political straitjacketed. 

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The triumph of liberalism over Soviet-style command system by Francis Fukuyama in 1989 was perhaps a premature celebration of the primacy of free market over state intervention, laissez-faire over command economy, and bureaucratic essentialism over bureaucratic authoritarianism as great power politics defined the global international systems and discourses on political, political and social systems.

This liberal triumphalism led to the US withdrawing from the Pacific Islands and delegating Australia the task of the invigilator in the region in the early 1990s as the US focus changed from the Pacific to the Middle East, Africa, and then to the former states of Yugoslavia, and lately to Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. 

Since 1996, Australia has taken, without critical analysis, a dangerously paternalistic policy position towards the Pacific Islands, and this was highlighted at the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting in 1997, where on Australia’s insistence, a more overt neoliberal policy was adopted by the Pacific Islands Forum for the restructuring Pacific islands along the lines of neo-colonial, managerial and chequebook diplomacy of the Liberal-National Government in Canberra (1996–2007), and these policy initiatives were adopted by subsequent governments without critical analysis, resulting in dysfunctional foreign policy with ongoing failures of political governance in the Pacific Island States, including tragic failures in social and climate policies accentuated by increased corruption, clientelism, and patrimonilialism. 

The Australian ideology espoused for the Pacific Islands included smaller and leaner public service, opening up indigenous land to foreign investments, exploitation of low-wage labour, liberalised trade, Tax-Free Zones, and patrimonial regimes supported by AUSAID as the modus operandi with Australian overseas missions requested to turn the other cheek on human rights, political governance, media freedom, climate issues, and indigenous rights.

The internal political dynamics in mainly Melanesian states are characterised by the failures of political governance, elevated communalism, regionalism, excessive instrumentalism, tribalism, ethnic conflict, rampant corruption, and patrimonial and clientelistic political managerialism. These drawbacks on the local fronts are compensated by labour mobility programs which allow Pacific Islanders to come to Australia and suffer exploitation at the hands of Australian employers, who believe in indentured labour services, paying and exploiting workers subsidised by the Australian Government, and a draconian workplace system akin to blackbirding. 

The tokenistic gesture from Australia has failed the Pacific community but the policymakers in Canberra continue to support these initiatives as necessary for knowledge and skills transfers to the Pacific Islands and to fill the labour void caused by the COVID pandemic (2020-2021).

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The conflict in Bougainville was an early warning sign for the Australian policymakers, who ignored indigenous local ethnic, and regional politics with contending and conflicted social forces that proved fatal, eventually leading to the disintegration of the Melanesian Pacific polity by mining interests. Communal tensions reached full circle in 2000 when both Fiji and Solomon Islands deteriorated into anarchy with the political class in Canberra unprepared for an interventionist political response and attempted without success to resurrect the Biketawa declaration and militarily intervene in the domestic affairs of both Fiji and the Solomon Islands. While the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands led by the Australian Defence Forces had some success in restoring order to a state of anarchy, the intervention proposal was met with shock and horror in other states, especially Fiji. The former Australian Prime Minister John Howard opined that intervention in Fiji would involve the Australian Defence Force engaging in a potential firefight with the Republic of Fiji Military Forces in the Fijian capital Suva, resulting in Australian and Fijian casualties. This was clearly unacceptable and not in the best national interest of Australia, and a half-baked sanctions regime was authored by the Australian Foreign Affairs with targeted attacks on Fiji’s coup leaders and their cabinet ministers, extending to the judiciary that was dominated by Sri Lankan expatriates.

While the situation in the Solomon Islands was quickly rectified with a band-aid solution in the form of a Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, the crisis in Fiji was prolonged and damaging as the Australian Labor government under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard continued isolating Fiji following the coups in 2006, forcing the political class in Fiji into the arms of China and Russia. However. Things were not any better in Australia with domestic politics marred by leadership instability.

What followed from 2007 in Australia was a revolving door of Prime Ministers (Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, and Scott Morrison) and a significant inward focus by Australia during the period to remediate as best as possible failures of its own internal political governance, highlighted by ongoing and acrimonious debates on a Federal Independent Commission Against Corruption, environment, responses to the pandemic, industrial relations, vulnerable Australians, franking credits, capital gains regime and negative gearing. As a result, political corruption and regional conflicts in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea intensified, and the band-aid solution on the Solomon Islands peeled, leading to riots in Honiara in November 2021 with Honiara embracing China, and Fiji moving closer to a political interventionist model with a new constitution in 2013 and staged managed general elections in 2014, 2018 and 2022. Vanuatu also did not fare any better with the Australian push to undermine the country’s non-aligned position with a bilateral defence agreement that eventually led to the demise of the Vanuatu government in 2023.

The Melanesian Pacific Island nations continue to suffer from catastrophic climate change,  poor political governance, rampant corruption, severe social problems, dysfunctional electoral systems, foreign influence, ethnic and tribal tensions, and economic difficulties and there have been no quick fixes for years of inaction has given rise to authoritarianism, social and political fragmentation in our Pacific islands. Canberra has now prioritised nuclear submarines under AUKUS which challenge the fundamental principles of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and non-aligned posture, not to mention the climate disasters caused by British, US, and French nuclear testing after World War II, including the recent decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow Japan to dump its nuclear by-product into the North Pacific without multilateral agreement with the Pacific Islands.

The South Pacific Islands and in particular Melanesia want Australia to show leadership in addressing climate change in the region, allowing climate refugees from the islands to resettle in environment-polluting countries such as Australia, enabling visa-free travel, promoting investment in resilient infrastructures, promoting good governance, human rights, and social justice, and further enabling aid programs that accelerates development, addresses high unemployment, protects the rights of women and children, and future proofs indigenous resources from exploitation by grubby local politicians and overseas companies, and addresses human trafficking, drugs, and exploitation of women and children. 

Is Australia up to the challenge remains to be seen.

Contributing Author: Dr Sanjay Ramesh is an Associate Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Sydney and has written many articles on Fiji since 2000.  

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