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In our national interest or our economic interest?

By Cate Morriss - posted Wednesday, 14 June 2006

How do you feel about our national security? Pretty good?

Think about our regional security. As the big guys of the region we’re doing OK, yeah? But what if you lived in one of the smaller states around the Pacific?

In 2003 Gallop International reported that in the Pacific region no more than 15 per cent of people interviewed rated their national security situation as good, with approximately 50 per cent rating it as poor.


The Australian Government is presently drafting a report into Australia's aid program and its impact on human rights and security in the Pacific. Australia’s engagement in the immediate region should be considered one of the most important issues affecting our country, however given the minimal media coverage the issues of our region attract (footy aside of course), you could be forgiven for thinking that Brangelina’s baby, or the “truth” behind the Da Vinci Code, were of far greater significance to Australians than anything going on closer to home.

Ask the man in the street about Australia’s place in regional affairs and more than likely a quick reference to the current situation in East Timor or our presence in the Solomon Islands will pull up most people. I don’t believe that Australians are not interested: we love our current affairs programs and soak up news like sponges. It can just be hard to find Pacific-centered news under the barrage of headlines from just about everywhere else in the world.

According to AusAID Australia’s estimated total aid flows to the Pacific for 2006-07 sits at $434.4 million and encompasses programs as far and wide as the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati and many others, including the Solomon’s. We pour money into areas as diverse as health and HIV-AIDS, to education and training, natural resource management and economic reform, governance, environmental protection and domestic violence.

In short, we are engaged in our region in almost all aspects of life and society. So why do so many Pacific Islanders see us as neo-colonial opportunists? Ouch!

Could it be the heavy handed way we dish out the dough? Sure, we have mechanisms in place to gauge need and assess best modes of delivery, but it’s our bottom line which becomes more and more apparent to our neighbours as the years roll on and schemes such as the Pacific Solution are plotted and implemented: no matter what we give or how we give it Australia’s interests remain paramount. Maybe some would say what’s wrong with that? Probably not much if it is within a context of co-operation and consideration for the region as whole. But is it?

The notion of a Pacific collaboration that is a cohesive, viable body able to work in co-operation and harmony for the good of the region has been debated for a number of years, and has also been the subject of academic scrutiny in recent years. Could we see a European Union style government formed, or should the Pacific create an entirely new formula? How does a region of such diversity ensure fair and free representation by those states when resources are tied to the aid budgets of the larger states?


Last year the Australian Labor Party Shadow Minister for Overseas Aid and Pacific Island Affairs, Bob Sercombe MP, released a policy discussion paper that attempts to address some of these issues.

Towards a Pacific Community opens the dialogue on how Australia could turn around its reputation as a heavy handed father figure towards a more egalitarian partner in the region.

Many Pacific leaders endorsed the paper and the Pacific Islands Forum echoed some of the solutions in its Pacific Plan. Of course, to make such a turnaround Australia would have to first shift its own perceptions of itself, and prepared to become a partner with leadership qualities rather than a leader with conditional partnership qualities.

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About the Author

Cate Morriss is Secretary of the Pacific Islands Political Studies Association (PIPSA); she is based at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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