Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Is Australia paternalistic towards the South Pacific?

This morning I listened to the ABC Radio Background Briefing program which was about Australia's relationship wtih South Pacific countries. Many of the speakers were very critical and said that Australia, unlike New Zealand, is very paternalistic in its attitude. Here is the site: for a transcript. There's an audio link also.

'When Australia's role in the South Pacific is raised, the terms 'arc of instability' and 'failed states' will commonly follow. As the dominant nation in the region, Australia's national interests are to the fore, as are Australian resources and personnel in providing assistance. But how well does Australia understand its Pacific neighbourhood? An edited version of a seminar hosted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.'

Here is a small part of a transcript from the program.

Chris Bullock: The final speaker is Imrana Jalal on 'future directions'. Imrana Jalal is a human rights lawyer from Fiji, widely known for her civil society activism. She began with a Pacific Islander's view of Australia.

Imrana Jalal: From our side I think it's fair to say that the Pacific Islander attitude towards Australia tends to be grateful, yet suspicious. For the most significant player in our region strategically, politically, economically and socially, you are not terribly well informed about us for our liking. For historical and other reasons, and dare I say some of them cultural, Australia still does not appear to have much of an instinct for the Pacific. In contrast, the New Zealanders have always appeared to be more comfortable with the region and their role in it, and are consistently better at engaging with us. There are sound historical reasons for this, of course, including New Zealand's greater and longer acknowledgment of their own indigenous population and their old, close and growing association with Polynesia.

Consequently, many of us feel that terms such as 'the arc of instability' and 'failing states' that are bandied around about us simply underscore the superficiality of the assessments of Pacific Island states and a readiness to apply questionable assumptions across what is in fact one of the most geographically, economically and culturally complex regions in the world.

Chris Bullock: The region's cultural complexity is guaranteed by its sheer diversity, and community loyalties make nationhood difficult.
Imrana Jalal again.

Imrana Jalal: In several countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Solomons and Vanuatu, nationhood is a real challenge. The attachment respective communities have for their specific areas and linguistic affiliation in Melanesia is not too readily understood or appreciated elsewhere. In Fiji, indigenous Fijian loyalties to their provinces, their tikinas and their mataqalis often placed above national interest, are poorly understood also. (etc.)

The challenge for us in the Pacific is to build a democracy that is relevant to our needs and our culture. Democracy is a foreign flower, we are told by many of our leaders. It does not fit into our culture. It is against chiefly leadership. It does not recognise the special rights of indigenous people. Democracy, I would argue, can exist side-by-side with a chiefly system if that is what the people want. And that should be accepted, whether it is palatable or not to our outside supporters. A democracy does not require the dissolution of chiefly leadership but it does require traditional leadership to be accountable. This is not based on logic, but on identity. But it must change and evolve to maintain its relevance to the emerging modern Pacific, and we Pacific Islanders ourselves need to make that happen. (etc.)

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