Step Up step in right direction, but Australia ‘needs to listen to Pacific’

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison ... "any commitment to building strong and respectful relationships in the region is going to take time," says Whitlam Institute director. Image: The Conversation/AAP

By the Vanuatu Daily Post

The Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University this week launched new policy research into the relationship between Australia and some of its closest neighbours.

The research shows a broad range of people in three of Australia’s closest Pacific countries – Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu – are concerned Australia does not know how to engage successfully as part of the Pacific community.

Late last year, the Whitlam Institute commissioned peacebuilding NGO Peacifica and Pacific specialist, Dr Tess Newton Cain, to explore how people in these three island nations perceive Australians and the government’s policies and interventions in the Pacific.

READ MORE: Pacific Perspectives on the World

Pacific Perspectives on the World.

The research, Pacific Perspectives on the World: Listening to Australia’s island neighbours in order to build strong, respectful and sustainable relationships, was launched at the Australasian Aid Conference.

This qualitative, participant-led research drew on focus groups and one-on-one interviews with 150 Pacific Islanders from varying backgrounds, including people from urban and rural settings, women, young people, business people and those engaged in civil society and government.

These conversations were then followed by expert seminars in Canberra and Suva.

A number of clear messages surfaced:

  • The quality of Australia’s relationships matter more than the quantity of our aid or trade;
  • Australia’s values, norms and ways of doing things are a vital part of how the country conducts its engagement with the Pacific; and
  • Australia, and its historical relationship, is valued but the country is one of many partners for Pacific Islanders.

Respectful relationships
“What our research has shown is that the Australian government initiative, Pacific Step Up, is a step in the right direction, but any commitment to building strong and respectful relationships in the region is going to take time,” said Leanne Smith, director of the Whitlam Institute.

“Australia must be prepared to listen, engage respectfully and demonstrate solidarity on issues of importance to the region,”

“While Australia is perceived to have a long-term historic relationship with the region, and the Pacific Step Up brings a focus to that relationship, one of the critiques that our research has revealed is that it is perceived to be a unilateral Australian initiative, something being done `to’ the Pacific rather than with countries of the region.

“There was also a perception of a certain level of racism and disrespect directed towards people from the Pacific. As one participant said, the relationship is ‘layered over and stifled by a degree of parochialism that is not only unnecessary, it’s counter-productive’.

“Interestingly, our research shows Australian domestic politics are also important to our relations with the region ­– our policies toward Indigenous people, and their invisibility in our relations with the Pacific were criticised.”

“We commissioned this research to support the direction the Australian government is taking by proving some nuanced feedback directly from affected communities in order to help inform policy going forward.

“Pacific Perspectives contains key recommendations that we hope are constructive and useful to the Australian government and other important stakeholders.”

Asia Pacific Report republishes articles from Vanuatu Daily Post in partnership with the Pacific Media Centre.

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