I got stood up this week. Again. I showed up for a press conference with the rest of the press corps, only to watch a group of Australian dignitaries blow right past us.
Local officials apologised sincerely and suggested an alternate time and location. We re-arranged our schedule and locked the time in, only to get a text hours later saying that it was taking place imminently, on the other end of town.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t take this personally. And I don’t intend to use column inches to settle petty grievances. The issue is that, in large things as well as small, when Australia’s priorities shift, the Pacific is expected to come along.
Or not. We can pretty much take it or leave it.
These days, officials don’t like to talk about donors and beneficiaries. They prefer to speak of development partners. Indeed, the Sustainable Development Goals create a different landscape to the one envisioned by the Millennium Development Goals that preceded them. The SDGs frame development in global terms; they don’t look at it as a bunch of rich countries helping their poorer cousins so much as everybody doing their part to improve the planet we all share.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But it’s a sad fact that, at a banquet, the person picking up the cheque is going to decide what’s on—or more importantly, what’s off—the menu.
Throughout its history, Australia has always struggled to situate itself, philosophically, culturally and politically. Until recent generations, England was still ‘home’. Arguably, it wasn’t until Kevin Rudd acceded to the PM’s chair that Australia began to think of Asia as its neighbourhood.
And just as arguably, it has yet to think of itself as a Pacific country.
That hasn’t stopped it from playing an integral—and mostly positive—role in the development of its neighbouring countries. Its influence is as undeniable as it is essential. Australia gives more than most countries, and most of what it gives, it gives to its nearest neighbours.
We’re grateful, make no mistake. The $35 million they dropped on Vanuatu in the wake of cyclone Pam is about 80% disbursed now. It made a lot of things possible that couldn’t even be contemplated before.
Shortly after the cyclone, ANU researcher Matt Dornan explained the significance of the number.
“Economic growth in 2015 is now forecast by the ADB to measure negative 0.5 percent of GDP, compared to the 4 percent growth forecast before the disaster.
“This would mean that the economy’s output in 2015 is $4 million USD lower than in the previous year, when it had been forecast to be $33 million USD higher.
“In other words, Vanuatu’s output in 2015 will be $37 million USD lower as a result of Pam than would otherwise have been the case.”
Australia, in other words, pretty much filled our financial gap single-handedly.
But that’s only if you measure the impact a certain way. Mr Dornan went on to argue that the cost was almost certain to be higher.
“If we assume for a moment that damage in Vanuatu does equate to approximately 30 percent of GDP (I believe it will be higher), this is equivalent to $248 million USD. Add to this lower economic growth in 2015 to the tune of $37 million USD, and we have a total economic cost associated with Cyclone Pam of $285 million USD. This figure dwarfs the response from development partners.”
He concludes with an important footnote: “these studies… are not concerned with economic welfare. Despite the frequent conflation of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with well-being, they are not the same….”
A smattering of work has been done to measure well-being, as Mr Dornan calls it, but until VANUATU 2030, our national sustainable development plan, was authored, we didn’t really have a development framework capable of conceiving of our national improvement in any terms except economic ones.
And it’s that bottom-line approach that is the cause of much of Australia’s reputation for vagary and wilfulness. Small but strategically important programmes are regularly under- or even de-funded because of a failure to understand—or perhaps an inability to measure—their disproportionate impacts.
It’s far easier for a minister to blow right by a Pacific islands journalist than, for example, an ABC or Fairfax reporter. Likewise, it’s far easier for Australia to reduce funding for PacLII than it is to drop support for its own legal-justice system.
And it’s easier for ABC to make cuts to shortwave broadcasting than to its mainstream domestic broadcasting services.
These cuts have a disproportionately large impact on the most vulnerable populations. But they’re small dollar items, and often are impossible to justify even on a cost-recovery basis. They seem to be inefficient and they serve only marginal communities.
But something that seems to have escaped Australia throughout its post-colonisation history is it quite literally lives on the margin. It is a continental land mass surrounded by the geographical equivalent of cake sprinkles on a vast ocean.
Australia outweighs its Pacific island neighbours in every quantum: Population, landmass, economic activity, resource base. So it’s natural, I suppose, that its own concerns should weigh more heavily. They always have. It’s not really a partisan issue, or even a policy issue. It’s just the way they see their world.
But that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it good. Australia invests tens of millions in law and justice programmes throughout the Pacific, yet it seems perfectly at home with underfunding a programme that is integral to access to the law. The ABC holds itself up—rightly—as a paragon in public broadcasting, but doesn’t think about its constituency beyond suburbia.
Even before axing its shortwave transmissions, the ABC has consistently and methodically reduced its coverage of Pacific island issues, and the negative effects of this are far-reaching. Not only is Australia’s democratising influence reduced, but its national sense of neighbourhood is becoming increasing ill-defined. As the ABC portrays it, Australia is an island in a vast, empty ocean.
And it’s that day-to-day obliviousness that allows decision-makers in Canberra to make policy decisions whose impact never registers with them. They act with impunity, because they never see the results. And those results are sometimes dire.
As I write this, a Honiara resident is writing that large aftershocks from yesterday’s earthquake are causing the staircase in their building to crumble. Happily, ABC’s shortwave service is still operating. Until the end of January at least.
The income tax deployment, whose timing was largely dictated abroad, was nearly disastrous for us. Ultimately, it only served to open the door for more political turmoil at a time when Vanuatu is still reeling from successive shocks.
I could find a dozen more examples, but the point is made.
In fairness to the current government, foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop has demonstrated more nuance and engagement with the Pacific than virtually any other. She is proof that women have a place in politics and leadership—an invaluable lesson in most Pacific countries.
But leaders should know they have to listen to the least of the led. It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s their duty.