Showing up is only the first step

When I was a lecturer at USP, my students would ask me if I would give them credit for showing up to classes.

The answer was that there were a small number of marks available for being present in the room but if they wanted to get enough credit to make a difference to their overall grade, they were expected to be actively involved in what was going on, to be listening to their peers, asking questions, and engaging meaningfully.

And that they would need to do all of the above more than once.

Prime Minister Morrison’s new epithet ‘if you want to step up you’ve got to show up’ may trip lightly off the tongue but it appears to recognise that Australia has neglected Vanuatu, and the Pacific islands region more generally, for far too long.

Not only was this the first bilateral visit by an Australian government leader ever, it was the first official visit by an Australian prime minister in almost 30 years.

Being here in Port Vila for the visit of the Australian PM gave me a chance to catch up with friends and associates and get a sense from them about what this visit means and what they wanted to hear and see as a result of it.

Overall, it amounts to mixed results. Whilst generally people felt very positive about the visit, there were numerous expressions of healthy scepticism about what the motivations are for this new found enthusiasm for Pacific travel on the part of Mr Morrison. Some people expressed to me that it was too little too late. But there were others who were really effusive in their joy and gratitude at his including our country in his itinerary.

Then there were those who had no idea he was coming, a reflection of a bizarre reluctance to publicise this visit ahead of time on the part of Australian officials.

In terms of the issues that people wanted to see addressed during this meeting, again it is something of a mixed bag.

The somewhat surprising announcement that the government of Australia will relax the restrictions on kava importations will certainly be welcome to many.

This will go some way to resolving the inconsistency we have at the moment where the Australian government provides aid funding to support the marketing of a product that cannot be exported to their country.

But in other areas there will no doubt be disappointment. Those who were hoping for an announcement of an increase in scholarships to study in Australia will have to wait by the look of things.

And the most talked about issue is the one where Mr Morrison came across as the most tone deaf.

When it comes to ease of travel between our countries, there are very real and valid concerns about the differing levels of administrative burden endured by ni-Vanuatu as compared with visitors to Australia from Canada, the UK, or the European Union.

Airy references to the Seasonal Workers’ Program or the Pacific Labour Scheme do not cut it when it comes to addressing these complaints.

This isn’t about people wanting to go and work in Australia.

This is about our officials transiting in order to undertake official duties, or people travelling to conduct business in Queensland and elsewhere.

This is a topic of concern not just here, but throughout the region and it is unlikely to go away any time soon. Let’s hope that next time it is raised there is something more meaningful said in response.

There are certainly some very positive signs we can point to arising out of this visit.

We saw our leaders and officials looking relaxed and comfortable and there seemed to be a very definite rapport between the two prime ministers.

The one on one meeting between Morrison and Salwai ran over time as did the wider bilateral discussion, both of which are strong indications of a positive relationship.

The test is whether this can be sustained. And this really comes down to what the underlying motivations are for the step up.

The political landscape in Australia may well look quite different come the middle of the year.

And the same goes for the environment here come the middle of 2020.

There will need to be sustained effort on both sides if the gains from this visit are to be meaningfully converted into a true partnership into the longer term.

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