The latest twists in the ongoing saga with Solomon Islands have now extended to PNG. Where next?

On the one hand, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s tactic of banning PNG Prime Minister Somare and officials from entering Australia is perfectly understandable. It exemplifies the exasperation on the part of the Australian government at what appears to be the complicity of elements of the Somare administration with its counterpart in Honiara and the serious breaches of PNG and Solomon Islands law. With Australia investing millions of dollars into strengthening the law and justice systems of both countries, recent events are a stinging slap in the face to Canberra’s new Pacific policy.

On the other hand, Downer’s actions appear to be primarily punitive, lack subtlety, and are unlikely on their own to reverse the continuing deterioration in Canberra’s relations with its small Pacific islands neighbours. When you contrast this with the way Australia approaches relations with bigger neighbours like Indonesia, it’s not hard to see why Pacific Islanders are offended – people in the region see the double standard and they don’t like being lectured to like small kids.

The most recent incident is part of a much bigger picture. Consider the saga of the Enhanced Cooperation program in PNG and the resistance that this caused among elements of the elite, not to mention the broader sensitivities generated in PNG around the “so-called shoe incident” with Sir Michael Somare at Brisbane airport last year.

Many Pacific Islanders object to the way they – and specifically their leaders – are treated by the Australian government. And don’t forget that any patronising treatment has greater significance as it resonates with a much longer colonial experience that is still quite fresh in the minds of older citizens. Leaders like Somare are the first generation to emerge after independence and their view is inevitably coloured by a very recent colonial past.

There have been significant shifts in how Australia relates to the Pacific Islands since the Regional Assistance Commission commenced in mid-2003. Before that, the Pacific Islands were treated in a fairly remote, hands-off way. Foreign relations consisted primarily of development assistance via AusAID. Now it’s all about “cooperative intervention” entailing a “whole-of-government” approach – a much more muscular form of engagement – premised on an appreciation of the threats of failed and failing states in the neighbourhood to Australia’s own national security.

In other words, it’s a post 9-11 reality. Places that were formerly seen by Australia as sleepy backwaters of peripheral strategic interest are now viewed increasingly through the prism of the war on terror. What’s at stake is considered to be much larger than the Pacific Islands.

Australia’s objectives with RAMSI are certainly ambitious and the regional mission has long been held out in Canberra as a model for future deployments in the region and beyond. 

The problem is that the program in place currently is outrageously patronising and moreover over-simplistic in its misreading of indigenous systems of governance and the enormous challenges of simply bypassing these in favour of imposing a universal framework of good governance derived from the latest global template. It is as much a problem of style as one of substance.

The increasingly belligerent message appears to be: “If you can’t fix it up yourselves, we’ll do it for you”. But that can easily lead to the marginalisation of local actors and the reinforcement of a lengthy history of over-dependence on external assistance. In capacity-building terms, it risks sucking the capacity out of local institutions (to use Michael Ignatieff’s memorable phrase) rather than building it up.

That’s one – though by no means the only – reason resistance is emerging from Pacific Islanders: they feel like they’re being pushed to one side. Also highly problematic is the inherent assumption that there is only one way to improve the situation and that there is only one kind of governance that works – our own. In Honiara and Port Moresby, we tend see a dysfunctional image of ourselves. So we’re aiming to rebuild weak and failing states in our own Australian – or, more specifically, Canberra – image.

This raises huge issues of appropriateness and sustainability: will it work in the Pacific islands and is it affordable? Formal institutions of the modern state tend to be highly centralised whereas the vast majority of Pacific islanders live in rural villages. Our politicians are constantly reminding us that we can barely afford our system – how then can these resource-poor countries on our doorstep do so? Are we leaving them with a system that is ultimately doomed to failure once we pull out our small army of officials and technocrats and all the accompanying resources?

We need to start looking at the indigenous systems in these countries at a village level. How might existing resources that remain largely invisible from the air-conditioned offices in remote national capitals be better mobilised? They’ve been in place for years, have high levels of legitimacy and are accessible to ordinary people. So how do we use this knowledge? More innovation is required in our approach to nation building. These places are not us. We see their cultures as the problem but maybe we should start thinking about them as part of any genuinely long-term and sustainable solution.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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