nationals abc
Nationals Leader Michael McCormack.

I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they can continue to survive. Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia

Australia rejects Pacific calls to commit to genuine action on climate change, tries to gag the leaders of island states on the subject and throws a wad of cash at them to bribe them into compliance. Scott Morrison’s climate policy for last week’s Pacific Islands Forum? Yes, but he stole it from Labor.

In August 2009, the Rudd government headed off a push by smaller Pacific island states to commit to strong emissions reduction targets, then tried to prevent word of its efforts from leaking out. Then-climate minister Penny Wong also announced $50 million for climate projects in the Pacific. Scott Morrison’s bribe had an extra zero on it but otherwise the tactic was exactly the same. To hear Wong criticising Morrison for “arrogance” was rich indeed.

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In fact, Wong admitted Labor would have done pretty much the same thing as the government. It’s a perfectly believable claim because Labor has sold out Pacific states itself for the interests of our resource industries. Actually, Australia’s history of subordinating the existence of small island states to its economic interests has a longer history: in 1997, John Howard fought island states’ efforts to commit to binding emissions reduction targets.

But never before has a senior Australia politician — the Deputy Prime Minister — so baldly stated Australia’s position: the economic interests of Australian companies are more important than the interests of Pacific nations. We know that the interests of Australian capital come ahead of those of our neighbours. That’s the story of John Howard and Alexander Downer’s bugging of the Timor Leste cabinet in 2004 — to help resource company Woodside.

Michael McCormack’s honesty in saying it, however, has a certain refreshing quality. Indeed, not merely are our economic interests to be put ahead of the economic interests of smaller regional countries, but that they are to be put ahead even of the existence of those states.

McCormack suggests they will continue to exist, albeit in a kind of displaced zombie form: “They will continue to survive with large aid assistance from Australia. They will continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit.” That’s the economic future of Pacific island states — as permanent mendicants and as horticultural labourers. Of course, that’s for the lucky ones — smaller island states like Kiribati will either vanish beneath the waves or become uninhabitable as lack of potable water kills their children, despite Australian-funded “adaptation” projects.

McCormack’s invocation of fruitpicking is resonant. Australia’s horticulture relies heavily on exploiting low-paid temporary migrants such as working holidaymakers, people here on bridging visas and seasonal worker permit holders from Pacific countries. The Fair Work Ombudsman’s Harvest Trail campaign revealed over half of employers in the industry were found in breach of workplace laws, with more than 40% failing to pay workers properly.

Pacific Islander workers are particular targets for exploitation and particularly serious abuse. As leader of the Nationals, McCormack knows what he’s talking about when he sees the glittering future of a foreign work force for the Nationals’ horticulture sector supporters.

Of course, Australia’s mass-scale abduction, deception and exploitation of tens of thousands of Pacific Islander people for cheap agricultural labour throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries is infamous. So-called “blackbirding” is a core part of Australia’s historical engagement with the Pacific.

From the early 19th century, Australia’s interaction with Pacific peoples has been via exploitation of labour, resource exploitation on Nauru and in PNG, commodity exploitation by CSR or the maintenance of dominance of Australian firms in small national markets. And a key part of Australia’s economic imperialism in the Pacific was a long campaign to keep larger powers out — whether Germans, the French or the Japanese. Our current “Stepping Up” campaign against China is simply the continuation of the long-running mechanism of Australia’s Pacific imperialism: dominate the region, subordinate its interests to our own, prevent other, greater powers from establishing influence.

Australians, of course, don’t see themselves as imperialists. We’re a country that doesn’t even recognise the people who inhabited this land before European invasion or their dispossession and occupation, let alone have a formal treaty establishing a coherent framework for our presence here.

Two centuries of exploitation of Pacific peoples registers even less with us. At least McCormack has the gumption to say that we’d rather see those people obliterated than undermine our economic interests in any way. Candour and imperialism so rarely go together.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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