Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 08:47 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 08:47 | SYDNEY

Echoes of history in the South Pacific


Graeme Dobell

21 October 2009 09:21

Come and play the 'echoes of history' game with these comments on Australia's role in the South Pacific. Match the quote to the politician who might have made it:

We are a Pacific country — less identifiably so than New Zealand — but our geography, our history, place us there and we need to give greater recognition to it.

The politician speaking could be anyone from near the top of the tree in Canberra over the four decades since the creation of the Pacific Forum.

Australia continues to call on the regime to take concrete steps to return Fiji to democracy and the rule of law.

Perhaps Hawke or Hayden in 1987? Moving on, here's a quote that could take us still further back in time.

We have a moral imperative to help our Pacific neighbours.

The moral dimension could reach back to Hasluck, or maybe Casey? Here's another one: Australia promises 'to be a conduit for Pacific voices in international fora'. That sounds a lot like Malcolm Fraser.

The over-fishing of key tuna stocks, largely by distant nations, is threatening the sustainability of the region's fish stocks.

Well, that could be Andrew Peacock publicly questioning the refusal to negotiate by the US fishing fleet or privately cursing the marauding of the Japanese tuna boats.

To give the game away, here is a fuller quote from the start of the speech:

The creation of the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs was symbolic of our Government's determination to forge new partnerships with our Pacific neighbours…I believe we have made tremendous progress in revitalisation of our relations with the Pacific over the past two years.

All the quotes are from Parliamentary Secretary Duncan Kerr, in his last speech as Australia's Man for the Pacific Islands, before stepping down from the post next week. He was speaking to the Pacific Island Update in Sydney hosted by the Lowy Institute and the Australian National University. You'll find all but one of the above quotes in the text of his speech. The first quote — about Australia's Pacific history and geography — came during the questions at the end of his session and is probably the closest you'll get to a synthesis of Duncan Kerr's heart and head on the South Pacific.

Hearing the echoes of history was a function of the setting as well as the words. The speech was made at  the former Maritime Services building at Circular Quay, Sydney, next to the Overseas Passenger Terminal. Walking to the venue I'd gone by the old Burns Philp HQ (built in 1901), once the heart of  a shipping and trading empire that pulsated through the Islands. And raising the eye to the skyline brings into view the logos of the Australian banks which still reach deeply into the Islands, not least the old Bank of New South Wales (oops, make that Westpac).

What of the bits of the speech that might not have got much of a mention in earlier times? Kerr devoted three pages to 'pervasive' violence against women and what this does to Island societies. As you'd expect, there was much discussion of climate change as 'among the biggest and highest priorities'. The Rudd Government initiative that most dramatically breaks with Australia's recent past — allowing in Islanders to do seasonal agricultural work — didn't make it into the formal speech but got a mention in the Q&A.

The bureaucratic change that got the attention at the start of the address was the creation over the past two years of eight bilateral Partnership for Development agreements with Samoa, PNG, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Tonga and Nauru. The Kerr judgement on the Partnerships is that they commit Australia to increase aid over coming years and 'underpin the on-going relationships…and our shared objectives for the future.'

It's early days for the Partnership agreements but they do lift the profile and introduce a more overtly political dimension to the old bilateral aid negotiations with the Islands.

From Australia’s perspective, they are another attempt to get the Islands to want what we want. For the South Pacific, the Partnerships could be used to keep any Australian criticisms inside the dialogue rather than being put on public display by Canberra.