Politrix

Star-struck schoolboy answers Pacific calling

Richard Marles - print story
Title: Star-struck schoolboy answers Pacific calling
 
Category: Pacific Diplomacy
 
'I first became fascinated by PNG when I visited on a school trip in 1984. We hiked in the Highlands and went to places which had not seen a European face in years. We stayed in village huts. We mucked around with our contemporaries at the local school, and slept in their accommodation. We saw grand resource projects and monuments to our grand military history in this place. For me, it was - quite simply - love at first sight.'
 
Australians are known for lasting attachments, even after relatively short stays in the Pacific islands. The connections - whether they be made on a surf trip to the Admiralty Islands or a rite-of-passage trek across the Owen Stanleys to Kokoda village - often lead travellers back to re-live an adventure or for some higher purpose.
 
The higher purpose for Richard Marles - the author of the above quotation - is to be Australia's premier diplomat in dealings with the islands and their governments.
 
'Because we are so close, we need to make an extra effort to ensure we know each other well,' he told a gathering in Melbourne two weeks ago, referring to Australians and  Papua New Guineans. What once may have sounded like lame rhetoric this time did ring true.
 
The Melbourne brainstorm on Australia-PNG relations was his own idea as Permanent Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs. Marles was responding to widespread skepticism about PNG's ability to manage the flow of funds from Australian aid ($480 million this coming financial year) and revenue from its minerals boom, now 50% of its GDP. One project alone - the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in the Southern Highlands - will add K3.1 billion to government revenue. Prudent use of these funds over time could transform the nation. But so too could next year's elections. One speaker sketched a bleak scenario of political violence along tribal lines at election time, possibly centred on the very area that hosts the LNG project.
 
Marles musters a refreshing optimism without glossing over the problems around Australian politicians' word-of-choice -  'fragility' - when speaking about PNG or other points along the Pacific chain. Fragility of politics, economy and environment. He hails from Geelong just outside of Melbourne and holds qualifications in law and science.
 
Speaking to Telinga Media, he presented as an open, willing communicator of ideas and policy. Lacking an irrational fear of media that afflicts some politicians, he takes his views to his readers in an online column. His columns suggest that, like a good traveller, he thrives and learns from direct contact with people.
 
After years of swimming in a sea of mutual ignorance - with all the distrust and demoralisation that attends it - he stands as good a chance as any of convincing his Pacific counterparts that it is possible to 'know each other well'.
 
Nowhere have Australia and Pacific nations appeared more like reluctant dance partners than in negotiations for regional economic integration, through a free trade agreement called the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER Plus). Activated in 2009 with Australia and New Zealand across the table from the island member states of the Pacific Islands Forum, these negotiations have - according to official accounts - been 'progressing' with more dancers stepping onto the floor, such as private sector and non-government groups.
 
Non-government groups worry about the neo-liberal agenda underlying all free trade agreements and claim, among other things, that Pacific economies with suffer a reorganisation that will leave their small industries and subsistence base vulnerable and dependent on the vagaries of foreign investors and consumers. Some lobbyists based in Australia fear essential services in health with suffer as Pacific governments will be constrained in implementing social, industry and consumer policy.
 
One dependency that will surely be threatened will be government revenue collection from imports, on which many island states rely to fund social services and infrastructure. Ironically, an Australian Foreign Affairs report in 2003 spoke of economic reform in the islands as a way of liberating them from dependency. The parliamentary secretary acknowledged that economic arguments are not treated the same way on both sides of the table.
 
"We're talking about very different economies and lives that are based on subsistence living. What we're talking about in terms of PACER Plus is the reduction of tariffs, which means a reduction in government revenues from tariffs," he told Telinga Media.
 
"We've gone through our own experience in Australia around that and we've reduced those tariffs with a consequent economic benefit in terms of the productivity of our economy and that's what one would expect in the Pacific Islands as well. But  we are just running into what is a really difficult debate. But this is a debate that needs to be had by the region and if we could achieve a much more integrated Pacific, that would be of enormous economic benefit for the Pacific Island countries."
 
The same government report from 8 years ago anticipated this difficulty and recommended that each Pacific government run national education campaigns explaining why such policies were essential to achieve economic self sufficiency in the long-term.
 
Eyeing export opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, leaders from the Solomons, PNG, Samoa and Tonga have made supportive noises about moving the negotiations forward. Whether they can bring their citizens with them will depend on national consultations which are now underway in countries such as the Solomon Islands. Critics of PACER Plus who advocate a 'go-slow' approach are trade NGOs based in the Pacific who are networked with Australian-based lobbyists.
 
In April, the Gillard Government released its trade policy statement, which presented a priority list of trade negotiations. PACER Plus was not one of them. Confusion was met with re-branding of the agreement as 'not a traditional trade agreement'. This appears to signal a policy adjustment where Australian negotiators slow down, in-step with their Pacific partners.
 
There may actually be some consistency in the argument that Australian diplomats are treating PACER Plus differently to other trade agreements. In a meeting with NGOs in Honiara last October, the Australian position was at pains to suppress the notion that Australia's economic interests were driving its support for the negotiations. Australia was driven by a desire to help Pacific Islanders develop their national economies, it argued. Damaging Pacific economies was not in Australia's interest: 'We strongly believe that the agreement can provide a platform for a more prosperous, stable and sustainable Pacific. A prosperous and stable region is unambiguously in Australia's interest,' the statement said.
 
Foreign Affairs confirmed to Telinga Media that there was no back-pedalling on PACER Plus nor regional integration but the re-branding appears to signal a shift in negotiating tactics towards using aid to help Forum Island  countries engage in the global trading system. There are already schemes that are design to get Pacific export businesses off-the-ground and supplying Australian markets. Avoiding the T-word (tariff) may be what a non-traditional trade agreement stands for.
 
In any event, Marles believes his negotiating partners are coming around to accept the reform agenda. It may be smart diplomacy to exclude PACER Plus from a trade policy that couches negotiations  in terms of an unabashed pursuit of Australia's national and commercial interests.
 
"I actually think in the last few months there is a renewed interest within the Pacific Island countries about seeking economic integration. That's a long journey. It's not going to happen overnight. And I think there's a renewed belief in the benefit of doing that," he said.
 
So, 'a long journey' may become the new metaphor for regional integration, a journey travelled at a pace more attuned to Forum Island states. The negotiating terms are likely to be staggered in recognition of vast differences between island economies themselves in terms of size, productivity and capacity to export.
 
Some believe the Pacific's most productive export is people and that remittances from overseas employment the most likely engine for driving island economies. This became an issue in 2009 when trade negotiations were first launched. Critics within the so-called 'trade justice' camp insisted that access to employment markets in Australia and New Zealand not be used as a carrot to lure Pacific leaders into liberalising their economies.
 
The 2003 Foreign Affairs report recommended a pilot seasonal work scheme for Pacific islanders. It was put forward in the context of a bigger vision of a Pacific Community where greater freedom of movement was anticipated for workers as well as goods within a common market. Having been knocked back at Forum meetings in 2005 and 2006, the issue was at least alive. It was the Labor-led government that finally launched a trial of seasonal migration in 2009 for horticultural workers from Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu. Out of a total of 2,500 available visas, only about 450 have been taken up.
 
"The vast bulk of those have come from Tonga," Marles explained. "And it is a pilot program but it's working well in the sense that those who have participated in it - both the growers in Australia and the workers from the island countries - have found it to be a really good program and there are a number of return visitors from Tonga occurring."
 
Both growers and workers may have to lower expectations of this heavily studied initiative. For a start, it's demand-driven and demand has been soft for island workers who cost more to employ and who compete with backpackers on working holidays. Demand from islanders to take up seasonal work is also lagging, especially from Melanesia. Traditionally low levels of Melanesian emigration may partly explain this but the policy rationale was always based on the safety valve that overseas work could provide for unemployed young men in places like Port Moresby and Honiara. But Marles sees unskilled farm work as only one area where Pacific Islanders can become mobile and enter the Australian job market.
 
"There are lots of Papua New Guinea engineers who are working in Western Australia in the resource sector. [We] need to make sure we are investing in the skills of the Pacific, so that they can access the Australia market through the normal skills-based immigration programs that we have."
 
But he rules out special programs for anyone but the unskilled. Professionals will need to compete with workers from the rest of the world as skilled migrants. And the way out for angry young men is education.
 
"It is about skills and training. That's why it's such a large focus of our development assistance program. The USP [University of the South Pacific], the Australia-Pacific Technical Colleges and the raft of awards that we have are a way in which we have tried to build the skills base of the Pacific so as to counter that disengagement."
 
Labour mobility will again be on the table at the next series of trade talks in Australia at the end of this year.
 
It is fair to say Australian diplomacy in the Pacific knows its destination but is unclear about the route. The road map is further muddied by the suspension of Fiji from the Forum following the illegal takeover four and a half years ago by the Royal Fiji Military Force. Consequently, Fiji is not a party to the PACER Plus negotiations. But last December, it assumed the chairmanship of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a sub-regional grouping after first being denied it by the previous chair Vanuatu. In March, it chaired its first MSG meeting in Suva.
 
"I am comfortable with the position that Melanesian countries like Vanuatu, Solomons and PNG are taking in relation to Fiji," Marles said.
 
"In the discussions that I have had with representatives of governments that participate in the MSG, there's been a consistent view of wanting to see Fiji return to a state of democracy. And certainly if you look at the way in which those countries behaved within the Pacific Island Forum, they have all agreed with the Forum's position in relation to Fiji."
 
Whatever legitimacy the military regime gained from its MSG 'coup', it did not bring on a policy change in Canberra. Currently, members of the regime and their families are prevented from traveling to Australia. However Fiji's elevation was received privately by Australian diplomats, the parliamentary secretary's response betrays an appreciation that a Melanesian-style negotiation game is in play.
 
"There is a sense of pain which is felt by the people of the Pacific by the whole circumstances around Fiji. The way that is resolved is by Fiji returning to a state of democracy and everyone understands that. And how those views are expressed, the particular way in which that engagement's going to occur will vary from place to place but the message is pretty consistent. And in that sense, I'm very comfortable with the actions of the countries of Melanesia."
 
So, Melanesian leaders can find their own way to bring Fiji back into the democratic family, presumably at their own pace. For Australia to show signs of impotence or frustration would not earn the respect of the Melanesian group, founded, as it was, on principles of non-interference.
 
But Marles's incantation of  'a return to democracy at the earliest opportunity' is loud and often repeated. And it is an explicit rejection of expert opinion calling for a softening of sanctions or a brand-new strategy.
 
"We would like to see a return to a democratic situation within Fiji at the earliest opportunity. We would like to see a lifting of the public emergency regulations and the media decree within Fiji," he said. "And we would like to see human rights respected within Fiji. They are very clear and simple propositions which anyone would expect a country, which holds democratic principles dear as we do in Australia and as the people of the Pacific do, to express."
 
Behind the unchanged policy is the message that sticking to one's principles expresses a solidarity with those other nations that hold a democratic course. It also indicates that Canberra does not judge the success of its policy by how much the regime changes its behaviour.
 
"It's not as though we're in a position to somehow snap our fingers and Fiji does what we say," Marles explains. "What matters is how we articulate our own view about the situation and about our values around democracy. What matters is the statement that the Pacific region makes in relation to Fiji both to itself and to the rest of the world. In that sense, I think there's been success in the way Australia's gone about its policy in relation to Fiji."
 
 
Pacific Islanders typically expect much of their politicians but at the same time, are deeply cynical about them. Why would they have any more faith in a foreign, political 'bigman' like Richard Marles?
 
The once star-struck teenager may be judged in the islands by his own efforts 'to know each other well'. And by how well he read the signs along the way. Like the one you see as you enter Port Moresby's Jackson International Airport:  'Respect our culture!'
 
Because behind the traditional 'Welkam', there are boundaries. He will need to know where they lie.
 
 
 
 

'I first became fascinated by PNG when I visited on a school trip in 1984. We hiked in the Highlands and went to places which had not seen a European face in years. We stayed in village huts. We mucked around with our contemporaries at the local school, and slept in their accommodation. We saw grand resource projects and monuments to our grand military history in this place. For me, it was - quite simply - love at first sight.'

 

Australians are known for lasting attachments, even after relatively short stays in the Pacific islands. The connections - whether they be made on a surf trip to the Admiralty Islands or a rite-of-passage trek across the Owen Stanleys to Kokoda village - often lead travellers back to re-live an adventure or for some higher purpose.

The higher purpose for Richard Marles - the author of the above quotation - is to be Australia's premier diplomat in dealings with the islands and their governments.

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'Because we are so close, we need to make an extra effort to ensure we know each other well,' he told a gathering in Melbourne two weeks ago, referring to Australians and  Papua New Guineans. What once may have sounded like lame rhetoric this time did ring true.

The Melbourne brainstorm on Australia-PNG relations was his own idea as Permanent Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs. Marles was responding to widespread skepticism about PNG's ability to manage the flow of funds from Australian aid ($480 million this coming financial year) and revenue from its minerals boom, now 50% of its GDP. One project alone - the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in the Southern Highlands - will add K3.1 billion to government revenue. Prudent use of these funds over time could transform the nation. But so too could next year's elections. One speaker sketched a bleak scenario of political violence along tribal lines at election time, possibly centred on the very area that hosts the LNG project.

Marles musters a refreshing optimism without glossing over the problems around Australian politicians' word-of-choice -  'fragility' - when speaking about PNG or other points along the Pacific chain. Fragility means politics, economy and environment. He hails from Geelong just outside of Melbourne and holds qualifications in law and science.

Speaking to Telinga Media, he presented as an open, willing communicator of ideas and policy. Lacking an irrational fear of media that afflicts some politicians, he takes his views to his readers in an online column. His columns suggest that, like a good traveller, he thrives and learns from direct contact with people.

After years of swimming in a sea of mutual ignorance - with all the distrust and demoralisation that attends it - he stands as good a chance as any of convincing his Pacific counterparts that it is possible to 'know each other well'.

Pacific (Negotiating) Time

Nowhere have Australia and Pacific nations appeared more like reluctant dance partners than in negotiations for regional economic integration, through a free trade agreement called the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER Plus). Activated in 2009 with Australia and New Zealand across the table from the island member states of the Pacific Islands Forum, these negotiations have - according to official accounts - been 'progressing' with more dancers stepping onto the floor, such as private sector and non-government groups. 

Non-government groups worry about the neo-liberal agenda underlying all free trade agreements and claim, among other things, that Pacific economies with suffer a reorganisation that will leave their small industries and subsistence base vulnerable and dependent on the vagaries of foreign investors and consumers. Some lobbyists based in Australia fear essential services in health with suffer as Pacific governments will be constrained in implementing social, industry and consumer policy.

One dependency that will surely be threatened will be government revenue collection from imports, on which many island states rely to fund social services and infrastructure. Ironically, an Australian Foreign Affairs report in 2003 spoke of economic reform in the islands as a way of liberating them from dependency. The parliamentary secretary acknowledged that economic arguments are not treated the same way on both sides of the table.

"We're talking about very different economies and lives that are based on subsistence living. What we're talking about in terms of PACER Plus is the reduction of tariffs, which means a reduction in government revenues from tariffs," he told Telinga Media.

"We've gone through our own experience in Australia around that and we've reduced those tariffs with a consequent economic benefit in terms of the productivity of our economy and that's what one would expect in the Pacific Islands as well. But  we are just running into what is a really difficult debate. But this is a debate that needs to be had by the region and if we could achieve a much more integrated Pacific, that would be of enormous economic benefit for the Pacific Island countries."

The same government report from 8 years ago anticipated this difficulty and recommended that each Pacific government run national education campaigns explaining why such policies were essential to achieve economic self sufficiency in the long-term.

Eyeing export opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, leaders from the Solomons, PNG, Samoa and Tonga have made supportive noises about moving the negotiations forward. Whether they can bring their citizens with them will depend on national consultations which are now underway in countries such as the Solomon Islands. Critics of PACER Plus who advocate a 'go-slow' approach are trade NGOs based in the Pacific who are networked with Australian-based lobbyists.

In April, the Gillard Government released its trade policy statement, which presented a priority list of trade negotiations. PACER Plus was not one of them. Confusion was met with re-branding of the agreement as 'not a traditional trade agreement'. This appears to signal a policy adjustment where Australian negotiators slow down, in-step with their Pacific partners.

There may actually be some consistency in the argument that Australian diplomats are treating PACER Plus differently to other trade agreements. In a meeting with NGOs in Honiara last October, the Australian position was at pains to suppress the notion that Australia's economic interests were driving its support for the negotiations. Australia was driven by a desire to help Pacific Islanders develop their national economies, it argued. Damaging Pacific economies was not in Australia's interest: 'We strongly believe that the agreement can provide a platform for a more prosperous, stable and sustainable Pacific. A prosperous and stable region is unambiguously in Australia's interest,' the statement said.

Foreign Affairs confirmed to Telinga Media that there was no back-pedalling on PACER Plus nor regional integration but the re-branding appears to signal a shift in negotiating tactics towards using aid to help Forum Island countries engage in the global trading system. There are already schemes that are designed to get Pacific (and other) export businesses off-the-ground and supplying Australian markets. Avoiding the T-word (tariff) may be what a non-traditional trade agreement stands for.

In any event, Marles believes his negotiating partners are coming around to accept the reform agenda. It may be smart diplomacy to exclude PACER Plus from a trade policy that couches negotiations in terms of an unabashed pursuit of Australia's national and commercial interests.

"I actually think in the last few months there is a renewed interest within the Pacific Island countries about seeking economic integration. That's a long journey. It's not going to happen overnight. And I think there's a renewed belief in the benefit of doing that," he said.

So, 'a long journey' may become the new metaphor for regional integration, a journey travelled at a pace more attuned to Forum Island states. The negotiating terms are likely to be staggered in recognition of vast differences between island economies themselves in terms of size, productivity and capacity to export.

A Pacific Economic & Political Union?

Some believe the Pacific's most productive export is people and that remittances from overseas employment the most likely engine for driving island economies. This became an issue in 2009 when trade negotiations were first launched. Critics within the so-called 'trade justice' camp insisted that access to employment markets in Australia and New Zealand not be used as a carrot to lure Pacific leaders into liberalising their economies.

The 2003 Foreign Affairs report recommended a pilot seasonal work scheme for Pacific islanders. It was put forward in the context of a bigger vision of a Pacific Community where greater freedom of movement was anticipated for workers as well as goods within a common market. Having been knocked back at Forum meetings in 2005 and 2006, the issue was at least alive. It was the Labor-led government that finally launched a trial of seasonal migration in 2009 for horticultural workers from Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu. Out of a total of 2,500 available visas, only about 450 have been taken up.

"The vast bulk of those have come from Tonga," Marles explained. "And it is a pilot program but it's working well in the sense that those who have participated in it - both the growers in Australia and the workers from the island countries - have found it to be a really good program and there are a number of return visitors from Tonga occurring."

Both growers and workers may have to lower expectations of this heavily studied initiative. For a start, it's demand-driven and demand has been soft for island workers who cost more to employ and who compete with backpackers on working holidays. Demand from islanders to take up seasonal work is also lagging, especially from Melanesia. Traditionally low levels of Melanesian emigration may partly explain this but the policy rationale was always based on the safety valve that overseas work could provide for unemployed young men in places like Port Moresby and Honiara. But Marles sees unskilled farm work as only one area where Pacific Islanders can become mobile and enter the Australian job market.

"There are lots of Papua New Guinea engineers who are working in Western Australia in the resource sector. [We] need to make sure we are investing in the skills of the Pacific, so that they can access the Australia market through the normal skills-based immigration programs that we have."

But he rules out special programs for anyone but the unskilled. Professionals will need to compete with workers from the rest of the world as skilled migrants. And the way out for angry young men is education.

"It is about skills and training. That's why it's such a large focus of our development assistance program. The USP [University of the South Pacific], the Australia-Pacific Technical College and the raft of awards that we have are a way in which we have tried to build the skills base of the Pacific so as to counter that disengagement."

Labour mobility will again be on the table at the next series of trade talks in Australia at the end of this year.

The sharp end of the spear

It is fair to say Australian diplomacy in the Pacific knows its destination but is unclear about the route. The road map is further muddied by the suspension of Fiji from the Forum following the illegal takeover four and a half years ago by the Royal Fiji Military Force. Consequently, Fiji is not a party to the PACER Plus negotiations. But last December, it assumed the chairmanship of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a sub-regional grouping after first being denied it by the previous chair Vanuatu. In March, it chaired its first MSG meeting in Suva.

"I am comfortable with the position that Melanesian countries like Vanuatu, Solomons and PNG are taking in relation to Fiji," Marles said.  

"In the discussions that I have had with representatives of governments that participate in the MSG, there's been a consistent view of wanting to see Fiji return to a state of democracy. And certainly if you look at the way in which those countries behaved within the Pacific Island Forum, they have all agreed with the Forum's position in relation to Fiji."

Whatever legitimacy the military regime gained from its MSG 'coup', it did not bring on a policy change in Canberra. Currently, members of the regime and their families are prevented from traveling to Australia. However Fiji's elevation was received privately by Australian diplomats, the parliamentary secretary's response betrays an appreciation that a Melanesian-style negotiation game is in play.

"There is a sense of pain which is felt by the people of the Pacific by the whole circumstances around Fiji. The way that is resolved is by Fiji returning to a state of democracy and everyone understands that. And how those views are expressed, the particular way in which that engagement's going to occur will vary from place to place but the message is pretty consistent. And in that sense, I'm very comfortable with the actions of the countries of Melanesia."

So, Melanesian leaders can find their own way to bring Fiji back into the democratic family, presumably at their own pace. For Australia to show signs of impotence or frustration would not earn the respect of the Melanesian group, founded, as it was, on principles of non-interference.

But Marles's incantation of  'a return to democracy at the earliest opportunity' is loud and often repeated. And it is an explicit rejection of expert opinion calling for a softening of sanctions or a brand-new strategy.

"We would like to see a return to a democratic situation within Fiji at the earliest opportunity. We would like to see a lifting of the public emergency regulations and the media decree within Fiji," he said. "And we would like to see human rights respected within Fiji. They are very clear and simple propositions which anyone would expect a country, which holds democratic principles dear as we do in Australia and as the people of the Pacific do, to express."

Behind the unchanged policy is the message that sticking to one's principles expresses a solidarity with those other nations that hold a democratic course. It also indicates that Canberra does not judge the success of its policy simply by how much the regime changes its behaviour.

"It's not as though we're in a position to somehow snap our fingers and Fiji does what we say," Marles explains. "What matters is how we articulate our own view about the situation and about our values around democracy. What matters is the statement that the Pacific region makes in relation to Fiji both to itself and to the rest of the world. In that sense, I think there's been success in the way Australia's gone about its policy in relation to Fiji."

Pacific Islanders typically expect much of their politicians but at the same time, are deeply cynical about them. Why would they have any more faith in a foreign, political 'bigman' like Richard Marles? 

The once star-struck teenager may be judged in the islands by his own standard 'to know each other well'. And by how well he reads the signs along the way. Like the one you see as you enter Port Moresby's Jackson International Airport:  'Respect our culture!' 

Because behind the traditional 'Welkam', there are boundaries. He will need to know where they lie.

© Telinga Media. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited

 

 

 

 

 

Melanesian solidarity has its limits

Melanesian DiplomacyContrary to most media reportage, Melanesian governments are seeking constructive dialogue with Fiji's military regime, not the republic's re-admission to the Pacific islands Forum. Telinga Media filed this report from the forum meeting in Cairns in August.

This report was first published on newmatilda.com on 10 August 2009

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