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Cogent policy case for helping neighbours to prosper

3 August 2021 280 views No Comment


Australia in the Pacific

By Richard Marles

Monash University Publishing, 89pp, $19.95


Political speeches can be self-serving and tedious in the extreme, but one recently captured my attention. In the House of Representatives, deputy opposition leader and Labor member for Corio, Richard Marles gave a moving insight into his life growing up in Geelong and the real and symbolic importance to his childhood of the Corio oil refinery and its twinkling lights.

How many childhood memories do you know that include an oil refinery? I was so touched that I rang Marles’s office to congratulate him on one of the best speeches I had heard in a long, long time.

Shortly after, a fellow contributor to this newspaper, Gerard Henderson, suggested that I read Marles’ new book about Australia’s relationships with the many nations of the Pacific.

Having heard Marles’ impressive speech, this I dutifully did.  It’s a well-argued cri de coeur.

In Tides That Bind, Marles urges the federal government to actively help the peoples of the Pacific cope with the increasing threat of climate change, which is resulting in rising sea levels and lessening access to fresh water.  For the coral-atoll nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, for example, their very survival is at stake.

As a matter of foreign policy priority (and for the sake of our global standing), Marles argues that Australia should be promoting peace in the Pacific and encouraging economic growth in the region, which sadly is suffering some of the slowest rates of development on the planet.

As well as increased developmental assistance, many more seasonal workers from the Pacific should be encouraged to access the Australian economy, Marles says. Under our current seasonal worker scheme, millions of dollars flow back to the Pacific nations from which these workers come. In Tonga’s case, this amounts to tens of millions of dollars, most of which makes its way to the workers’ homes and extended families.

A student at Geelong Grammar (where his father taught) and a graduate in law from the University of Melbourne, Marles explains that, not only has Australia had “a long and significant history in the Pacific” but indeed the Australian Constitution specifically empowers the federal parliament to “make laws …with respect to (our) relations with the islands of the Pacific.”

However, because of poor policy decisions and cuts to foreign aid, in the past 10 to 15 years we have failed to step up to the plate.

As Marles’ lucid little book (it’s a mere 89 pages which puts in the realm of “less is more”) makes crystal clear, this has left our role in the region ill-defined and severely wanting.

Dedicated to “the peoples and leaders of the Pacific, in gratitude for their warmth, friendship and kindness”, Tides that Bind is part of Monash University Publishing’s illuminating series In The National Interest. Previous books include Rachel Doyle’s Power & Consent, Kevin Rudd’s The Case for Courage and Kate Fitz-Gibbon’s Our National Shame : Violence Against Women.

Fittingly for a person who previously served as parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island affairs, parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs and trade minister, who had  “adolescent adventures in Papua New Guinea” and who, in 2013, was awarded the Cross of Solomon Islands, the highest civilian Solomons award, Marles knows the culture, society and regions of the Pacific like the back of his hand.

As Tides that Bind convincingly concludes, the Pacific is the part of the world in which we should have a stronger, clearer voice. Regarding our actions in the Pacific, we are at the crossroads. Certainly we cannot afford to allow our influence there to languish or lessen.

Although Marles does not press the point, it is my strong opinion that to counteract the increasing economic and strategic influence of China, Australia needs to have a greater sense of urgency when it comes to supporting our Pacific neighbours.

While Marles and I may sometimes disagree about politics and public policy, we share a passionate commitment to Australian rules football, he a lifelong supporter of the Geelong Cats, me of the Collingwood Magpies.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history & politics at Griffith University and the author of 42 books, most recently the seventh Grafton Everest political/sexual satire The Dizzying Heights, co-written with Ian McFadyen and a memoir Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne.

The Australian, August 3, 2021 p 10

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