Howard’s Pacific Colonialism

Buoyed by its run of international adventures, the Howard government is now pushing a policy of more direct government and mili-tary intervention into Australian’s own “patch”, the southwest Pacific.

Barely had the Solomons intervention begun, John Howard was already talking up a plan to strengthen Australian domination over the countries of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

Answering a question at a July 22 press con-ference, Howard stated that “…many of these countries are too small to be viable… and we really have to develop an approach that I could loosely call… pooled regional govern-ance…. [I]t’s just not possible if you’ve got an island state of fewer than 100,000 people to expect to have all of the sophisticated arms of government”.

The next day, in an interview with the ABC, foreign minister Alexander Downer further clarified this proposal with a suggestion of trade liberalisation and a European Union-style common market for the southwest Pa-cific.

The proposal is expected to dominate the August 14-16 PIF summit in Auckland. How-ard hinted at the pressure that will be used, “particularly as we are being asked to be heavily involved in [the Solomons] coopera-tive intervention, particularly because we provide a lot of aid”.

But for now, Howard is playing it in stages. To start with, he will propose a Pacific-wide policing structure, to be trained by Australia, and the pooling of airline resources.

Canberra’s strategy, though, can be glimpsed in another measure Howard will be pushing: to get an Australian elected to the position of secretary-general of the PIF Secretariat. When Howard first suggested former diplo-mat and personal friend, Greg Urwin, for the job last year, he ruffled a lot of feathers in the region. The established convention – once useful for a slightly more veiled domination of the body by Australia – has been for the secretary-general to be from a Pacific Islands country.

Moreover, the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade committee tabled a report on August 12 (on the eve of Howard’s departure for Auckland) recommending PIF’s integra-tion into a “Pacific Economic and Political Community” that would use a single currency – the Australian dollar.

Justifying intervention

Sections of the foreign policy elite have been trying to push a more interventionist Pacific policy for some time, especially since the 2000 Solomons coup. At that time, Howard turned down Honiara’s request for an Austra-lian military deployment.

Nevertheless, the crisis got Canberra very worried. Weighed down by years of “free market” restructuring (largely pushed by Australia and New Zealand), more and more Pacific states have been hobbling closer to all-round crisis – one that the region’s neo-colonial elites can no longer contain, such as in the Solomons. The dilemma for Canberra is how to restore control without fully-fledged re-colonisation.

Two major influences have risen to the top in this debate. The first is Australia’s answer to the US neocons, the Defence-funded Austra-lian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The second is a paper by ANU academic Helen Hughes for the neoliberal think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies.

The ASPI’s paper on the Solomons, Our Failing Neighbour, was written before the present intervention, by Elsina Wainwright, director of the ASPI’s Strategy and Interna-tional Program. In it, Wainwright asks, “Is there a middle option between our present detachment and an attempt to reassert colo-nial rule?”

She answers by arguing that sovereignty is no longer an absolute, as “the security challenges presented by failed states have forced inter-national policymakers to overcome many post-colonial hangups”. The key to offsetting any accusations of re-colonisation, according to Wainwright, is “broad-based international or regional support” for any intervention, and “if at all possible… the consent of the af-fected state”.

In its “Strategic Assessment” for 2002, called Beyond Bali, the ASPI goes further:

“For many decades we sought to protect Australia’s interests by supporting colonial rule in one form or another…. Australian policy since decolonisation has consistently stressed the need to allow these countries to manage their own problems…. It seems that as far as our Melanesian relationships are concerned, this approach will no longer work.” (italics added)

Wainwright warns that Pacific neighbours like the Solomons have “virtually ceased to function as an effective national entity”. Worse, the Solomons could become a “petri dish in which transnational and non-state security threats can develop and breed” – “a kind of post-modern badlands”. She also warns that “potentially hostile major powers could operate forces from bases in our imme-diate neighbourhood”.

To preempt this, Wainwright recommends the Solomons as a testing ground for a policy turn towards military intervention and direct control of parts of the financial and govern-ment bureaucracy by Australian technocrats.

The Hughes paper, Aid has failed the Pacific, attributes the Pacific crisis to a policy of aid dependency. Hughes warns that “Australia’s security is threatened by the passage of drugs, arms and ultimately, terror and the flight of large numbers of economic refugees”. Worse, countries like Papua New Guinea have the potential to turn into “rogue states” on our doorstep.

In answer, Hughes recommends a replace-ment of Pacific communities’ communal resource ownership with “individual property rights”. She warns that, while “Pacific Island-ers who want to cling to communal land ownership… have every right to make that choice”, “there is no reason… for Australian or any other taxpayers to underwrite such choices with aid”. She reiterated this ap-proach in an article in the July 23 Financial Review: “The urgent need is for individual property rights to give Solomon Islanders the opportunity to produce for world markets… Solomon Islanders can learn to climb the productivity ladder”.

Our neighbours are no longer just “unstable”; they spell a “clear and present danger” – di-rect threats to Australia’s national security. The prescribed “cures” are a potent mix of direct military and bureaucratic control under the cover of local figureheads, and intensify-ing a forced march to free-market capitalist globalisation.

But these papers do not just represent idle thinking: their prescriptions are being adopted by the Howard government and corporate media.

The ASPI’s recommendations in Our Failing Neighbour have been the blueprint for the whole Solomons intervention. Earlier, its very specific recommendations on the Iraq war (spelled out in Beyond Bali) were also im-plemented.

Following Howard’s July 22 press confer-ence, the next day’s Financial Review ran Howard’s “pooled regional governance” pro-posal as its front page story, calling it a “radi-cal plan”. That day’s editorial on the same topic danced to the ASPI’s tune:

“Success in stemming the collapse of the Solomon Islands… would send a clear mes-sage to the neighbourhood about the priorities that parliaments and governments need to observe…. The other side of the coin, also potentially persuasive, is that if other island countries drift into a Solomons-style danger zone, they risk having their precious sover-eignty curtailed…. Their rulers need to focus on providing the schools, clinics and transport infrastructure, and the rule of law, that alone will maintain the stable framework in which businesses will invest.”

This was backed up by Elsina Wainwright, who wrote in an op-ed article in the same edition that “…small derogations of sover-eignty might make all the difference…” and that “while sovereignty remains the bedrock of the international system, there is a growing acknowledgement around the world that it is not absolute.”

Nothing new

The idea of “pooled regional governance” is merely the logical extension of Canberra’s willingness to now play around with Pacific nations’ sovereignty to fulfill Australian im-perial interests.

A union of Pacific countries would remove the diplomatic protocols currently obstructing a rapid military intervention. The Pacific Islands Forum’s Biketawa Declaration, signed in October 2000, provides due process for PIF members to intervene in each other’s affairs “in time of crisis”. However, follow-ing the Solomons wake-up call, Canberra now needs to open up the southwest Pacific into a single zone of rapid-response interven-tion. Already, Alexander Downer announced on August 4 that he is preparing a review of policy towards Papua New Guinea for the federal Cabinet’s National Security Commit-tee.

Moreover, “pooled regional governance” seeks to further push the PIF towards free market integration, a process that has been underway since 1998. That year, Robert Scollay of Auckland University produced a report recommending a Pacific free trade agreement. In 1999, PIF leaders mandated the Forum Secretariat to draft such an agreement. In 2001, the PIF endorsed the Pacific Islands Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) and the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Re-lations (PACER).

The two agreements are linked. First, in the words of PACER, they “are intended to pro-vide ‘stepping stones’ to allow the Forum Island Countries [i.e., the PIF minus Australia and New Zealand] to gradually become part of a single regional market and integrate into the international economy”, i.e., the trading regime governed by the World Trade Organi-sation. This is specifically the role of PICTA, which aims to progressively create a free trade area among the under-developed PIF countries by 2012. PICTA came into force on April 13.

Second, the agreements ensure that this free-market globalisation occurs under the domi-nation of Australia and New Zealand. This is the specific job of PACER, which came into force last October.

All the PIF member states are also part of the Brussels-headquartered African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), which serves as an instrument of continued Euro-pean Union (EU) domination of its former and present colonies in those regions. An agreement signed in 2000 between the ACP and EU began converting trading arrange-ments that gave preferential treatment to ACP exports to the EU, into reciprocal free trade agreements.

PACER was a preemptive move against free trade negotiations that began between the EU and ACP in September 2002. PACER stipu-lates that where a PIF country negotiates a free trade agreement with any developed non-PIF country, then that PIF country must also enter into negotiations with Australia and New Zealand “with a view to establishing reciprocal free trade arrangements”. And even if there are no such negotiations with a non-PIF country in the first place, PACER still requires free trade negotiations to com-mence between the poor PIF countries and Australia and New Zealand within eight years of PICTA coming into force.

Free trade would devastate the Pacific economies, which already suffer grossly une-qual trading relations with Australia. Austra-lian products currently dominate 37% of Fiji’s market. In 2001-02 the Solomons im-ported $64 million of Australian products – nearly half its total imports – while exporting only $2 million of goods to Australia. In 2002-03 Australian exports to Kiribati to-talled $38.1 million, while Australia’s im-ports from Kiribati totalled a mere $285,000.

Further, with the fall of trade tariffs under PICTA, many poor PIF countries have begun to lose their primary source of tax revenue. In response, they are moving to regressive GST-style consumption taxes.

Oppressed countries

The view being promoted by the corporate media is that Australia is intervening into the southwest Pacific only after having taken a typically benevolent hands-off approach, accompanied by a cornucopia of generous aid.

This is a lie that conceals Australia’s ex-ploitative role and promotes the racist idea that the Pacific peoples can’t govern them-selves.

The roots of poverty in the region are the double burden of a legacy of long colonial oppression and neocolonial exploitation in which formal independence has disguised the continuation – and often stepping up – of economic domination and dependence.

For example, the Australian-owned Gold Ridge mine in the Solomons, which opened in 1998, doled out a mere 3% of royalty pay-ments to the Solomons, divided between three parties: 1.5% to the central government, 0.3% to the Guadalcanal province, and 1.2% to the landowners.

As the majority of PIF countries gained for-mal independence in the 1970s, at the onset of neoliberalism worldwide, they barely had a chance to even try to get on their feet before they were assailed by a hail of free-market “structural adjustment” programs from both multilateral institutions like the IMF and World Bank and bilateral pressure by Austra-lia and New Zealand.

In June 2002, the Solomons government asked the IMF/World Bank and “donor” countries for a substantial injection of funds. However, the Australian government led the charge in demanding, in return, a further slashing of jobs and government spending. That same month, Honiara ceded control of its finances with the appointment of a New Zealand “public sector and economic reform” consultant, Lloyd Powell, as Permanent Sec-retary of Finance. Powell heads a NZ com-pany with a history of overseeing neoliberal “reform” in over 20 Third World countries, including the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga and Kiribati. At Powell’s recommendation, Honiara retrenched 1300 public sector work-ers in November 2002.

Australia’s aid to the region has also been self-serving. As AusAID admits: “The objec-tive of the Australian aid program is clear. It is to advance Australia’s national interest…. The Australian private sector plays a signifi-cant role in helping to achieve that objec-tive… the program and its success relies heavily upon Australian expertise to identify, design and implement aid projects”.

According to Aid/Watch, 70% of aid boo-merangs back into a gravy train for Australian consultancy corporations, rather than genu-inely assisting self-determination and social-economic development for the majority of Pacific peoples. Indeed, many of the “eco-nomic reform and governance” projects in the aid program seek to export Australia’s own neoliberal policies into the states, public in-stitutions and economies of the Pacific coun-tries.

In 1999, consultancy firm Hassall & Associ-ates won an $8.5 million five-year contract to “reform” Fiji’s tax and customs departments. Another aid-sucking consultancy ACIL re-ceived over $250 million in AusAID funds in 2001-02. ACIL rose to notoriety during the 1998 waterfront dispute when it was revealed that the company had written the secret report advising the Howard government on how to smash the MUA. Kerry Packer’s consultancy company, GRM International, won a $5 mil-lion four-year contract to undertake “public sector reform” in Samoa.

Whether it’s aid or World Bank loans, they work hand-in-glove to open up the economies of the southwest Pacific to Australian corpo-rate domination.

And now, with the danger that the local elites cannot get away with continuing to adminis-ter ever-harsher neoliberal policies, Canberra has opted to bash down the Pacific’s borders to enable more direct economic, political and military control over Australian imperialism’s own “patch”.

—- >From Green Left Weekly, August 20, 2003. Visit the Green Left Weekly home page @

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ +

NEW ZEALAND: `Self-determination for West Papua!’


AUCKLAND – The international solidarity movement for West Papua met in Otara, Tamaki Makaurau, on August 8-10. The gathering called on the government leaders who constitute the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to remember the unresolved tragedy of the Pacific people of West Papua during their meeting in Auckland on August 14-17.

Delegates to the conference included people from West Papua, the USA, Ireland, Australia, Indonesia, Britain, Hong Kong, Fiji and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The movement urged PIF leaders to grant West Papua observer status as a step towards resuming its role in Pacific regional affairs, a right denied to the West Papuan people for the past 40 years.

It welcomed the PIF’s previous expressions of concern about the human rights situation in West Papua, but urged leaders to take further action in response to the deteriorating situation in the Indonesian-occupied territory, especially the targeting of human rights defenders.

The solidarity movement called on forum leaders to send a fact-finding mission to West Papua to investigate the human rights situation there and to press Indonesia to:

- end military operations in West Papua, start the process of demilitarisation and halt the activities of Laskar Jihad and all militia forces;

- renew efforts to resolve the conflict by peaceful means in accordance with the call by the people of West Papua for their country to be made a “land of peace”;

- ensure the safety and protection of all human right defenders, enabling them to carry out their activities without intimidation or obstruction; and

- bring to justice those responsible for serious crimes committed in West Papua, including the killing of Papuan leader Theys Eluay in November 2001.

The movement strongly urged the PIF to condemn the violations against West Papuan women and children that are the result of Indonesia’s militarisation of the territory. The PIF should resolve to end all forms of military cooperation with Indonesia, including the training of military personnel, the solidarity movement stated.

The movement also condemned the systematic destruction of the environment and cultural structures of the West Papuan people, and called on PIF leaders to address the dire humanitarian situation of West Papuan refugees in Papua New Guinea, and to take steps to protect their legal and human rights.

Recognising that the root cause of the human rights problems in West Papua is the fraudulent “Act of Free Choice”, which was part of an attempt to legitimise the takeover of West Papua by Indonesia in 1969, the solidarity movement urged the PIF to support the widespread demand for the United Nations to review its conduct at the time and for West Papua to be reinstated on the agenda of the UN Decolonisation Committee.

“This year, the PIF leaders will be under renewed pressure to face up to the crunch issue of the right of the people of West Papua to self-determination”, said Maire Leadbeater, speaking for the conference organising committee. “It won’t be coming just from West Papuan people and the solidarity movement. Vanuatu, which already hosts a West Papuan representative’s office, is expected to bring West Papuans to Auckland with its delegation.

“Up to this point, PIF leaders have dared only to make statements of `concern’ about human rights violations in West Papua. The statements have been carefully couched in language designed to not offend Indonesia.

“Grassroots international campaigns helped to bring change to East Timor, and it will be the same for West Papua. The solidarity movement has already achieved widespread parliamentary support for a campaign to get the UN to review its conduct with regard to the discredited 1969 `Act of Free Choice’”, Leadbeater pointed out.

Leave a comment