Perfect One Day, Precarious The Next

 
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Australia’s Pacific neighbours are among the smallest members of the United Nations and their peoples among the fewest and most scattered. They share colonial histories under British, French, German, US, NZ and Australian rule. Today they are independent, but independent in name only.

From a distance they look like coconut and coral paradise, but every one is struggling to maintain economic credibility and political viability. A brief review of their plight highlights the need for sustained Good Samaritanism in the policies of their wealthier, more democratically mature and politically stable neighbours.
These states include: Cook Islands, Kiribati, Niue, the Marshalls, Nauru and Tuvalu, Federated States of Micronesia, Northern Marianas, Palau, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. Some are just single atolls; others are scores of scattered islands (Solomons and Kiribati). In terms of population, the range is similarly spread, from Niue (1500) to PNG (5.3 million).

Regardless of where they live, “getting by” on these Pacific islands is a struggle. Cook Islanders, Kiribatis, Tongans, Samoans, Niueans, Nauruans and Micronesians survive on remittances from expatriate populations in NZ, USA, UK and Australia. Many governments similarly survive on fishing licence fees. The Marshallese receive compensation for the nuclear weapons testing mess left by the Americans. Some income is generated for Marshallese and Tongans from flags of convenience. Nauru is well known as a phosphate mine and for its Melbourne real-estate holdings. Nauru has a crippling debt from bad investments. Meanwhile, Niuean and Tuvaluans obtain some royalties from the sale of their .nu and .tv Internet addresses.

As pressing as their economic problems are, they have more, some crime-related. Niue, the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Vanuatu have all been assessed as havens for money laundering; the Federated States of Micronesia has been blacklisted by the US government; the Marianas, Tonga, Fiji and PNG are all struggling with domestic crime and in some cases, the international drug and illicit arms trade. PNG is supported by more than $A350m in Australian assistance annually to confront problems of unstable government, tribal conflicts, urban violence, unemployment, high birth rates and border insecurity.

While HIV/AIDS is spiralling upward in PNG, Fiji (43 per cent Indian) is still mired in racial and constitutional issues. The Solomons is recovering from internecine warfare where militias disrupted law and order to the point of intervention in the form of the Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI). Palau has simmering religious and ethnic tensions between its Muslim (30 per cent) and Christian peoples. For Kiribati, the most pressing problem is pollution caused by overcrowding and rising sea levels. Nauru and the Marshalls are similarly placed as dry and isolated atolls.

Australia is re-evaluating its relationship with the Pacific. A 2003 Senate Committee Report* made for sober reading, but raised the prospect of rescue packages in the form of economic, security and political assistance. A common security force, a common labour market and a common currency have all been mooted as a consequence of the Senate inquiry.

This concentration of effort toward shared solutions to common problems is both overdue and a wise move. Small Pacific states are little different to individuals with big problems; when we come together to pool our knowledge and resources we have a better hope for solving our crises.

In terms of security, Australia and New Zealand are naturally placed as “elder brothers” to the Pacific. More importantly, on the economic front, they must continue to show themselves to be generous good Samaritans if the peoples of their postcard but precarious Pacific are to survive.


* Senate Committee Report: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee: A Pacific Engaged—Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea and the island states of the south-west Pacific, August 2003.