Proving the adage that small countries can produce big ideas, during a visit to Australia Samoa’s prime minister last week gave us this one – that Australia and New Zealand should work with Pacific islands nations to create a European Union-style bloc.
It is a vision for a long-term project, a Pacific Union. Samoa’s Fiame Naomi Mata’afa describes the Pacific islands as “the world’s greatest concentration of microstates”, including her own country, population 200,000.
But she also quotes the Pacific writer Epeli Hau’ofa: “We should not be defined by the smallness of our islands but in the greatness of our oceans.” By that measure, the microstates represent major interests.
Their total land and sea territories and exclusive economic zones cover more than 30 million square kilometres, a fifth of the Earth’s surface, an area bigger than Russia, China and the US combined. Encompassing major fisheries, trade routes and undersea resources, the Pacific Islands also call themselves the Blue Continent.
They also happen to constitute a major portion of Australia’s strategic hinterland. The last time Australia paid serious attention to this fact was when Japan occupied the Solomons and Papua New Guinea and tried to isolate Australia from the rest of the world by straddling trade routes. National survival was at stake.
Australia, strategic dilettante, has only recently rediscovered that its geographic vulnerability remains. And the Pacific islands’ crucial strategic value remains, too.
The work agenda to form a Pacific Union would be dominated by free trade and free investment and free people movement. But ultimately it would bind 18 nations in a shared future.
If realised, it would help Australia to stabilise its strategic surrounds against pressure from Beijing, and it would provide the Pacific islands with a pathway to overcome their biggest problems – poverty and the effects of climate change.
Fiame pointed out that tiny Vanuatu, population 320,000, had just been hit by two cyclones, both savage category-four storms with winds gusting over 200 km/h. Shockingly, both struck within a week. Vanuatu’s government says the cost of repairs will be more than half the country’s annual GDP.
“This is our reality,” Fiame says, “and that’s why we will never stop pushing” on seeking help and redress with the effects of climate change.
The basis for a Pacific Union already exists – the Pacific Islands Forum, set up in 1971, comprises the Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Melanesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomons, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu plus Australia and New Zealand. Importantly, the group includes neither the US nor China.
The Pacific islands’ states are among the most impoverished nations on earth, and the most vulnerable to climate change. Australia already is the region’s biggest aid donor, but there is a better way to lift the region’s people out of poverty.
It’s politically sensitive but Fiame went straight to it: “The point of the common market is free access for people around the region,” she told the Lowy Institute. “I think we need to explore that.”
The former Australian diplomat and Pacific expert Ian Kemish explains how it would help, and why it’s sensitive: “They are happy to receive aid but they believe that, in the end, remittances from their people with access to the big labour markets” of Australia and NZ “are more transformative and a bigger economic boost than aid projects will ever do.”
He says that Australian aid accounts for 5 to 8 per cent of the GDP of Tonga and Samoa but that, already, remittances are much more important – money sent home by their workers abroad account for 40 per cent of Tonga’s GDP and one-sixth of Samoa’s.
“Development assistance is useful,” Kemish says, “but it will never transform a country.” Australia gives Pacific workers seasonal access for agricultural work and the Albanese government has created the first dedicated immigration quota specific to the Pacific.
The scheme allocates 3000 places a year shared among the regional nations, with successful applicants chosen by ballot like the US green card system. It’s a start, and at the moment it’s held up by Coalition opposition, but it’s nothing more than a start.
And the idea of free people movement is tricky because, as Kemish says, “completely opening the door to places like PNG is a challenge – you have to factor in the potential for undesirable elements coming in”.
PNG has chronic problems of gang crime and corruption, and it’s also the only developing member of the Pacific Island Forum with a population of over a million. PNG’s exact head count is a mystery because of the problems of holding a census in a rugged country where much of the population is inaccessible, but it’s estimated at somewhere between 9 and 17 million.
“I don’t think this is insurmountable,” Kemish says. “The answer lies in more joined-up law enforcement, and it does rest on stronger capacity for each country to monitor and understand problems of criminality, and they will continue to need a lot of help with that.”
And climate change? How could a Pacific Union help? Apart from giving aid for projects to help with adaptation and protection, it would allow Australia to accept de facto responsibility for climate change refugees from the Pacific islands nations, without admitting legal liability.
By allowing free people movement, implicitly Australia and NZ would be reassuring the Pacific peoples that they will have a guaranteed refuge from climate change.
Members of the Albanese cabinet are broadly in favour of deeper Pacific islands integration at all levels. As one put it to me: “Anything that integrates the region more fully strengthens our defence against China’s influence.”
But any free access of Pacific peoples to Australia, if ever agreed, would have to start with the smallest nations with the smallest populations. Fiame’s idea is big, and holds some promise, but it’s too much too soon for the Albanese government.
As Fiame’s comments suggest: “Penny Wong didn’t say anything when I suggested we will do a common market-type arrangement.”
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