This is how Australia should engage

THE new Australian Federal government led by Anthony Albanese has a welcome raft of policies intended to strengthen Australia’s relationships and role in the Pacific Islands.
This is how Australia should engage This is how Australia should engage This is how Australia should engage This is how Australia should engage This is how Australia should engage

Staff Reporter

And a renewed emphasis on things that matter to the Pacific - especially climate change - has sent an important signal to the people of the region.
But the most effective and enduring way to improve Australia's relations in the Pacific isn't through spending announcements or infrastructure projects, write academics Joanne Wallis and Ian Kemish. 
It is through relationships between Australian and Pacific people, civil society groups, educational institutions, sporting codes and businesses.
Strong relationships require mutual understanding. And this is something that would benefit from more development - especially on the Australian side. Greater understanding of the Pacific will also aid the Australian public's receptivity of the government's policies.
Despite our longstanding involvement in the Pacific Islands - including as the colonial administrator of Papua New Guinea and Nauru - most Australians have little knowledge about the region. It's time for us to stop being - to paraphrase the great Sean Dorney - "embarrassed colonialists". We need a fresh approach to increasing Pacific literacy in Australia.
A first step would be to include more Pacific courses in our university offerings. Only the Australian National University (ANU) offers a substantive suite of Pacific-related course offerings. This reflects the reality that, while there are some pools of specialisation across Australia, we have relatively few academics of Pacific background or with Pacific expertise. It is also partly because, given the increasingly tight financial constraints under which universities operate, courses on topics assumed to be more "popular" are prioritised.
But university students want to learn about the Pacific. One of the authors started a course on Pacific security at the ANU in 2013. The first year, 30 students enrolled. Last year, 200 students took the course. With its unique mandate and financial arrangements, the ANU was able to carry a low-enrolment course until it became established. Other Australian universities don't necessarily have the same luxury.
This suggests that the government should consider funding the establishment of Pacific-related courses and research centres at other Australian universities. In the quantum of government spending, the amounts required would be comparatively small. But the value of producing university graduates with greater knowledge of the Pacific would be enormous.
Once groups of university students - including future teachers - have been exposed to knowledge about the Pacific, the next step would be to incorporate material about Pacific history, culture, society, and politics into school curricula. Australian students should leave school with some understanding of what life is like in the Pacific and the role that Australia has played in the region.
Of course, both proposals will require people with Pacific expertise to teach them. This suggests that the government should consider investing in schemes to incentivise academics developing expertise on the Pacific. But equally important will be involving scholars from the Pacific in educational delivery.
Conscious of not contributing to a ‘brain drain' from the region, we propose that the government consider funding more arrangements to facilitate relationships between Australian and Pacific universities, including exchanges between academics. The ANU, for example, has such an arrangement with the University of Papua New Guinea, and the University of Queensland with the PNG University of Technology. These models could be replicated elsewhere.
A companion program to the New Colombo Plan could also be established so that, in addition to sending Australian students out into the Pacific, there is provision to bring more Pacific students to Australia.
None of this should be extractive: the purpose should not be to suck knowledge and experts out of the region. Instead, it should be to build knowledge and capacity in both the Pacific and Australia.
In that regard, expanding the availability of Australia Awards to support Pacific scholars studying here will be important.
And the government could consider the merits (and practicalities) of allowing Pacific students to enrol at Australian tertiary universities at the domestic, rather than international, fee rate.
Long after roads are built, or capacity development programs are delivered - and which partner donated them are forgotten - relationships endure. Let's help more Australians understand the dynamism and diversity of our Pacific neighbours so that we can build better relationships with them.
Professor Joanne Wallis is research director of the Security in the Pacific Islands program at the University of Adelaide. Ian Kemish is a former high commissioner to Papua New Guinea, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland.



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