Dr. Tim Anderson has degrees in economics and international politics, and a doctorate on the political economy of economic liberalisation in Australia. His current research interests relate to rights in development, Melanesian land and Economic integration in Latin America.
Instances of Australian lack of respect for Melanesian leaders are many, in our country’s long and sorry racial history. Patronage through aid programs helps prop up these colonial-like attitudes. The cases of Melanesian leaders standing up to Australia are less common.
That is why it is worth noting the actions of Vanuatu Prime Minister, Sato Kilman, in kicking out an Australian Federal Police contingent in retaliation for the AFP’s disgraceful treatment of PM Kilman’s delegation when they transited Sydney airport last month.
Apparently Australian officials made the Vanuatu PM’s delegation fill out immigration forms, even though they were only in transit. Then the AFP arrested Mr Kilman’s private secretary, Clarence Marae, on money laundering charges. Vanuatu responded this week by ordering a resident AFP delegation to leave the country.
Not since the Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare stood up to the AFP and the Howard Government in 2006-07 have we seen something similar. In that case, Sogavare’s government launched an inquiry into the April 2006 Honiara riots, an inquiry which would include examination of the role of the AFP. Australian PM John Howard reacted angrily and AFP officers searched PM Sogavare’s office as they prosecuted government ministers. Sogavare then stood up to Howard.
The heavy handed role of the AFP in Honiara had become an aggravating factor. As Honiara Bishop Terry Roberts wrote, ‘the 'spark' that sent the rioters into central Honiara was the use of tear gas by the Australian RAMSI contingent’. The Bishop said ‘Honiara people have never liked the Australian RAMSI contingent [who are] sullen and hostile. 'Helpim fren' has turned into 'Spoilem fren'.’
In early 2008 I was in Honiara, interviewing a number of well-educated Solomon Islanders about the AFP-dominated RAMSI mission. By then, both the Sogavare government and Howard government had gone. A common thread emerged. Every Solomon Islander I spoke with (including some of Mr Sogavare’s political opponents) agreed with and respected Sogavare’s criticisms of Howard; but hardly any of them were comfortable about it.
Maybe it is a cultural thing, of Melanesians avoiding confrontation; maybe it is the legacy of colonial history; maybe it is the pragmatism of small groups confronting bigger powers; but there has been a profound reluctance in the region to stand up to Australian bullies. Yet bullies, like dogs, never respect people who run away; in fact they tend to chase them.
Melanesians are hardly unaware of Australian racialism. Anyone of them who even travels through Australia has to pass through a visa-linked bureaucratic nightmare, something Australians never face when visiting the islands.
In 2005 PNG’s PM Michael Somare was required to remove his shoes for security guards at Brisbane airport. He complained bitterly about this humiliation. The then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer responded by claiming that it had been a ‘standard operation’ that applied to ‘everybody’.
Not so. When US Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Australia in February 2007, NSW firearms laws were amended, at Howard and Downer’s request, to allow Cheney’s bodyguards to carry their weapons through the airport and onto the streets of Sydney.
Australian arrogance is not just seen in isolated incidents. In 2005 a large scale AFP ‘aid’ program for PNG was aborted when it was legally challenged by MP Luther Wenge, under PNG’s constitution. The A$800m ‘Enhanced Cooperation Program’ was to provide legal immunity for Australian personnel (the kind of ‘above the law’ status the US demands for its soldiers everywhere). PNG’s courts found that the ECP enabling legislation breached citizens’ rights to legal redress and the independent role of the prosecutor.
What was the reaction of Howard and Downer? They said publicly that PNG should change its constitution. Unsurprisingly, that did not happen. Nevertheless, vehicles and rented apartments for the ECP continued to draw down public money and ’gather dust’ for some time to come.
Cancellation of the ECP did not have much impact on PNG. As Aidwatch pointed out at the time, A$734 million of the budgeted A$800m was to be spent on AFP wages and logistics.
During the ‘Moti Affair’ the Howard government had prosecuted PM Sogavare’s Attorney General, Fijian-born Australian Julian Moti, for alleged sex offences in Vanuatu back in the 1990s. This was a transparent move to sideline the person thought responsible for aiming the Honiara riots inquiry at the Australian Federal Police. Charges were eventually laid, Moti was extradited to Australia but the charges were ‘stayed’ by the Queensland Supreme Court in 2009, as an abuse of process.
In the meantime, PNG had avoided an extradition request for Moti as he passed through Port Moresby. PM Somare had avoided PNG’s tight extradition agreement with Australia by privately directing that Moti be sent back to the Solomon Islands. The Howard government used this to attack PM Somare, and the PNG PM became involved in his own scandal, for breaching PNG law. If Michael Somare had openly stood up to Australia, he would have gained substantial public support. Yet, because he tried to do it in a covert way, his domestic problems multiplied.
So there must have been a sigh of relief in Melanesia when Kevin Rudd led Labor into government in Canberra, in late 2007. There was indeed a change of tone in the relationship. However PM Rudd’s first action on visiting PNG in early 2008 was to present a document grandly titled ‘The Port Moresby Declaration’. This linked into Australia’s policy of ‘Pacific Partnerships for Development’.
However these ’partnership’ ideas had been written in Canberra and the ‘Declaration’ was not signed by any PNG leader. Yet there was no protest from the PNG government; as usual, they just let the Australians ‘do their thing’.
A similar approach was taken to exposure of corruption by one of AusAID’s ‘preferred contractors’ in PNG. One PNG minister told me they had caught this company laying the asphalt too thin and too narrow. The PNG government then banned the company from any more road contracts; but Australia asked that this be kept secret. Australia cries loud and long about corruption amongst Melanesians, the reverse does not seem to apply.
The Australian approach has changed little. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Bob Carr picked up the great tradition, in one of his first acts, by threatening Australia’s closest neighbour with ‘sanctions’ on the mere rumour of a delay in PNG’s elections. He later retracted the threat. But if no-one stands up to the bully, they keep at it. Maybe the Vanuatu PM’s recent actions will encourage a bit of reflection in the islands?