Bushfires and the Pacific: lessons for Australia’s new aid policy?

Cadgee, Eurobodalla NSW after the fires. Photo supplied by author’s friend.

Bushfires and the Pacific. Two things that rarely go together in the same sentence. Yet the last few weeks have seen support for Australian communities devastated by fire emerge from – what some may see as – unexpected quarters.Vanuatu PM

Support was expressed by Fiji’s Prime Minister on social media. Vanuatu has committed around 250,000 AUD to assist bushfire victims (see right). Papua New Guinea has offered 1,000 support personnel. A benefit concert is being planned in Vanuatu, and community groups in both countries have taken it upon themselves to walk door-to-door and raise funds for Australians affected by the fires. People are contributing what little they have.

While much analysis has, as it rightly should, been focused on the domestic context – are there also lessons to heed from the Pacific outpour of support? We think so. And this is all the more timely given Australia is about to develop its new international development policy for the Indo-Pacific.

Four things stand out:

(1) Common values and beliefs. Hope, despair, compassion, triumph, mate-ship, Wantok. Whichever term you use; the Pacific response to the bushfires reminds us that there is more that binds us with our neighbours than sets us apart. While this may seem trite, it is a point increasingly lost in our diplomatic rhetoric – outside the confines of the sporting field or in times of national emergency. There is an opportunity under the new aid policy for Australia to re-frame how it wants its relationship to look in the Pacific. Let adversarial, Hobbesian and protectionist rhetoric – that pits country interest against or over one another: ‘protecting our interests’, ‘contain geopolitical threats’, ‘failed states’ – give way to concepts that foster productive, mutual respect and common experiences and values. At least publicly. This leads to the second thing.

(2) Language matters. Sometimes it is in Australia’s interests not to say something is in our interests (even if deep down it still is). Pacific support to Australia for the bushfires was provided without judgement or expectation of a quid-pro-quo. Support was not expressed in terms of the national interest, seeking “cash” or securing or projecting state power. Pacific Islanders are giving what little they have. And this is notable given that the bushfires could have been a platform for Pacific leaders to again raise climate change. The aid policy is a chance to build on this and choose language that outlines our compassion for one another, and the mutuality of our aid, diplomatic and defence support. Development is not a zero sum game.

(3) Look outside the corridors of Canberra and Port Moresby to where commonality exists at a community and local level; and how we can better support these links. Notwithstanding differences, the sentiments and experiences of bushfire affected communities (at least where I call home) are not so different from some places in the Pacific. How do shires (local govts) plan for and respond to disasters of this scale? Who will clean up the debris and asbestos? How and where do we re-build schools and town-halls? How do we stimulate tourism again? How do we build resilience and deal with trauma? How do we access services we need? In the new aid policy there are opportunities to think outside the traditional model of federal agency secondments and training. For small and highly localized Pacific countries, the experiences, knowledge, ideas, business opportunities and groups operating at local government, council, state, regional business, or community levels may be of more relevance.

(4) Our relationship with the Pacific is a two-way street – and there’s probably more we can do to get traffic moving the other way. As Tess-Newton Cain eloquently put it, the Pacific bushfire response “actually speaks to something a lot more long-standing and deeply felt, which is the value that is placed on the relationship with Australia by Pacific Islanders” many want the relationship to “be one of equals” and “give back”. Australia’s aid rhetoric is often focused on what Australia can ‘do’ or ‘give’ to the Pacific. But what can Australia receive? Commercially and diplomatically yes, but beyond that, where can it learn from Pacific communities, knowledge or leaders? How can Australia show it respects and values what the Pacific has to offer and not just visa versa?

These are simply a few reflections. There is much more to unpack. But this event reminds us that we need to continue to listen very carefully to what Pacific nations and communities are telling us. If we get our narrative wrong in the aid policy, the implications will be more than just words on a page for how the Pacific perceives, acts and responds to Australia over the coming 5-10 years.

Lavinia Tyrrel is the Deputy Technical Lead and Practice Manager for Governance at Abt Associates. Lavinia comes from the South Coast, Eurobodalla, an area catastrophically affected by the bushfires. If you wish to donate, two useful links include the Red Cross Disaster Appeal or the NSW RFS.

One thought on “Bushfires and the Pacific: lessons for Australia’s new aid policy?

  1. Tess Newton Cain

    Thank you for referencing my most recent comments to the ABC on this. The points you raise here are significant and they are ones that I and others have been making for a very long time. For example, see: https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/55672/1/Walking_the_Talk.pdf and https://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/901911/W5-Newton-Cain-Ch4-WEB.pdf

    The issue of the quality of Australia’s engagement with Pacific island countries goes way beyond any specific review and indeed too much focus on the aid relationship is part of the problem in this regard – as evidenced by the bizarre, disrespectful and embarrassing way Australian officials have handled the offers of support from Pacific countries in recent days. That is not to say that the review does not provide an opportunity to seek to improve the narrative, because it does. As does the one on trade, which starts from a flawed premise (QED) and based on research I am currently writing up, is of equal and possibly greater significance to many in the Pacific islands region.


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