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Terms Of Condescension: The Language Of Australia’s ‘Pacific Family’


When will this nonsense on familial connection between
Australia and the Pacific end? In 2018, Australia’s then
Pentecostal Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, drew upon a term
that his predecessors had not. On November 8 that year, he
announced
that Australia’s engagement with the region would be taken
to another level, launching a “new chapter in relations
with our Pacific family.”

In an address
to Asialink prior to attending the G20 Leaders’ Summit in
Osaka, Morrison was again found talking about the
Indo-Pacific, which “embraces our Pacific family with whom
we have special relationships and duties, our close
neighbours, our major trading partners, our alliance
partners and the world’s fastest growing
economies.”

Such language had all the resonances of
white European paternalism, ever watchful over the savage
dark races who would only ever advance with the aid, and
management, of civilised powers. It was a sentiment
reflected in the views of British explorer and
anthropologist William Winwood Reade, who opined in his 1872
work The
Martyrdom of Man
that, “Children are ruled and
schooled by force, and it is not an empty metaphor to say
that savages are children.” While he accepted slavery as
“happily extinct”, he thought it wise for a European
government “to introduce compulsory labour among the
barbarous races that acknowledge its sovereignty and occupy
its land.”

The language of the family imputes the
existence of stern, guiding parents and wayward, mischievous
children who might dare show some disobedience. The parents,
in the “Pacific family”, are never assumed to be any of
the Pacific Island states, who are seen as merely squabbling
siblings in need of control.

Morrison’s coining of
the expression had the benefit of unmasking a Freudian
truth. Pacific Island states had long been considered
charity cases and laggards in development, useful only as a
labour source for Australian markets or security outposts.
Concerns about climate change had barely been acknowledged.
When needed, Australian police and military forces had also
intervened to arrest any supposed sliding into
instability.

The term became even more problematic in
the wake of independent security decisions made by Pacific
Island states with China. A central premise of the
charity-child relationship between Canberra and its smaller
neighbours has been of one compliant behaviour. We give you
money and largesse from the aid budget; you stay loyal and
consistent to Australian interests. Of particular concern,
even terror, was the Solomon Islands-China security pact
which had, on the face of it, the potential to facilitate
the establishment of a Chinese military base.

In his
April visit to Honiara, Senator Zed Seselja, Australia’s
Minister for International Development, proved unsparing in
reiterating the familial script. He told
the Solomons Island Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that,
“the Pacific family” would “always meet the security
needs of our region.” He would be wise to “consult the
Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and
transparency, consistent with our region’s security
frameworks.”

The concern from Australian security
wonks at Honiara’s willingness to go so far with Beijing
caused an outburst of neo-imperial candour. The parent
should take full control of the situation and initiate
an abusive, punitive invasion
, ostensibly in the name of
protecting the sovereignty of another state. A rattled
Solomon Islands Prime Minister rebuked
such views
in parliament, claiming that “we are
treated as kindergarten students walking around with Colt
.45s in our hands, and therefore need to be
supervised.”

Australia’s then opposition Labor
Party, vying for government in the May elections, quickly
fell in with the language, extending it and bending it to
suit. In fact, it went so far as to scold
the Coalition government for sending a junior minister to
the Solomon Islands to argue against Honiara’s signing of
a security pact with Beijing. Instead of sending Seselja,
Labor campaign spokesman Jason Clare argued,
Foreign Minister Marise Payne should have been on that
plane. “What happened instead, the foreign minister went
to a business function and some bloke called Zed got sent
there.” Then savages were simply not wooed.

Building
on the theme of coaxing and pressuring Pacific neighbours to
do the right thing by Australia’s security interests,
Clare insisted on a more aggressive pose. “You can’t sit
back on the deck chair in the Pacific and just assume that
everything’s going to be okay.” The dark children, in
other words, might play up.

The new Labor government
of Anthony Albanese revelled in the same language of
paternal condescension, letting Pacific Island states know
that Canberra was keeping watch on any errant behaviour
while still claiming to respect them. Just prior to visiting
Samoa and Tonga in early June, Foreign Minister Penny Wong
boasted
of embarking on her second visit to the Pacific since
assuming her cabinet post. “We want to make a uniquely
Australian contribution to help build a stronger Pacific
family – through social and economic opportunities
including pandemic recovery, health development and
infrastructure support, as well as through our Pacific
labour programs and permanent migration.”

Pacific
states were also assured that parent Australia had heard
their concerns about climate change in a way that the
previous parent had not. “We will stand shoulder to
shoulder with our Pacific family in addressing the
existential threat of climate change.”

The
persistent use of the term “Pacific family” has not gone
unnoticed among some Australian critics. Julie Hunt is unimpressed.
“If someone tries to inveigle themselves into our family,
or continually tell us that we are part of their family, how
would we feel? Isn’t it a bit presumptuous?” The
utterance of such familial terminology brought with it a
range of unpleasant neo-colonial connotations. For Hunt, the
term would remain meaningless till “we show by our actions
that we understand their perspectives and respect them. Dare
I suggest that we wait until they return the feelings, and
wait until they call us family?” And a long wait that may
prove to be.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures
at RMIT University. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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