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Lost in Translation

The Village Explainer
Lost in Translation
By Dan McGarry • Issue #72 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.
In this issue, we explain why it’s Pacific media, not Australian, that need supporting.

Reporter Ben Bohane, a naturalised Vanuatu citizen, alongside his VBTC peers
Reporter Ben Bohane, a naturalised Vanuatu citizen, alongside his VBTC peers
Labor today made some hefty promises, intended to reduce the distance between the government of Australia and its Pacific island counterparts, and to (re)build bonds with the peoples of the region.
The measures are designed to promote “Australian identity, values, and interests” and include defence, communications, and media components.
The measures are well-intentioned, and many are commendable. The proposed revival of shortwave radio could save lives in the remote reaches of a region that experiences more natural disasters than any other.
The decision to address known shortcomings in the government’s various labour mobility schemes would be welcome, too. Few are more authoritative on this topic than Stephen Howes, director of ANU’s Development Policy Centre. They’d do well to listen to his advice:
Stephen Howes
ALP to announce "overhaul of Pacific Island worker programs" today. 3 useful things they could do: (a) scrap the ag visa; (b) end enforced multi-year family separations; (c) provide a pathway to permanency.
Defence training would not go wrong either. Building a sense of camaraderie, support and understanding among the many and varied armed forces of the Pacific would go a long way to smoothing security and disaster response situations, and might even help install an ethos of public service and support for democratic institutions and values.
But even just the first part would still be a win.
Additional funds for the ABC would be welcome. Successive governments have chiselled away at its base for so long, the proposed $8 million looks like a distinct underspend, even if it’s ring-fenced for Pacific-related programming (which I doubt will prove to be the case).
These are all good things, in and of themselves. But—and you had to know there was a ‘but’ coming—if a secure, stable and safe Pacific is the goal, these measures are wide of the mark.
The Pacific doesn’t need more of Australia. Australia needs more of the Pacific.
The message coming from Labor today is not significantly different from what we’ve been hearing from the Coalition lo! these many years, and to be frank, it hasn’t changed a lot since the Labor government that preceded them.
There is an argument to be made that Labor will deliver on its promises more effectively, will be more sensitive and front-footed on climate change, sure. But unless the prevailing attitudes and assumptions about the political and social dynamics of the region change, the results won’t change.
In an interview this morning with Radio National, shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced her party’s plan to “restore Australia’s place as the partner of choice in the Pacific”.
Labor says it will build a stronger Pacific family to bolster Australian security - RN Breakfast - ABC Radio National
But here’s the thing: In nearly every respect, Australia already is the partner of choice in the Pacific. Most Pacific governments turn to Australia before they turn to others for development assistance.
The sticky bit is that China is making inroads by doing the the things that Australia won’t. They’ve made the running by becoming a strong second choice. China funded infrastructure when Australia wouldn’t fund it. They encouraged state visits and strong bilateral ties when Australian first ministers seldom if ever spared a moment for their Pacific peers.
And yes, they assisted power elites in securing their fortunes and their political future.
As one commentator put it, they proved their friendship by simply being there.
Elizabeth. V. Kité 🇹🇴
What’s really interesting to see right now is how Aus leaders think they can best restore their position in #Pacific region. Meanwhile China - are in & part of our local communities: are our local grocers- employing our people, attending our churches, speaking our langagues…
I’m not sure I agree completely with this diagnosis, but I know better than to ignore it. I do think there is a justified sense in some parts of Polynesia and Micronesia that Australia is a long way away, both geographically and metaphysically.
That’s less true in Melanesian countries, which host a small but (sometimes too) vocal Australian diaspora.
But the thing that China does better than Australia is listen to what we’re actually asking for. Yes, they often listen to the wrong people, and twist their wishes to serve a rather cold and calculating power dynamic. But that dynamic is designed to serve both parties’ interests. It is perverse and anti-democratic, but it’s effective because it’s built on mutual understanding.
Scott Morrison has ridiculed the Labor plan, twisting a legitimate concern into a mawkish parody of the actual proposal:
Stephanie Dalzell
On 2GB, Scott Morrison has attacked Labor's plan to boost Australia's relationship with the Pacific, particularly its pledge to increase ABC funding for programs in the region: "It's farcical, their answer to solving the Solomon Islands problem is to have Q&A in Honiara" #auspol
We’d take him more seriously if he hadn’t enraged and offended the entire Pacific leadership in his belligerent refusal to engage in any meaningful climate action, and his government’s hypocritical efforts to thwart our own proposals at the last COP.
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum
Days ago, SIDS were told that our submission for a dedicated financing mechanism on #lossanddamage was “last minute”.

We’re deeply disappointed by the hypocrisy of language on coal going from “phase out” to “phase down” literally minutes before the close of #COP26.
All of that messy reality is why the Labor Party’s plan to leverage the ABC to be the voice of Australia overseas will be a nice thing, but isn’t likely to move the markers in terms of engagement and diplomacy in the Pacific.
The Pacific doesn’t need Australia explained to us. We’ve had a gutful of #Ausplaining already. It’s a bit like that boyfriend who’s actually pretty nice when it suits him, but won’t shut up reminding us how thoughtful he is long enough to ask what we actually want for supper.
And like that obnoxiously nice boyfriend, an expanded and amplified ABC runs a very real risk of discounting and even drowning out actual Pacific reporting.
No aspect of democracy or society is entirely zero-sum, but Pacific island countries do often suffer from having very small sums to work with.
So a publicly funded media behemoth with millions of dollars in its pocket is going to suck up a lot of the oxygen that local media outlets need to survive.
Independent media is something every Pacific island country needs more of.
One of the areas where China has made significant soft-power advances is in indulging elite contempt for a free media, transparency and accountability. That’s not something that the ABC has had much success challenging in the past, despite their best efforts.
The ABC’s coverage of Pacific stories works best when they provide cover for their local colleagues. We often ‘launder’ stories that would be too sensitive to break locally, and then approach local muckety-mucks for comment when the story breaks overseas.
But that only works for stories that are of interest to an Australian audience. I don’t know how many times I’ve pitched a hot story to overseas media, only to be told that it’s not important enough to merit coverage.
If our media professionals are being trained and paid to cover stories that are chosen by Australian editors with an eye on the Australian audience, then who is going to be telling the local stories that matter so much to us?
Despite the ABC’s much-improved coverage of regional and national issues in the Pacific, it does not cover a raft of local stories that are critically important to Pacific islanders trying to get from one day to the next.
It wasn’t always this way. The Australian government used to invest in helping the Pacific tells its own stories, to its own people. One such investment that I had the pleasure of supporting and working for (bias alert!) was the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, or PiPP, as we called it.
Among its many undertakings, PiPP ran a series of town hall events for MPs in the run-up to the 2012 election. The photo at the top of this issue is of my mate and then-Communications Director Ben Bohane standing cheek by jowl with camera operators from the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation.
They were covering the first-ever national town hall session featuring then Prime Minister Sato Kilman and Opposition Leader Serge Vohor. For many Ni Vanuatu, this was the first time they’d ever had a chance to directly interact with their national leaders.
It was a bit like… Q&A. In Port Vila.
But shortly after PiPP announced that its annual Pacific Debate (another first for the region) would be on the topic of refugees, the organisation was de-funded by a Rudd government nervous about being seen as soft on illegal immigrants.
Supporting independent media that is by and for Pacific islanders cannot be done by giving money to the ABC. Nor can our media institutions necessarily be built from other people’s money. Not if there are strings attached.
Our news media have suffered setback upon setback. The Pacific is hardly the most dangerous beat in the world, but it is one of the hardest to cover. It costs more, morally and monetarily, than most others, and despite decades of workshops and other training efforts, the media corps remains small, fragile and riven by political interference.
We’ve been trying lately to find ways to save this dying creature. And to its credit, DFAT-funded ABC International Development has been one of the key innovators, turning its training programmes around so that they’re focused directly on generating more, better reporting that speaks with Pacific voices.
I was privileged to be part of this effort, and one of my collaborations with colleagues from across the region has pride of place in my portfolio. This omnibus edition of Islands Business magazine provided comprehensive coverage of COVID-19 in the Pacific, exploring the theme through the eyes reporters across the region.
November 2021 - The State of Pacific Health
So yes, good things are possible. And yes, the ABC already plays a crucial role. But it will work only to the extent that the values, ideas and concerns that are raised are shared by all of us. And that means embracing—not competing with—Pacific island media. It means helping independent media to find the same trusted place as democratic cornerstones of their respective societies that the ABC has become in Australia.
If this key element is not present, the plan will not only fail, it will hasten the demise of free media in the region. And that in turn will hasten the advance of autocracy, to China’s advantage.
The more money gets spent on Pacific media and Pacific stories, the more pressure there will be to show value. In Canberra currently, this has been construed to mean no political coverage that casts Australia in a bad light, and nothing that discomfits the leaders it tries to engage with.
We have had some successes even within these constraints, but if we’re going to move the markers in this region back toward healthier democratic institutions, there has to be some latitude, tolerance and even active defence of the friction that really good news stories create.
Frankly, I don’t think independent media in the Pacific have much time left. There is not a single media organisation today that is not facing an existential struggle to remain economically viable, and to continue reporting fairly and freely in the face of official stonewalling and censure.
It’s true that airing Q&A in Honiara is no substitute for actual foreign policy. But helping nurture and sustain a media forum in which Solomon Islanders could hold their own government to account… well, that would be a damn good start.
It might help create a country with Prime Ministers who not only share their own people’s values, but who shares Australia’s as well.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu