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A genuine regional people-to-people engagement must be Australia’s highest priority

By Jeffrey Wall - posted Friday, 13 May 2022

One of the highest priorities of the next Australian Government must be a comprehensive and considered strategy to rebuild our relations with the people of our region and especially the people of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

There can be no doubt that over the last 50 years - and more particularly the last decade - our "people to people" association with our region has diminished. That frankly reflects poor foreign policy, and more particularly regional policy, by successive national governments.

China's march through the region, most recently evidenced through the secret comprehensive pact with the government of the Solomon Islands, has been partly enabled by our weak and inadequate responses to it, and the unquestionable failure on the part of our most senior diplomats - led by High Commissioners and Ambassadors - to fully engage with the people of our neighbouring countries, and not just with the political and bureaucratic elite in them.


What the next Australian Government, led by the Foreign Minister, must do is jettison existing policies and strategies including our "development assistance" programs. They have simply failed or fallen well-short of what is required in a changing and challenging environment.

The presumption that "by picking up the phone" we can retore our influence in our region is just wrong. The damage that has been done, by our own failings and by China's aggressive approach is not going to be solved overnight - and it most certainly will not be solved by tipping more aid cash, or projects, into the region.,

What is needed is a genuine focus on restoring our people-to-people links  especially in areas where China cannot compete.

In this contribution I want to offer just a few suggestions how that might be done. While my principal focus is inevitably on our relations with our largest and closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, these suggestions are also relevant to countries such as Fiji and Vanuatu.

Rebuilding education links

As i have written before, the Hawke and Namaliu Governments around 1990 established a unique scholarship scheme to enable around 1,000 young Papua New Guineans to attend high school in Australia, principally in Queensland. Some students attended private schools while some attended state high schools and were taken in by school families as borders.

In my view, the scheme was an outstanding success. It was sabotaged by officials in DFAT, supported by the Foreign Minister in the Howard Government, Alexander Downer. I suspect the cause in reality was the amount of work that had to be done securing passports, visas and making travel arrangements


That scheme needs to be re-visited and re-introduced. Tying it to upgrading high schools, and teacher standards, in PNG and other regional countries, would be useless.

What this scheme did, just as the Colombo Plan did across Southeast Asia, will be to grow genuine people-to-people links that will last long beyond the period of the student’s education in Australia.

I would suggest the schools included in the program include Northern Territory schools and schools in regional New South Wales.

The program is costly, and it is time consuming. But it worked very well thirty years ago and it can work well again!

Engaging business in strengthening links with our region

There are hundreds of businesses, and individual entrepreneurs in Australia who would readily look at developing business partnerships in PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa, and even more distant countries including Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia.

There are hundreds of businesses engaging with our region already - many have done so for years with considerable success.

The Australian Government needs to bring together the business councils that have extensive links with the region already - and offer to provide them with funding to assist develop links and grow existing links with the business councils and other relevant groups in our neighbours.

Our business links with our region have unquestionably declined in recent years. In some industries China has aggressively pushed us aside - such as fisheries and forestry as well as construction.

We need government agencies and resources to lead a fight back. The business councils are well placed to help deliver it.

Engaging with the mainstream churches

In all our regional neighbours Christianity is not just the majority religion, it is the dominant one - upwards of 90 per cent.

We need to harness the resources, and people, of our mainstream churches, to partner with Pacific counterparts to help deliver vital community services such as primary school education and basic health care,

There are also some excellent church-aligned NGOs and charitable groups doing good work in our region - but who could do more with additional government funding.

My own pro-bono NGO of choice is the Townsville based YWAM - Youth with a Mission. It is based on Christian values and ethics but is non-denominational. Since its arrival in PNG just over a decade ago YWAM has helped hundreds of thousands of Papua New Guinea, principally along coastal communities which its ships and volunteer crews can access.

We should be doing more to fund church aligned groups like YWAM - but also non-church NGOs such as Rotary which have a long history of support for our neighbours.

We have tragically allowed people-to-people links with our closest neighbour PNG to decline alarmingly. But our links with Fiji and Vanuatu in particular also need attention.

Readers may wonder why I have not mentioned the Solomon Islands in this contribution.

Rebuilding relations with the SI is just not going to happen while the current pro-China government is exercising a suffocating influence over the islands.

Our national priority must be to rebuild links and people-to-people associations elsewhere while the political situation in the SI remains as it is today.

The task of rebuilding, then expanding, people-to-people links in our region will be demanding. It requires government leadership and community support - business, churches states, and so on.

It is an exercise that simply must begin as soon as the next government of Australia is in place.


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About the Author

Jeffrey Wall CSM CBE is a Brisbane Political Consultant and has served as Advisor to the PNG Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu – Prime Minister 1988-1992 and Speaker 1994-1997.

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