By Keimelo Gima, SHSS, UPNG.
The Australian minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy recently announced Australia would allow some Pacific Island families and their dependents to settle permanently in Australia via the new Pacific Engagement Visa. Putting aside the benefits of the scheme to the Islanders and their countries, Conroy’s move once again reflects the reactiveness of Australia. History has shown that Australia’s interest in the region has always been based on fear and its own security.
Unfortunately, the announcement is overdue, and the motive is questionable. Why has Australia waited so long to allow Pacific Islanders to take their place in the largest nation and the biggest job market in the region? This is particularly true for Papua New Guineans. While first Papua and then New Guinea became territories of Australia in 1906 and 1914 respectively, Papuans and New Guineans were consistently denied access to Australia under the White Australia policy.
Pacific Island nations welcomed first the short-term seasonal worker opportunities of the Pacific Island Labour Scheme and now the Pacific Engagement Visa. Both allow workers to remit some of their earnings back to struggling relatives at home. At the national level, Pacific nations are relieved of some unemployment, and much-needed Australian dollars enter struggling economies like Papua New Guinea (PNG). Now, opening the doors to bring families to live permanently in Australia is another great blessing to the Islanders; children, will attend better schools and have access to high quality medical care.
No doubt, Conroy and the rest of the government hope this decision will improve Australia’s profile in the region. However, the timing and the motive behind their announcement cloud any good deeds. Why has Australia suddenly decided to open the door further to Pacific Islanders now, when they were never needed in the past, especially Papuans and New Guineans?
A colonial legacy
To the credit of Australia, the minister had openly cited that this change of direction has been instigated by the increasing and alarming presence of the Chinese in the Pacific. In so doing, however, the minister reveals how Pacific Islanders have been used as a defence buffer since the first arrival of Europeans.
Military protection and commercial interests shaped both the Australian Federation and the way that the Australasian colonies and Britain claimed, ceded or shared territories in the carve up of the Pacific with rival European powers such as France and Germany.
Australia benefited from the security fence provided by PNG’s geography during WWII: Japan lost the Pacific War on the soils and seas and in the skies of PNG. Many innocent Papua New Guineans lost their lives and resources as a consequence. In Bougainville alone, nearly one third of the population died of bombing or hunger when Australia decided to continue the war with Japan rather than follow the American lead and isolate those islands held by Japanese forces. Papua New Guineans were arguably sacrificial lambs to the defence of Australia.
Postwar – a lost opportunity
The post-WWII period was marked by the Cold War and the decolonisation of the former European colonies. As members of a territory of Australia, Papuans became Australian citizens under the 1948 Australian Citizenship Act. New Guinea became a Mandated Territory of the League of Nations and then a Trust Territory under the United Nations. Papua New Guinea gained independence eventually in 1975.
European countries like Britain and France, and New Zealand in the case of Samoa, invited the citizens of their former colonies to work in their factories and building sites after WWII, providing vital labour during the long economic boom. Australian shamefully did not offer the same opportunities to the subjects of its principal colony,TPNG, instead relying on assisted migration from Europe. An employment scheme at this time would have given Papua New Guineans a chance to make a new beginning in Australia and formed greater connections between Australia and its external territories.
The cold shoulder
Many Papua New Guineans believe they were given the cold shoulder by the former coloniser before and after independence and that this attitude continues in the present. PNG people have never been the ‘favourites’ of Australia apart from providing geographical security. Only small numbers of PNG citizens have come to work and settle in Australia.
Yet Australia has accepted other South Pacific Islanders in larger numbers, whose countries were colonised by the British or by New Zealand. With a change of heart by Australia, one hopes that more and more citizens of Australia’s only colony in the whole of South Pacific, will be welcomed in the land of the First Nations People.
To conclude, while Australia can again be commended for accepting the families and dependants of a small number of Pacific Island workers including PNG, once again it seems that Australia has forgotten its history and ties to its closest neighbour and former colony. It seems we must salute China for creating sufficient fear in Australia to finally open its doors, but yet again Papua New Guineans gain no special treatment.