25 Jan 2019
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’s Pacific paternalism leaves a sour taste
By Anthony Bergin and Richard Herr
The former minister for international development and the Pacific in the Turnbull government, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, has again managed to suggest to her Pacific neighbours that they can’t manage their own affairs.
In January last year she accused China of debt-trap diplomacy where infrastructure loans were used to erect useless buildings and lay roads that went nowhere.
Samoa’s Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele, indignantly responded to the implicit in-loco parentis arrogance, stating that her comments impugned “the integrity, wisdom and intelligence of the leaders of the Pacific Islands” in deciding on their infrastructure needs and the way these were funded.
Last week Fierravanti-Wells turned her guns from China’s role in the region to Australia and still missed the target. She disparaged the Morrison government’s decision to put $2 billion into an Australian Infrastructure Finance Facility for the Pacific, asking rhetorically: “Why are we contemplating saddling the Pacific with more debt?”
This repeats her line that Pacific leaders would leap irresponsibly at the opportunity to max out a new card if an additional source of credit were provided and that Australia would be sacrificing its obligations to make prudent loans to compete with China.
The senator’s remarks again reminded Pacific leaders that some Australian politicians believe the people of the Pacific need protection from their own elected leaders. But Fierravanti-Wells misses the point of the AIFFP initiative. Both major political parties have adopted a common goal, if not precisely the same strategy, of improving relations with the Pacific Islands. They want Australia to be the “partner of choice” for the Pacific.
The AIFFP is an important contribution for offering choice to the region. It readdresses an earlier policy resistance to offering infrastructure development support. This deficiency contributed to opening a very wide door for Chinese entry across the region.
The AIFFP won’t completely close this door: the funds available will scarcely meet all the demands of the island states. But it will allow more choice in the regional market for responsible borrowing, including competitive terms and more transparency in the infrastructure loans negotiated.
Apart from the extra financing power to support investments in the region, AIFFP will offer grant funding to support Pacific infrastructure development. There will also be an extra $1bn in callable capital to EFIC, Australia’s export financing agency. The balance between grants and loans will be a policy challenge for the AIFFP as it responds to the region’s requests.
Concern for just how AIFFP policy will be set served as an addition point of criticism for Fierravanti-Wells. She suggested rather bizarrely that DFAT was staffed with “fellow travellers” who would be willing to compromise Australia’s place in regional relations by tarring it with Chinese tactics. She believes that the AIFFP will make “it more difficult to call out Beijing” for its lapses as a good international citizen.
Generally, there is a degree of bipartisanship that limits the external effects of these policy debates on Pacific Islands relations. Sometimes, as with the Fierravanti-Wells shot at the Morrison government’s initiative, internal domestic policy processes do erupt to inflict spectacularly gratuitous collateral damage.
The paternalism that underlies the Fierravanti-Wells critique doesn’t support genuine dialogue among friendly equals. Her remarks were in stark contrast to Scott Morrison’s recent visit to Fiji and Vanuatu that put real meat on the bone of Australia’s Pacific step-up policy. Australian prime ministers almost never make bilateral visits to the Pacific.
Pacific Islanders have long been aware that they’ve been used as pawns in the political games of others. Geostrategic power plays and imperial rivalries cost most their sovereignty in the 19th century. The objective of strategic advantage hasn’t disappeared since independence but a significantly wider range of issues have been added to post-independence relations.
Pacific Island states are responsible for their own choices. Australia can help its neighbours best by respecting their right to make choices and giving them the full range of choices from which to choose responsibly. A partnership of choice will serve Australia better to step up its engagement with the Pacific Islands, an area that will continue to include China as a substantial fixture in its affairs.
Richard Herr is adjunct professor of Pacific governance and diplomacy at the University of Fiji. Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the National Security College, ANU