03 Sep 2019
Pacific Islanders’ boots would help defence step up
The Indo-Pacific is becoming more crowded and complex. We not only need greater defence spending and more equipment but at some point, and soon, we’re going to need many more people in the Australian Defence Force.
Getting more boots on the ground to deal with possible regional contingencies won’t necessarily be easy. We could struggle for the numbers required to fulfil the regional and global commitments our strategic planners expect of our armed forces.
Our military is growing but needs to do more to meet future commitments. Defence is having trouble staying in place let alone meeting the relatively modest 8 per cent personnel increase set by the 2016 Defence white paper.
As the government’s $200 billion equipment program delivers new systems, it’s likely more servicepeople will be required to operate them. And that before the government decides on any new measures to address our increasingly uncertain strategic environment. Even with more advertising dollars, sweeteners, retention bonuses and lowering the medical and aptitude standards, the Defence recruiting outlook is bleak.
It’s time for a fresh idea to boost our Pacific step-up. We already have a skilled migration scheme. Now we need to attract foreign nationals here whose skill is a willingness to serve in the ADF. We should consider recruiting Pacific Islanders for our military.
We routinely recruit individual former military from New Zealand, Britain, Canada, South Africa and the US. Britain has long recruited Gurkhas from Nepal and recruits from former colonies such as the West Indies. About 1500 Fijians serve in the British armed forces.
A more relevant example in the Pacific context is the long-standing US recruitment from the Compact of Free Association states in the north Pacific (Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands), which has served the US and relevant countries very well.
Rather than a general intake of individual foreign nationals to plug gaps in the ranks, we should consider inviting Pacific Islanders into our military for a three to four-year period.
The concept would be hugely popular in the Pacific - we could recruit the cream. We would not be poaching or cherrypicking the best of the islands’ security personnel but recruiting the best and brightest from the street.
As an example of the appetite to serve, Vanuatu recently had more than 4000 applications for 20 advertised positions in its paramilitary force. For every military vacancy advertised in Fiji, there is a huge response from would-be recruits. This isn’t about a unilateral brawn or brain-drain, but a scheme that would be developed in co-operation with the Pacific Islands.
We’d certainly want to vet individuals for their abilities, their dependability and their commitment. We should advertise vacancies in the relevant island country and conduct interviews in those states.
We would need to prepare the ground with the regional governments before recruiting in their country. (The British include in-country training before Fijian recruits leave for Britain.)
The rule now is that you have to be an Australian citizen before you can enlist, or — in certain circumstances, for “high priority” jobs — you can be a permanent resident nearing citizenship and your application can be fast-tracked. Most of our overseas military recruits and lateral transfers come from Britain, the US, New Zealand and Canada.
We could relax that provision without implying that this might be some kind of “guest worker” scheme. The military recruitment scheme would develop powerful people-to-people links with our military that would last a lifetime. There’s no greater bonding experience than a recruit course followed by active military service.
Skills transfer and remittances back to home countries would be hugely beneficial to the islands. Our Defence Force conducts world-class training and skills in everything from medicine and engineering to all trades, leadership and management.
Returning veterans would bring all these skills and attitudes back to their homes. Many would join home security services, government, business or politics, further strengthening institutional links between Australia and the Pacific.
Citizenship might even be offered on completion of service. Some, not all, would stay in Australia, thus boosting the very low number of Pacific people in our country. The ADF already has programs that recognise the unique characteristic of our indigenous people. These could be adapted for those from the Pacific. (More generally, we should leverage the historic and cultural connections between our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Pacific Islanders, to more fully embrace the Pacific family idea.)
Importantly, the benefit for the ADF is not just about numbers. Defence is well aware of the value of “soft skills” such as cultural awareness and languages. Indeed, for the Pacific step-up to work, these are needed across Australian government institutions.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to generate this in the ADF than by having servicemen and women work every day side by side with their Pacific cousins, whether in Australia, on deployment throughout the Indo-Pacific or in the islands themselves.
And having Pacific islanders being part of the delivery of Australian programs to Pacific states, whether training, aid, or disaster relief, will make that engagement much more effective for us all.