[Marxism] Aussie imperialism in the Pacific
suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Sat Apr 17 19:38:17 MDT 2004
Another bit of my survey of Australian imperialism. This bit covers
recent developments in the Pacific. - Tom O'Lincoln
Australia is a significant player in the Pacific. Its products account
for 37% of Fiji's market. In 2001-02, the Solomon Islands imported $64
million worth of Australian products - almost half of total imports -
while exporting only $2 million of goods to Australia. In 2002-03
Australia's exports to Kiribati reached $38.1 million, while our imports
from Kiribati ran to $285,000. In the Solomons, the Australian-owned
Gold Ridge has paid a miserly 3% of royalty payments to the Solomons:
1.5% to the government, 0.3% to Guadalcanal and 1.2% to indigenous
So it isn't surprising the United States has explicitly reognised this
country as the local 'police' (2) and that Canberra automatically
assumes it has the right to intervene in the Pacific.
In some ways the region's problems derive from a breakdown of the
administrative framework the Pacific colonial powers left behind. These
powers bequeathed centralist systems with a large public sector. Then in
the 1990s, imperialism began to impose neo-liberal policies. Studies by
the World Bank and ANU academics argued that the islands were not
keeping up with the 'economic miracle' experienced by their Asian
neighbours. Even worse, as the 'Pacific 2010' papers argued, growing
population pressures threatened to send them backward. The think tanks
said islanders must respond with 'Policy Management Reform' which
included massive public sector job cuts, free trade, and regressive
value-added taxes. To a considerable degree, today's Pacific malaise
results from these neo-liberal policies.
In Fiji, the government set about privatising water, provoking powerful
community resistance. In the Solomons, prime minister Bartholomew
Ulufa'alu implemented a Canberra-backed program of public sector job
cuts and privatisation. Ulufa'alu then fell to a police-backed coup in
In June 2002, the Solomons government asked the IMF, the World Bank and
'donor' countries for a substantial injection of funds. However,
Canberra led the charge in demanding, in return, a further slashing of
jobs and government spending. That same month, Honiara ceded control of
its finances with the appointment of a New Zealand 'public sector and
economic reform' consultant, Lloyd Powell, as permanent secretary of
Thus the neo-liberal economic policy imperialism of the nineties
provided the pretext for neo-conservative direct political intervention
in the following decade.
Another factor was the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, which led to a
withdrawal of Malaysian capital. As the country's economy deteriorated,
tensions grew between Guadalcanal people and new settlers, particularly
from Malaita, drawn to Honiara by its better economy. In 1999
Guadalcanal militants took control of the countryside around the
capital, followed by the emergence of the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF). On
5 June 2000 MEF militants and disaffected police staged the first of a
series of coups. A pattern of warlordism ensued.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute provided the rationale for
Australian intervention in the Solomons. Its 2002 report Beyond Bali had
already remarked: 'Australian policy since decolonisation has
consistently stressed the need to allow these countries to manage their
own problems... It seems that as far as our Melanesian relationships are
concerned, this approach will no longer work.' (3)
In 2003, a report called 'Our Failing Neighbour' followed. (4) It
argued that the Solomons were a 'failing state', and suggested a
'sustained and comprehensive multinational effort, which, with the
consent of Solomon Islands, would undertake a two-phase program to
rehabilitate the country.' Referring specifically to the situation
'post-September 11', the report said that 'state failure is now one of
the key issues on the international security agenda.' John Howard and
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer quickly embraced the logic and
extended it to other islands.
The initial intervention in the Solomons, dubbed 'Helpem Fren' (helping
a friend) went off without a hitch. It opened up lucrative opportunities
for Australian capital, including a prison management contract for Kerry
Packer's GRM International, media magnate Kerry Packer. This in turn
laid the basis for intervention in Papua New Guinea. In the Solomons,
Australian troops spearheaded the action, but more significant in the
longterm was the arrival of Australian administrators to take over key
posts in the state machine. Howard secured formal endorsement of this by
the Pacific Islands Forum, but the element of strong-arming became
apparent when Howard imposed Australian Greg Urwin as Secretary General
of the Forum against stiff opposition.
Papua New Guinea is vastly more important for Australian imperialism.
Australian capital owns almost half the PNG economy with $2.3 billion
investment in a country with a GDP of $1.2 billion. Australia has a 52%
share of total [PNG] imports. (5)
The 2002 budget featured huge tax exemptions for mining companies paid
for by drastic cuts to education and other public services. PNG is the
world's fourth-largest gold producer, and the Australian government is
keen to ensure mining companies have maximum freedom to operate. But
these companies have provoked opposition in the past, partly for the
environmental destruction they cause.
CRA/Rio Tinto's $US1.3 billion project, the Lihir Gold mine each year
disposes of 110 million cubic metres of cyanide-contaminated waste and
20 million tonnes of rock waste in the ocean in one of the richest areas
of marine biodiversity on the planet. BHP dumped its mining waste into
the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers, ruining local subsistence farmers. The
company then pressured the PNG government to pass legislation absolving
it from claims arising from the mine's operation. From 1972 to 1988 Rio
Tinto's Panguna copper mine on Bougainville turned sections of the Jaba
and Kawerong river valleys into a wasteland, devastating local fish
supplies and causing respiratory ailments.
At one point Panguna provided 40%of PNG's export earnings and 20 % of
government revenue - all under BHP's control. (6)
When Rio Tinto's activities on Bougainville provoked a civil war,
Canberra provided helicopters and other military aid to help the PNG
government crush the rebels. Later when the Howard Govenrment decided to
look for a peace deal, it began twisting arms in Port Moresby -
whereupon hawk elements in PNG brought in mercenaries from Sandline
International. This provoked a mutiny in the armed forces. Then Canberra
began demanding neo-liberal reforms to the economy,. The pressure
mounted until the PNG government accepted calls for privatisation from
the International Advisory Group headed by Professor Ross Garnaut, who
also happened to be chairman of Lihir Gold.
But haven't these 'failed states' lost control; haven't they squandered
aid? ASPI says their 'continued viability
is now uncertain', so don't
they need Australians to come in and fix things?
While there are serious problems in some places, we shouldn't
generalise. Most Polynesian and Micronesian states haven't experienced
ethnic conflicts as in the Solomons or Fiji. Many of their difficulties,
conversely, also afflict the rest of the world, including unemployment,
sex tourism and HIV. Some regimes are repressive and corrupt, but on the
other hand Fiji's 1997 constitution has better human rights provisions
than our own. The Bishop of Malaita wrote at the time of the Solomons
intervention that 'as someone who has lived safely [there]
I would say
that the Solomon Islands have serious eocnomic and security problems but
they are not in a state of anarchy and chaos.' (7)
Australian Government aid goes to agreed AusAID programs, so there is
often little scope for the local government to misuse it. Much of the
aid program is delivered by Australian companies driven by the profit
motive, giving rise to persistent complaints that it's really a
'boomerang' program diverting most of the benefits back to Australia.
Some very respectable government sources take such complaints seriously.
(8) This 'Tied Aid' is AusAID policy, which states that the prime
objective of the aid program is Australia's 'national interest'. (9)
While World Bank Head James Wolfensohn says tied aid is 20 - 25 % more
costly than untied, (10) that is presumably not a critical consideration
when the prime objective is the Australian 'national interest' rather
than helping PNG.
In PNG since the late 90s over $120 million has gone to strengthen the
police. When we hear of Australian aid to the military and the cops, we
should remember these are not exactly benign forces; think of the coups
in Fiji as well as the Solomons.
But isn't PNG falling apart? Our media are full of tales about violent
Raskols, headhunters and corruption. However AusAID Director Bruce
Davies suggested that life expectancy has risen, infant mortality has
declined and adult literacy has improved; while retiring head of the
Pacific Islands Forum, Noel Levi told Radio Australia that lawlessness
in Port Moresby was similar to big Australian cities: 'The law and order
situation was worse a few years ago, but PNG has worked its way through
Much of the criminality that does exist is clearly linked to poverty.
Over 70% of inmates at Port Moresby's main prison are from Goilala
province, one the most undeveloped areas of the country, but one into
which AusAID puts relatively few resources.
We have yet to see what form resistance to the new imperialist phase
will take. Because Canberra made its opening moves in the Solomons,
where it could expect considerable acceptance and even support, there
was initially not much questioning of it in Australia nor much direct
resistance in the islands. But there is potential for that to change.
The campaign against privatisation in Fiji - including an alliance of
trade unions, NGOs and churches against privatisation of water - was a
factor in bringing the opposition Labor Party to power, and despite a
subsequent coup the privatisation program has yet to be carried out. In
the Solomons, the end of warlordism brought about by Australian
intervention has allowed the trade unions to rebuild, and at the time of
writing they were considering a general strike against government
austerity plans. (12)
If imperialism is a continuing feature of Australian and its relation to
the local region, so is resistance - both at home and abroad.
1. Iggy Kim 'Howard's Pacific colonialism: who benefits?' Zmag 20 August
2. John Kerin 'You police the Pacific' The Australian 5 March 2004.
3. Australian Strategic Policy Institute Beyond Bali: ASPI's strategic
assessment 2002 Canberra, 2002,
4. Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Our failing neighbour:
Australia and the future of the Solomon Islands, Canberra 2003,
5. Susan Windybank and Mike Manning, Papua New Guinea on the brink, 12
March 2003, http://www.cis.org.au/IssueAnalysis/ia30/ia30.pdf
6. On Panguna see Windybank and Manning.
7. Terry Brown, 'Building a strategy for the Solomons' ,Australian
Financial Review 18 July 2003.
8. A Senate committee quoted the Australian National Audit Office as
saying: 'Australian firms and individuals under contract management to
AusAID deliver around 90% of Australia's bilateral aid program, which
accounts for some 60% of the overseas aid program'. The report added:
'These figures appear to support the view that Australian development
assistance has a boomerang effect.' Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and
Trade Committee, A Pacific engaged: Australia's relations with Papua New
Guinea and the island states of the south west Pacific, AGPS Canberra
9. AusAID 'Australia's Overseas Aid Program 2003-04: statement by
Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs 2001-02' Commonwealth
of Australia, 13th May 2001.
10. James Wolfensohn, 'Address to the Board of Governors of the World
Bank Group', Washington,. September 29 2002
11. Australian Financial Review, 5 September 2003; Radio Australia, 23
12. On labour movements in the islands, see Clive Moore, Jacqueline
Leckie and Doug Monroe (eds), Labour in the South Pacific, James Cook
University, Townsville 1990. For information on resistance and on the
Pacific more generally I am grateful to Nic Maclellan.
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