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The inner circle: A larger Australia requires a strong Melanesia

The inner circle: A larger Australia requires a strong Melanesia
Published 11 Dec 2015 

This is the sixth in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Michael Fullilove's Boyer Lectures exhort Australians to think big and not shrink from their historical involvement in the big struggles of the world because of a necessary focus on the Asia Pacific.

He makes the valid point that getting Australia's house in order, including indigenous peoples in the national charter, switching from the imperial monarchy to an Australian head of state, fostering inclusion of diverse immigrants and making wise investments for a larger population will lay the foundations for external influence.

This expansive vision overlooks the immediate neighbourhood, however. There's only a paragraph about the circle of island nations to Australia's north and northeast, from Timor-Leste through the Melanesian states to Fiji and Tonga, and, while acknowledging its strategic importance, not much about developing true closeness with Indonesia.

Certainly, after turbulence around the turn of the century, what was then often called the 'arc of instability' is a lot calmer, better governed and less worrisome at the moment. But it still holds many strategic risks as well as opportunities for Australia to augment its global influence.

First the risks. Many of the inner circle nations have explosive rates of population growth, straining efforts to lift living standards, maintain food supplies and preserve the environment. [fold]

Papua New Guinea is projected to grow from its present 7.6 million people to more than 13 million by mid-century, the Solomon Islands from 611,000 to nearly1.1 million,  and Vanuatu from 271,000 to 483,000. Timor-Leste has the fastest growth of all. Its population has already risen from about 850,000 at the end of the Indonesian occupation in 1999 to an estimated 1.283 million, and on present trends could get to 2 million by 2030 or even before.

Among many of the smaller island states, high natural birth rates are offset by high emigration, but in some cases climate change and rising sea levels are making homelands less hospitable even for existing populations.

That high emigration, meanwhile, creates diaspora communities in the 'metropolitan' countries around the Pacific. Through remittances and skill acquisition this is an economic lifeline for the homelands, but high rates of crime, domestic violence and unemployment show the difficulties of settlement.

Indonesia is already well into a demographic transition that will see its population stabilise at around 300 million this century, but it has daunting challenges in avoiding urban nightmares and large-scale environmental degradation, as this year's region-wide 'haze' from forest and peatland fires warns us. Its democracy and educated discourse are threatened by corruption, militarism and religious intolerance.

Youthful, unemployed and mobile populations exposed to globalised popular culture already give us a taste of Caribbean/South American dystopias in fast-growing cities like Port Moresby, Lae, Honiara and Dili. Drug and gun running, drug-resistant TB, human trafficking and fishing boat slavery are starting to show up around our borders. Some of the region's political figures have contact with transnational organised crime. Political elites falling into self-enrichment at the expense of their populations can also be open to capture by ambitious new powers or commercial interests.

Yet these dangers shouldn't lead us to pull back behind our maritime moat (only 4km wide in the case of PNG). It calls on us to engage more deeply and invest more in the human development of the nations around us through aid, investment, organisational and professional exchanges, a vastly bigger seasonal and temporary worker scheme and frequent political contact.

For Australia, the region can be a source of young workers, a wider market, a fountain of art, a place of exploration and self-challenge.

To dispel the image of a country with self-interest lurking not far below its aid and cooperation, we could think of resetting our relationships by reviewing the maritime border arrangements made with newly emerged and shaky governments in Indonesia, Timor-Leste and PNG. Australia is not short of natural gas and fisheries. 

With Indonesia, the great symbolic statement and long-term investment about our place in this region would be agreement by our federal and state governments to make Bahasa Indonesia a compulsory subject in our primary and lower-secondary curriculums, kicked off with a teacher exchange until our near-retirement cohort of existing teachers is replenished.

Investment in knowledge to deal with the problems and conflicts of the Melanesian arc can't be as grandly simple as that, but it is vital too, at a higher level. Pacific expertise in our universities is shrinking fast. The current UN climate change conference in Paris has shown how the reproaches of the smallest island states around us can damage our standing in world diplomacy.

To be fair, both sides of politics grasp this. As Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has shown strong interest in the immediate region (the recent involvement of China in a joint anti-malaria campaign in PNG is a breakthrough) and Labor's Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek toured Pacific island states ahead of the Paris conference. 

To be a bigger country, we need to enhance our role as a 'mother ship' (along with New Zealand) supporting the more fragile vessels in the seas around us. The inner circle is where we belong.

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