SUBJECTS: Release of Tides That Bind: Australia in the Pacific; the importance of Australia’s relationship with the Pacific. 

RICHARD EWART, HOST: The book is called, Tides That Bind: Australia in the Pacific, and it paints a picture of what’s right and what may be going wrong with the relationship between Canberra and the Pacific Island countries. And Richard Marles joins us on Pacific Beat this morning. A very good morning to you.


EWART: I’m well, thank you. Now I’m going to go right to the end of your book, because the last paragraph you say, Australia is rightly judged by its actions in the Pacific, and we are at a crossroads as to whether that judgment will be favourable, it is imperative you say, that Australia stands up and leads in the Pacific. So do I take it, that you think at the moment leadership is lacking?

MARLES: I don’t think the Pacific plays the part in our foreign policy that it should. And I think we should lead more. And let me explain that; I think it needs to be a listening kind of leadership, which I describe in the book as well. Leadership is not about Australia telling the Pacific what it needs to be doing. In fact, quite the opposite, leadership is about listening to the Pacific and understanding what the Pacific needs, where the Pacific is going. But doing everything we can to support the Pacific in its development in pursuing prosperity and, and in focusing on the wellbeing of those people in the Pacific. And it really does need us to stand up and meet that challenge.

EWARTY: And am I right in thinking that what you’re getting at here is that Australia, if you like, is the connection between the Pacific Islands and the rest of the world? Other countries, other leaders turn to Australia to find out what’s happening in the Pacific. And perhaps they’re not necessarily getting the full picture at the moment.

MARLES: I think there is something in that description. I think Australia should aspire to be the partner of choice for countries in the Pacific. And I think when we’re at our best, that’s exactly what the Pacific wants. It wants Australia to be there and to be there in a very present way and to be there with interest. It’s not all bad. I mean, I think Australia has enormous expertise in the Pacific. And we do have a very significant presence in the Pacific already. And I think countries, beyond the Pacific, around the world do look to Australia for expertise in the Pacific and they get that. But at the same time, we could do this with much more intent. I don’t think that within the government, and it’s not really a partisan comment, this is something that’s been the case over a long period of time, there is not the focus, the intent, to see the Pacific in our foreign policy there as really central to the way in which we engage with the world. And yet it is because as I say in the book, the Pacific in many ways, and our performance within it, is Australia’s global calling card, we are judged rightly, I think, for good or for ill by how we perform in the Pacific, how we support the Pacific. And that’s really important that that judgment ends up being a good one.

EWART: You say unlocking all forms of engagement in the Pacific requires one critical key, Australia must have a credible position around action on climate change. I mean, isn’t that a difficult issue for you in the Labor Party as well? I mean, for example, coal, where do Labor stand on that? I mean, if you’re suggesting that the government’s climate change policy is not the right one. How do we sort that out?

MARLES: Well, there are obviously difficult issues in Australia that we need to grapple with in relation to climate change. I don’t think coal is the determining issue as to how Australia is performing in relation to climate change. And I certainly think that what matters is that we have meaningful action on climate change in Australia, and that we seek to reduce our emissions. And that’s certainly what we were doing during the Rudd and Gillard governments. And right now, Labor has a very firm commitment to see Australia reach zero net emissions by 2050. And that’s not been the case in relation to the current Morrison Government, and I think it is a problem that they have lacked any real commitment to meaningful action on climate change over the eight years of their term in office. And that is an issue I think, in terms of our kind of calling card within the Pacific. The Pacific wants to see Australia having a credible position in relation to our own domestic policies. But they also, I think, want us from there, be in a position to support them in telling their story to the world. And that’s a really important step that Australia needs to take. And right now we’ve go a long way to go.

EWART: Much of the focus, though, at the moment is not really on climate change and the Pacific Islands state of play as it were, I mean, there’s a lot of talk about the strategic position of the Pacific, the prospect of foreign military bases, for example. But you say the priority should be the Millennium Development Goals, because you say in the book, failure to meet those targets in education, health, for example, will leave the region behind the rest of the world economically. I mean, that’s a pretty dark forecast. I mean, how fearful are you that this could all go very badly wrong for the Pacific?

MARLES: Well, I do have concerns because, you know, the Millennium Development goals were obviously a relative measure of development between the years 2000-2015, but in that period of 15 years, the Pacific performs as badly against the Millennium Development Goals as any region in the world. And so, we extrapolate from there and obviously does paint a very difficult future if things don’t change. And that’s really, I think, got to be the fundamental challenge for Australia. We need to be focused on the development in the Pacific and social development in the welfare of the peoples of the Pacific. And the Pacific is a place of strategic interest for countries around the world. It’s definitely a place of strategic interests for Australia- I absolutely acknowledge all of that. But I guess the point I’m really trying to make is that in pursuing those interests, actually, we are much better served in making our focus the welfare of the people of the Pacific, focusing on that, trying to make sure that we can do everything we can to help the Pacific in its development, and I think the strategic side of the affairs will take care of themselves.

EWART: What about China, in the Pacific? To quote you, in the book, you say basing our actions in the Pacific on an attempt to deny China’s strategically would be an historic mistake. I mean, do you think the whole China issue is out of proportion?

MARLES: As I say, I think there is a strategic contest in the Pacific. But again, really, the point I’m making is about how we go about this. I mean, if we turn up in the Pacific and say, we’re here because we don’t want others to be here, well I don’t think we’re going to get very far. Instead, I think, actually, we need to make the focus of our relationship in the Pacific in the interests of the people of the Pacific themselves. And in doing that, we need to acknowledge that we don’t get exclusive rights to our relationships in the Pacific. The countries in the Pacific are completely entitled to build whatever relationship they want with whatever countries they want. And it’s really important that we understand that and that we come to this with some sense of humility, in a way. But I think that, you know, our interests in the Pacific, including our strategic interests in the Pacific, are best served by just focusing on our relationship with the Pacific itself and on making sure that we are there to do everything we can to support the Pacific in its development. That is the great challenge, which faces the Pacific right now. Those are the issues which are of interest to the Pacific countries themselves, obviously meeting the existential threat of climate change, but leading all the development challenges around health and education, which countries in the Pacific grapple with each and every day. And I think if we are there, with sincerity, doing everything we can to help those countries face those challenges then the sincerity will be seen for what it is by the Pacific. And I think the strategic issues will take care of themselves.

EWART: Now you’re a great believer, I think it’s fair to say in sports diplomacy. And there’s been a fair bit of Australian money invested politically in rugby league in recent times. But you’d like to see it go one step further than that, you’d like to see a Papa New Guinea team in the NRL. And I’m sure most people in Papua New Guinea would like to see that too. But interestingly, you say that this would represent the best value spend Australia could ever make in building the relationship with PNG, if they pull this off. I mean, I guess it’s up to the NRL in the first instance, but to what extent can government influence this, do you think?

MARLES: I think government could play a part. And I think governments could very much encourage the NRL down that path. Look, wouldn’t it be a fantastic day to see the Kumuls running out on the NRL pitch each and every week, fielding a team in a sport where people in PNG are completely nuts for? I mean, I’ve had the great pleasure of going to, I think it was a digicel Cup match in an opening round match in Moresby and seeing the colour and the excitement, the energy in one of those games. I know the passion in PNG for State of Origin, for example- I mean, it seems to me that you can you can fire a cannon down the main street of Moresby on the day the State of Origin is happening, no one’s there because everyone’s in front of a TV watching that game. Like this is an obvious area where we could, we should be doing more in relation to PNG. And I think that there’s a significant point here which is that, the real point of advantage that Australia has in our relationship with the Pacific is the significant affinity that a lot of countries in the Pacific feel with Australia, and PNGs love affair with rugby league is a really good example of it. But, you could have a rugby union team coming out of other parts of the Pacific- Fiji, for example, playing in that comp. There are other sports but not just sport, in education there’s a lot of people in the Pacific who have been educated in Australia, there are lots of ways in which people in the Pacific have a deep affinity with Australia, a cultural affinity, actually. And we should be thinking about how we can use every one of those cultural affinities to improve and leverage the relationships that we have with countries in the Pacific. And I think that’s a really important direction for us to go in. And I think the standout example is in fact the NRL and having a PNG team in the NRL- we should be doing everything we can to try and make that come about.

EWART:  I don’t think you’ll get a dissenting voice in Papua New Guinea on that one. Richard Marles, thank you so much for talking to us on Pacific Beat this morning. Pleasure to have you on the program.

MARLES: Thanks, Richard.


Get the latest updates
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.