Tone deaf: Australia missing the beat in the Pacific

Radio silence has no listeners

Mark Wilson

PHOTO: Photo by Panos Sakalakis on Unsplash

Society and culture, International relations, Development | Pacific, Australia

26 February 2020

Australian influence in the Pacific is being prevented from reaching its full potential by a flawed program of aid and outreach, Mark Wilson writes.

Politically, culturally and economically, the South Pacific continues to grow in importance to Australia. Despite this, regional engagement is increasingly characterised by dysfunction, as the government’s posture on climate change is increasingly at odds with the reality faced by Pacific states. This is the best way to diminish our own voice, at a time where being heard is integral to our foreign policy strategy.

Australia’s diplomacy in this region relies heavily on ‘soft power’, or the ability for a nation to use its attractive qualities rather than military force to influence others; a sentiment that has calcified within the bureaucracy, gaining its own chapter in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and subsequent government review.

Indeed, there are positive indications that this strategy has merit. Australia’s partnerships have strong foundations built off deep cultural, diplomatic, and sporting ties to the Pacific. Moreover, proximity provides education opportunities and access to Australia’s world-class academic institutions, increasing the prospects of these are all essential elements of our soft power capabilities.

However, we are losing our way. Australia’s stance on climate change has left Pacific Island states disillusioned, and in spite of our cultural connections and political ties, they are increasingly turning toward potential competitors such as China.

What’s more, the government is overlooking an essential aspect of its soft power capabilities, in its disregard for a greater Australian media presence in the Asia-Pacific.

State-funded international broadcasting is a highly effective way of spreading influence, as it allows for the promotion of a state’s culture, values and perspective on world issues, and creates a direct link with foreign audiences. In Australia’s case in the Pacific, it also allows for broadcasting services (including emergency warnings) that target states which may be unable or unwilling to provide themselves. In an era of misinformation and media manipulation, Australian media could play a key role in cultivating greater influence.

Certainly, this used to be the case. Australia had an extensive media outreach, with Radio Australia broadcasting programs in a wide variety of languages. This was complemented by the Australia Network on TV, sharing Australia’s culture and values throughout the region.

But a bipartisan history of neglect for Australia’s international broadcasting capabilities resulted in axing the Australia Network and our shortwave radio services, still essential in disaster-prone and remote regions. Radio Australia now only broadcasts in English and Tok Pisin, limiting its ability to engage wider audiences.

Significantly, this comes as China increased its shortwave presence in the region, allowing it to fill the void.

For all its insistence on ‘persuasive’ power to influence others, ‘journalism’ – the most effective means of persuasion – did not feature once in the Soft Power report. When engagement with the Pacific is of upmost importance, our biggest disadvantage is this radio silence.

Luckily, the government is waking up to the importance of our media presence. After last year’s review of Australia’s international broadcasting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $17 million deal with FreeTV to broadcast commercial content. Though, this is much too little, much too late, and completely ignores the ABC’s capabilities, and its charter role as Australia’s international broadcaster.

Increasing funding, and hours of content, glosses over the core of the problem and seems to encapsulates the government’s broader approach in the Pacific – a refusal to listen to the voices of those who matter most.

Over the same period as Australia’s broadcasting capabilities have been reduced to a minimum, so has our reporting on the region back home. Tellingly, Australia currently has only one foreign correspondent in the Pacific, down from six in the 1970s.

Put simply, we don’t know what to broadcast to the Pacific, because we don’t fully understand the Pacific.

Media is a form of communication, and communication is a two-way affair: we must listen before we can speak. To know what to broadcast to the region, we must know what is important in the eyes of Pacific Islanders.

Thankfully, not all is lost.

In light of last year’s inquiry, and with renewed domestic attention, demand for Pacific news is growing. The Walkley Foundation’s Sean Dorney Grant encourages reporting on Pacific affairs within Australia. The Guardian has recently announced a specialist Pacific editor, covering events in the region.

This is a good start, however, there is still much work left to do. The information age opens up new opportunities for engagement, including direct access from blogs and news websites covering the region, and may provide opportunities for much-needed cultural conservation. Hard journalism delivered through accessible means is essential, but critically, it requires consistent funding.

Engagement with our neighbours in the Pacific has always been crucial for Australia’s foreign policy interests. Yet these important relationships will be better served listening to Pacific concerns and addressing their needs, rather than solely focusing on our own. Until we get this first step right, we are bound to always be on the back foot.

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