Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ignoring the neighbours – why our backyard matters

My trip to Tahiti last year reminded me of the large issues swirling around the Pacific and of how uneven the relationship between Australia and the region has been. It threw up lots of issues about how local cultures adapt to the globalised economy. Producing artwork and performances for the tourist market is problematical. Yet it's also the fate of Australian culture generally. Is it swimming against the tide for all of us?

Apart from the immediate enjoyment, the trip made me think a lot about globalisation and our relationship to the Pacific. Polynesians trying to reposition their culture as part of the economy of the contemporary world reminded me of our attempts to maintain a distinctive Australian culture in a world awash with the products of other, larger cultures.

Our guide, a retired fire dancer who spoke four and a half languages, pointed to a hedge which used to provide tattooing ink for a practice invented by the Tahitians and described by a word from their language which had travelled the world. Now the ink, like that in his tattoos, came from China.

Canary in the coalmine
The Pacific islanders are also like the canary in the coalmine for us – the early effects of climate change will reach them earlier and they are in effect an early warning system which we neglect to our detriment.

Amongst all the focus last year on the destruction of the Malaysian Airlines plane over the Ukraine and the response of the Australian Government something had troubled me. It was about substance and hard work building closer cultural ties with our Pacific neighbours – where Australia has real sway and real opportunities – rather than short term posturing and attention-seeking.

It’s a positive thing when Australia engages internationally and tries to have an impact on matters of international significance. Its increasingly these big international issues that affect Australia most. After all we were briefly on the Security Council and we have over the last few years managed to establish a place in important international economic forums where matters that affect Australia are determined.

The Pacific islanders are also like the canary in the coalmine for us – the early effects of climate change will reach them earlier and they are in effect an early warning system which we neglect to our detriment.

However, beyond the fact that Australians were on the downed plane and we inevitably had a stake in what happened next, I’m not convinced that the fraught relationship beween Russian and the Ukraine was one of the international matters that are a high priority for us. While the mainstream media seemed happy to play up how effective Prime Minister Abbott had been at intimidating Vladimir Putin, I think that was more about spin and wishful thinking than reality.

The low stone walls of a marae sacred enclosure with local wild fowls.

Amongst all this it was announced that, as a result of the crisis produced by the destruction of the plane, Prime Minister Abbott would not be attending the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau at the end of July last year. This was a missed opportunity for the Australian Government. The visit would have been Abbott's first chance to meet Pacific leaders since the election of the Coalition government in September last year to discuss many regionally important issues. Instead Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss was chosen to lead the Australian delegation with Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason.

Uneven history
This means that for two years in a row the Prime Minister of Australia was not present at the forum. Australia is extremely important to the Pacific and, unlike Europe, this is somewhere where we can play a constructive and valuable role with close neighbours, in a hot spot for cultural diversity. Many Australian cultural organisations, such as museums, are very active there. Yet the Australian Government has an uneven history in the Pacific.

The Government missed the opportunity to deliver on the promise of a new, closer and more strategic and thoughtful involvement with the region, particularly the strengthening of cultural ties and exchanges. This closer involvement was signalled by the new Government both while in opposition and since it came to power last year. While Australia was still represented at the forum, Pacific leaders would have been looking for personal contact with the Prime Minister on key issues and relationships.

It seems to be in the nature of this Government to be more interested in grandstanding – rattling swords and enlisting to fight – in Europe, where we are not likely to have a big impact – than in the less glamorous hard slog of building productive relationships with our near neighbours where real and lasting gains could be made. There were hints of moves underway last year to play a more active role in the Pacific. Let’s hope this develops further this year. As Pacific neighbours we have much to learn from each other and much to mutually contribute.

See also

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research 
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The island to the North - the islands to the North East
'The awkward relationship between Tasmania and the island to the North is not the only clumsy relationship between islands in this part of the world. The history of the ties between the island to the North and the islands of the Pacific is even more troubled. It’s a tale of disappointments and neglect, misunderstandings and myopia, of big and small stumbling into each other.' The island to the North - the islands to the North East.

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