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Foreign policy is domestic policy: Why Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand should aid The Pacific

By Taylor Tutawa Mclaren

Te Moananui a Kiwa (or Kiva/Hiva) – the Great Ocean of Kiwa – is what Pasifika communities call the Pacific Ocean. It is the name that encompasses a region connected by a shared history of voyaging across the ocean and made unique by the rich variety of languages, cultures and traditions that breathe life into a collective consensus.

And it is with this collective consensus that we must help each other in times of need and crisis. Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are leaders in the Pacific region with an economic advantage and resource output that surpasses any other Pacific country.

It is this advantage that gives both countries a responsibility to lend aid and support to their Pasifika neighbours – as showcased in their responses to the recent crisis in Tonga.

The devastating underwater volcanic eruption in the Kingdom of Tonga has had unprecedented consequences for both the local community and Tongan diaspora groups across the Pacific. On the 14th of January, Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai Volcano erupted, causing wide-reaching ripples across the Pacific.

Tongatapu, the main inhabited island of the Kingdom of Tonga, was badly affected: tsunamis crashed through the shorelines and ash blanketed the island. Multiple deaths have been confirmed so far. NASA says the volcanic eruption itself was more powerful than an atomic bomb.

This tragic event is the most recent of a continuous cycle of environmental disasters plaguing the Pacific region. Many countries have lent aid (whether through aid personnel, resources or finance) but Australia and Aotearoa specifically have aided Tonga as they have helped other Pasifika countries before.

Three flights from Australia landed in Tonga on January 23rd, delivering food and water supplies alongside telecommunications equipment. In Tāmaki Makaurau - Auckland, NZ the local Tongan community gathered in Mt Smart Stadium by the thousands for a collection drive, donating supplies to be sent to Tonga to help families in need. An estimated 25 shipping containers were filled with shopping supplies to a value of NZD$1.5m, provided by local Tongan families, as well as charities and members of the public.

New Zealand politician, Dr Shane Reti, contacted entrepreneur Elon Musk to request Musk’s assistance with re-establishing an internet connection in Tonga.

This response from both countries showcases Pacific countries working together for the greater good: to help a country in need.

But even before the tragedy in Tonga, Australia (for example) had a significant development assistance relationship with Tonga. Australia is providing funding of between AUD$20m and $35.6m to support health security, economic recovery and stability in Tonga for 2021-22 alone. In addition to bilateral relationships, institutes like the Pacific Islands Forum also help foster ties between the Pacific countries, including Australia and Aotearoa NZ.

The counter-argument could be made, however, that countries should be focused on their own population and domestic issues. But that is easier said than done.

Aotearoa NZ has a significant population of Pasifika communities, with approximately 382,000 Pasifika people in the country in 2018. The Ministry for Pacific People was established in 1990 as part of the New Zealand Government to work with the growing Pasifika community. In modern times, Aotearoa NZ is a multicultural country that embraces its Pasifika communities with cultural events, national language weeks for Pacific languages and established Pasifika-led organisations in every industry, from media to the arts and beyond.

It would be hypocritical to work extensively with Pacific communities on the home front but neglect our Pacific neighbours across the sea.

Another reason for Australia and Aotearoa to lend aid to Pasifika countries is that both owe a historical debt to many of those same countries.

While being former British colonial possessions themselves, both Australia and New Zealand (indigenous populations aside) are marked by colonial exploits against many Pacific countries, often resulting in conflict, disease and death for local populations.

One notable example can be found in the early 20th century when Australia gained control of regions in New Guinea island and governed over the local populace for decades before Papua New Guinea was given independence in 1975. During the early days of colonisation, Australian officials would imbue ‘traditional’ British customs on the local populace and indigenous people were worked under extreme conditions on local plantations.

Another is the Mau (Samoan Independence) Movement, and New Zealand’s attempts to suppress it. New Zealand Government officials were dispatched to Samoa to sway the local population to stop all forms of support for the Mau Movement. New Zealand police officers were also sent to stem the growing tide of protests, culminating in what is now known as Black Sunday – a tragic event that saw NZ police open fire on a crowd of Samoan protesters, killing eight people.

But why should you care? Is there relevance to you at all?

Yes. These movements are not just relegated to the depths of history but are relevant today too. Movements like Free West Papua and Hawaiian Sovereignty polarise public opinion and support from the international community.

In a world of rampaging global pandemics and environmental disasters, can we afford to become isolated and inwardly obsessed? Is it survival of the fittest? Or are we capable of working collectively to empower each other to benefit the entire Pacific region?

Only time will tell.


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