Imperialist of the South
Pacific - Australia
by Sandra Bloodworth
International Socialist Review,
In March 2003, Australian Prime Minister
John Howard caused a furor in Asia with an arrogant speech in
which he declared that Australia would use preemptive strikes
against "terrorists" in the Asia-Pacific region. Malaysia's
New Straits Times denounced him as "Uncle Sam's foremost
flunky." George W. Bush strengthened this popular image of
Howard by referring to him as his sheriff, but Howard is no flunky
Australia might be a minor power on the
world stage, but it is a regional imperialist power in its own
In July 2003,2,000 Australian police and
army personnel invaded the tiny nation of the Solomon Islands-with
a population of fewer than 500,000 people-in an attack patronizingly
named Operation Helpem Fren. In December, the Australian government
announced that 250 armed police "will spearhead an ambitious
$2.4 billion, five-year package in a bid to bring stability to
Papua New Guinea (PNG)." Bougainville, where an independence
movement has been combating the ravages of mining since the 1980s,
will be the first area invaded.
Senior Australian bureaucrats will take
control of key areas of government such as finance and the police.
An Australian will be appointed PNG's solicitor general and 20
Australians will be appointed to key legal posts as prosecutors
and senior judges.
Prime Minister Michael Somare opposed
this takeover as an assault on PNG's sovereignty. But threatened
with the withdrawal of $350 million in aid- 20 percent of their
budget-plus ongoing political interference by the Australian government,
Somare's cabinet overruled him. He was not present at the high
profile ministerial meeting in early December where the necessary
"agreement" was ratified.
The Australian government will "improve
efficiency''-code for savage cuts to government spending that
Australia, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World
Bank have been trying to enforce since 1997.
Australia has the biggest economy and
military in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Australian business
interests control half of Fiji's economy, they dominate PNG, East
Timor and the Solomon Islands and have a powerful presence in
But profits are not the only, or at times
the main, concern of Australian big business and government. Australia's
history is a narrative of racist fear of the "yellow hordes"
and recurring fears of "instability." From the earliest
days of the British invasion, budding capitalists-insecure in
a white colonial settler state so close to Asia-were intent on
expanding their control over the region to keep out potential
rivals such as France and Germany. The potential rivals today
are China, Japan and India.
Admitting their weakness, Australian strategists
have always looked to an alliance with a superpower to guarantee
Australia's security and right to plunder surrounding countries.
Australia has always participated in the wars of Britain and,
since 1945, the wars of the U.S. as well, and has often been more
hawkish than the superpower. In the 1960s, Australia begged the
U.S. to be allowed to send Australian troops to Vietnam.
In 120 years, the rhetoric has hardly
changed. In 1883, the Age, an opinion-forming daily in Melbourne
to this day, argued that it was "important to Australia that
New Guinea should be annexed...England can afford to disregard
the extension of French colonies...[but] our security is at stake...we
shall have to intimate unmistakably that no foreign annexations
will be permitted...south of the [equatorial] line."
In 2000, a defense policy paper declared:
"Australia has a vital interest in supporting long-term U.S.
strategic engagement in Asia and in helping prevent destabilizing
strategic competition among the regional powers."
Bush's "war on terror" has both
added to fear of "instability" and provided the excuse
for direct colonial domination of Pacific nations suffering economic
and social crisis. A recent paper from the Australian overseas
aid program AusAID, "Papua New Guinea and the Pacific: A
development perspective," argues that Australian aid should
be contingent on governments carrying out "reforms"
demanded by Australia. A columnist in the Age even gloated that
the "one good thing to come from the carnage of Bali was
a needed reminder [that] we live right next to an 'arc of instability."'
He went on to propound what has become the consensus in defense
circles: "the post-colonial period of benign neglect- we
try scrupulously to mind our own business in recognition of the
fledgling countries' sovereignty-has given way to a period of...hands-on
involvement." This means "sending people rather than
money-police, military, even economists and accountants-to help
sort things out.... Suddenly we mean business-which is great."
Howard has been at pains to deny any "kind
of colonial hangover." But he wants to maintain "stability"
and ensure Australian companies' control of rich timber, mining
and other resources. On July 1, 2003, he declared that since "rogue
and failed states" too often become a base for "terrorists
and transnational criminals," Australia should "take
remedial action and take it now."
Defense strategists fear that instability-anything
from independence and democracy movements, or civil wars and the
Bali terrorist bombing-can encourage rebellions, people smugglers
and a passport black market, making it possible for refugees to
hop borders. To say nothing of problems for multinationals when
state institutions no longer provide the infrastructure for investment.
A defense paper points out that Australian profits in the Solomon
Islands have fallen from $99 million in 1999 to $55 million in
That there is a crisis in the Solomon
Islands is beyond dispute. After over a century of plunder, they
were granted independence from Britain in 1978, but remained economically
dependent on Australia and New Zealand. The Solomon Islands' rich
natural resources attracted Australian companies such as the Gold
Ridge Mining Company, which accounted for over 25 percent of the
Islands' Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) before it suspended operations
in 2000. Yet despite this natural wealth, dose to 95 percent of
the population live in desperate poverty.
In response to requests for economic aid
after the Asian economic collapse of 1997-98, the Howard government
demanded the implementation of a "structural adjustment"
program prescribed by the IMF and the World Bank. The impact of
the inevitable savage cuts to health and education spending and
the slashing of public-sector jobs was devastating. Yet for the
last three years, the only response of the Howard government to
an unfolding disaster has been to bully successive Solomon Islands'
governments into making further cuts to social spending. Flatly
rejecting pleas for $37 million in desperately needed aid in January
2002, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer warned
Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza of dire consequences if he failed
to restore "law and order."
Howard and Downer exploited the very crisis
they helped to create as a pretext for invasion. Australian troops-
granted full immunity for any actions taken in restoring law and
order under special legislation at Howard's insistence-will remain
in the Solomon Islands for at least 10 years.
PNG is the world's fourth-largest gold
producer. Untrammelled access to this wealth is a powerful motivation
for Australia to maintain its influence there. Mining giant, Rio
Tinto (formerly known as CRA) has a $1.3 billion project, the
Lihir Gold mine, which pumps millions of cubic meters of cyanide-contaminated
waste into the sea every year in one of the richest areas of marine
biodiversity on earth. BHP, an Australian multinational, dumped
their mining waste into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers, ruining the
lives of thousands of subsistence farmers. Then BHP helped draw
up legislation-imposed on a PNG parliament fearful of losing export
revenue- which absolved BHP "from all and any demands and
claims arising directly or indirectly from the operation of the
The activities of Rio Tinto at their Panguna
copper mine on Bougainville from 1972-1988 that turned fertile
Jaba and Kawerong river valleys into wastelands provoked a civil
war. The then Australian Labor government provided helicopters
and other military aid to help the PNG government crush the movement
for Bougainvillean independence.
A twisted logic infests all the demands
made by Australia because their agenda is to ensure "law
and order," "stability" and investment, not to
solve the human problems of these nations. PNG is a "failed
state," with endemic lawlessness. The World Bank admits that
the level of crime is a result of the growing numbers of unemployed
youth living in squalor on the city fringes. The solution? Cut
back government spending-which will mean virtually no health service,
and education cuts when one in three are illiterate. Condemn thousands
more to unemployment in order to make enterprises like Air Niugini,
Telikom and Post PNG profitable. The inevitable social unrest
justifies more pressure for "reform" or even military
"PNG's dysfunctional institutions,"
the justification for the Australian takeover, are the result
of decades of Australian colonial rule. They were built to serve
the mining, trading and plantation interests that dominate the
economy. Most of PNG remains inaccessible by road, 37 percent
live below the poverty line, infant mortality rates are 54.84
per 1,000 live births compared with 4.83 in Australia. Australian
capital owns almost half the economy with $2.3 billion investment
in a country with a GDP of $1.2 billion. Last year's budget was
dictated by Australia. Its centerpiece was huge tax exemptions
for mining companies paid for by drastic cuts to education and
other public services.
John Howard summed up the real, imperialist
agenda behind the recolonization of the Solomon Islands and PNG
when he pronounced "this is our part the world...this is
Sandra Bloodwoorth is a leading member
of Socialist Alternative in Australia. She lives in Melbourne.