Imperialist of the South Pacific - Australia

by Sandra Bloodworth

International Socialist Review, January/February 2004


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 for Bush.

Australia might be a minor power on the world stage, but it is a regional imperialist power in its own right.

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 New Zealand.

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 2002.

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 mine."

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 invasion.

"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 our patch."


Sandra Bloodwoorth is a leading member of Socialist Alternative in Australia. She lives in Melbourne.

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