Chances are that the people at Free TV were quite relieved to hear that if Senator Penny Wong is Australia’s next foreign minister, she will be scrapping the Morrison plan to give them $17 million to broadcast Married at First Sight and other reality TV gems to the Pacific. They never asked for that money and they were up front about saying they didn’t really know what to do with it.
The new government would be wise to adopt this position, regardless of the lineup. Better to commit to restoring full international broadcasting services to the Asia Pacific region, including all the now integral digital offerings. Submissions by the Supporters of Australian Broadcasting to the Asia Pacific to recent government inquiries (yet to report) provide a roadmap for this.
When the dust settles on the election, and minds turn to the business of government, foreign policy will be waiting. And front and centre will be Australia’s relationships with the countries nearest to it: those in the Pacific islands region.
How Australia conducts itself in the Pacific islands region is something that Australian voters and taxpayers need to know a lot more about. Not only are the peoples of the Pacific their closest neighbours geographically, but significant resources that they pay for are deployed in the region – with more anticipated, whichever party forms government later this month. The incoming government has a responsibility to properly resource public service broadcasters to meet this need.
But if we are going to move beyond business as usual, a fundamental shift in thinking is required. One that positions Australia in the Pacific islands region, not alongside it. Whilst we have seen political leaders on both sides strive to modify how they talk about the Pacific (use of ‘our backyard’ is finally on the wane thankfully), the underlying tone remains one of ‘us’ and ‘them’. And for as long as this remains the case, Australia will struggle to establish and maintain the sorts of deep, nuanced and mutually supportive relationships that are essential to ensuring the security and prosperity of our part of the world.
The Senator’s comment made further to her address to the Lowy Institute on Wednesday was the most significant indication that on the Labor side of politics, there is some serious thinking happening about how to get Australia back into the conversation when it comes to the Pacific.
The best way to be well and truly IN the Pacific is for Australia to be back in the conversation via refreshed and reinvigorated international broadcasting. A lack of resources and commitment to covering Pacific stories means that a trusted voice is missing and is in danger of being forgotten. The almost invisible media coverage of recent riots in Solomon Islands (that followed the swearing-in of a new Prime Minister after the first elections since the departure of the Australian-led regional assistance mission (RAMSI)) again highlights the need for the restoration of funding to Australia’s multi-platform broadcast voice in the region.
While numerous countries are pouring unprecedented amounts into overseas broadcasting services (Radio New Zealand, BBC World, China’s CCTV, Al Jazeera) Australia has little or no voice in the Asia Pacific region and is becoming more irrelevant. We are at risk of losing forever our greatest soft power tool – that of an international broadcasting voice.
There are so many conversations in the Pacific that Australia can and should be a part of. But over time a perception has grown that Australia doesn’t care and an Australian voice is becoming an ever more distant memory. Whoever is Australia’s next foreign minister has an opportunity to reverse this trend before it is too late.