Pacific island nations, like many others in the Asia Pacific, face a long and challenging road to recovery out of COVID-19. Australia’s ‘stepped-up’ Pacific engagement must recalibrate, with a renewed emphasis on strengthening trade and business relations in ways that respond to Pacific priorities, while providing a boost to recovery now and into the long term. This seemed to be the core message to emerge from the trade-subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade’s report: “One Region, One Family, One Future: Deepening relations with the Pacific nations through trade”. Released last month nearly two years after the inquiry was launched, the report offers a timely reminder that for Australia, improving trade with Pacific island nations is not a zero-sum equation. Gains will flow in both directions. 

The report is wide-ranging in its scope. It covers trade, biosecurity, labour mobility, the role of the media, enhanced people-to-people links, and more. It draws on over 50 written submissions and the sub-committee heard from more than 90 witnesses during its proceedings.

The recommendations put forward by the committee are generally well framed. It will be instructive to see how they compare with recommendations arising from other inquiries, including the inquiry into strengthening relationships between Australia and the Pacific islands region. Integrating the recommendations from  the collection of Pacific focused reports that we can expect in the near future is a challenge that will no doubt rest with Australia’s Office of the Pacific. Set up in 2019 within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2019 the OTP’s mission is to ‘support Australia’s deepening engagement with the Pacific, to enhance whole-of-government coordination and to drive implementation of our regional activities, consistent with the priorities of Pacific countries’.

Many of the key messages that are contained in One Region, One Family, One Future are reflective of work that has been done at the Pacific Hub of the Griffith Asia Institute, including by way of a policy brief that was developed based on our submission to this inquiry.

Advancing the case for kava

A key area of interest to us here at the Pacific Hub is what the committee has said in relation to kava and its importation into Australia. Perhaps the most telling comment appears in the Foreword of the report:

Like some Australians, the sub-committee was not fully aware of the deep cultural and economic significance of drinking the ceremonial beverage of kava to the people of many Pacific island countries and their diaspora living in Australia. Members welcomed any moves to expand a regulated market in Australia for the safe consumption of kava and opening up to trade opportunities

It is certainly heartening to read that Australian parliamentarians have learned more about Pacific culture and economic activity, including as it plays out in their own country. Let’s hope it prompts a desire to learn more as a way of building Pacific literacy among Australian policy makers and indeed the community at large.

More specifically, the committee has recommended that:

… the Australian Government prioritises the activation of greater trade and investment with countries of the Pacific by:

Assisting interested governments of the Pacific island countries to join Australia’s kava commercial importation pilot and for the pilot to consider the feasibility of classifying kava as a food under a joint standard of Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

Reading this recommendation may lead some to believe that the commercial importation pilot referred to here is actually underway. This is not the case. The trial which was supposed to commence in 2019 was delayed until 2020 and then delayed further because of COVID-19. As things currently stand, it is expected to become operational in March 2022. However, there are no details available as to what this means. There is no application process for people who might want to become importers. Exporters in Pacific island countries do not know what they must do in terms of packaging, labelling, etc. This is making people nervous of doing much by way of planning or investing. Also disappointing in this regard, is the fact that the committee has not recommended the adoption of a “kava bubble”. This would allow for people in Australia to have their personal allowance (4kg per adult) of kava mailed to them in lieu of bringing it back as part of their luggage which is currently impossible given that no-one can travel to the Pacific.

Stepping up on support

Quite separately to the focus on trade interactions, the report makes a substantial reference to the support structures and networks in underpinning and sustaining trade opportunities. The Committee clearly recognised the breadth of enabling activity in play and the significance of linking business, civil society and diaspora communities—in providing the necessary infrastructure to support and strengthen the Australian-Pacific trade relations.

Sport and sporting linkages between Australia and Pacific island nations are presented as an important feature in this landscape, with the $52 million PacificAus Sports program highlighted as its centrepiece. Born from a political and policy alignment between the Pacific Step-Up and Sports Diplomacy 2030, PacificAus Sports aims to develop pathways for Pacific teams and athletes to compete in Australian and international competition while increasing the presence of Australian teams and athletes in the Pacific, and supporting opportunities for emerging athletes. It is an important framework that taps into concepts of national prestige on one level but also offers the chance for advancing positive (non-sport) outcomes within communities.

The significance of sport as a vehicle for delivering soft power outcomes with real impact was certainly evident through the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Griffith University’s contribution to this landscape through the GAPS (Gather, Adjust, Prepare and Sustain) program, delivered in partnership with Commonwealth Games Federation is worth noting. That program, which ultimately supported a number of Pacific athletes all the way to the winners’ podium, reinforced the long-term impact of sport as a vehicle for shifting perceptions while changing lives and livelihoods.

With wider support, in particular from the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), GAPS has now gone global, and will be a key feature of the Commonwealth Games program leading into Birmingham 2022. Born out of early aspirations to ensure an inclusive 2018 Gold Coast Games it provides a useful multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral model of Australian sports diplomacy in action. Building on its sports diplomacy foundations, GAPS offers distinct and proven pathways to deepen Australia’s Pacific sporting ties—in ways that reflect Pacific priorities and aspirations—in the lead up to, and as a legacy from Brisbane 2032. We hope — as Australia’s newly appointed Sports Envoy for the 2032 Brisbane Olympic and Paralympic Games — Ted O’Brien, MP will take note.

Of course, sport should not represent the sum total of supporting networks and people-to-people connections between Australia and Pacific island nations. The report does well to highlight a range of important supports including education and business upskilling, and engaging Church networks. It is striking though in a report of this nature that the significance of the arts and cultural practice is not mentioned. This is a persistent gap in Australia’s policy of engagement towards the Pacific islands region. Those who know the region understand how deeply embedded artistic endeavours and cultural practices are in their nature and conduct of informal and formal interactions between peoples and communities of the region, including when it comes to business. It’s a point that is poignantly made in the Women’s Wealth Project presented by the Queensland Art Gallery I Gallery of Modern Art through the ninth Asia Pacific Triennial of Visual Art (APT).

Queensland’s Pacific advantage

The report’s final recommendation is one that has resonance for us at the Pacific Hub. In this recommendation, the sub-committee highlights the very particular role for Queensland in relation to the further strengthening of Australia’s relationships with Pacific island countries. As the report rightly notes there is a lot more work to be done at all levels of government to capitalise on Queensland’s potential to be Australia’s “Pacific state”.

The place of Queensland and Queensland’s Pacific diasporas in the future of Australia’s relationships with the Pacific has been something we have highlighted since before we established the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute. In our “Queensland and the Pacific” series, we are working to provide greater insight into the many facets of the state’s existing relationships with Pacific countries and communities. We are looking forward to being part of these conversations going forward.


Professor Caitlin Byrne is the Director, Griffith Asia Institute and Dr Tess Newton Cain is the Project Lead, Pacific Hub.