When it comes to connections with the Pacific islands region, Queensland is the Australian state that can lead the way. By virtue of geography, history, demography, cultural links, sporting connections and much more, Queensland has a wealth of resources to draw on and share to build deep and meaningful relationships with the Blue Pacific continent.
Among the Australian states, Queensland is the one best placed to take the lead on expanding and deepening links with Pacific island countries. Queensland’s historical connections with the Pacific are problematised as a result of blackbirding, the legacy of which remains and requires further attention. However, the existing links between Queensland and countries in the Pacific islands region are many and varied. They provide a strong basis for future engagement and there are many opportunities to be explored and capitalised upon.
One of the biggest assets that Queensland has is the number of Pacific islanders (and those who claim Pacific islander heritage) who live in the state. Within this broad and diverse community are individuals and groups who are maintaining important links with their countries of birth and heritage. This takes many forms, including:
- remittances to support family members in Pacific island countries;
- collective action to provide support to disaster response efforts;
- developing businesses that procure primary and value-added products from home countries; and
- providing support to people from their countries who are visiting for education, work, or other purposes.
The Queensland Parliament has strong partnerships with the parliaments of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. These form the basis of visits, study tours and mutual exchanges. All of these activities provide a good introduction for Queensland parliamentarians to countries that are as easy to get to as many places in Australia (or easier). And the Queensland government has a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Papua New Guinea. This is a good starting point and there are opportunities to build on this to develop stronger relationships with that country and across the region more broadly.
There are certainly some very strong indications that in Pacific island countries, there is appetite for greater engagement with Queensland. When the Hon. Jeremiah Manele, Foreign Minister of Solomon Islands came to open his country’s Consulate General in 2019, he referred to Brisbane as “Solomon Islands’ gateway to Australia”. This was a nice dovetail to PM Scott Morrison’s speech at Lavarack Barracks in 2018, where he described Queensland as the ‘gateway’ for Australia’s Pacific step-up.
Since then, we have already seen that Queensland will play a pivotal role in supporting an increased focus on regional security as a defence industry hub.
There are several business councils that work to promote business linkages with Pacific island countries, and they all have their secretariat in Brisbane making them particularly accessible to businesses in Queensland. It is no secret that the Federal government sees the Australian private sector as having a significant role to play in taking forward relationships with Pacific island countries. From a Pacific perspective, this needs to be increasingly structured around how Australian businesses can include Pacific products in their value chains. There are numerous examples of this already happening in Queensland and Trade and Invest Queensland has a huge opportunity to do more and better in this space.
A significant component of the “Pacific step-up” is the role of labour mobility via the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS). In the 2018/19 financial year more than 60% of the visas awarded under the SWP were for workers who had been approved to take up roles in Queensland. As expected, the resumption of labour mobility from the Pacific to Australia has been an early and significant part of economic recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 in Australia and in sending countries in the region. Queensland has been at the forefront of this. Whilst it is reasonable to expect that the benefits of these programs will spread to other states over time, it is likely that Queensland will remain at the forefront of labour mobility for the foreseeable future.
During 2021, we will be focusing on these relationships and connections between Queensland and the Pacific islands region. We will look at how they have evolved in the past, what they look like now and how they might be further developed into the future. As we navigate the uncertainties of the COVID-19 era, we will see that these ties and connections are ever more important. Whilst it is true that there remain challenges to developing them, there are also many important opportunities on which Queensland can capitalise.
In this “Queensland and the Pacific” series we will bring you contributions to this vital and vibrant conversation from a range of viewpoints. This is a great opportunity for us to bring to the fore the voices and experiences of members of the Pacific diaspora communities here in Queensland as well as those of our Pacific friends and colleagues in the region.