There are some moments which focus into sharp relief only months later.

I experienced one of them after taking on a new role as the ABC’s Pacific affairs reporter in mid-2018. Not long after that, I found myself sitting in an auditorium, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at the Australian National University’s State of the Pacific conference. ANU Distinguished Fellow James Batley, who had a storied career as Australia’s High Commissioner to several Pacific island countries (including Fiji and Solomon Islands), commanded the stage.

Batley told the crowd he was looking forward to a robust session. But he also had a plea: he hoped the discussion would be textured. Most important, he hoped it would not descend into “Pacific good, Australia bad.”

A small ripple went through the crowd. A cohort of academics sitting next to me groaned quietly and shared a surreptitious eye-roll. But others nodded in seeming agreement; “thank God someone has said it.”

I didn’t realise it then, but Batley had exposed a fault line which runs through the relatively small community of Australians who have dedicated their professional lives to the Pacific, whether through development work, academic study or diplomacy.

I’ll put it bluntly. Many Australian diplomats in the Pacific believe their counterparts in academia are naïve, ideologically rigid, and utterly indifferent to Australia’s national interest.

Yes, this is a simplification. No, it’s not a universal view. But in the twelve months after that conference I spoke to many Australian officials in the region (as well as in Canberra) in the course of my work. I would often ask them what they thought of Australian academics working on Pacific issues, and whether DFAT could draw more heavily on academic expertise. They were almost universally dismissive. Their main complaints:

  • Academics relentlessly criticise Australia’s climate change policies but do not seem to grasp just how difficult it is for Australia to make the transition away from fossil fuels and heavily polluting industries.
  • They do not give the Australian Government sufficient credit for its big investments in climate change adaptation in the Pacific.
  • They accuse Australian officials of paternalism or cultural insensitivity, but actually have a hopelessly romanticised view of traditional cultures in the region. This means they are too quick to ignore the way corruption and patronage networks cripple local economies.
  • Their misguided obsession with the West’s colonial legacy in the Pacific distorts their view of the Australian Government’s Pacific Step Up. We are dealing with the real world. Grievance is no substitute for policy.

Is the contempt mutual? I spoke to fewer academics on this subject, and views were more varied. But some common beliefs still emerged:

  • The Australian government’s policies on climate change are morally indefensible, and our refusal to cut emissions means we are contributing to an existential threat facing the Pacific.
  • Australian diplomats might feel professionally obliged to defend these policies but they should realise their words ring hollow in the Pacific. They have a responsibility to work within DFAT to champion the view of Pacific island nations. They must press their political masters to change tack on climate policy. But many DFAT officials instead seem more intent on protecting their careers.
  • Australian diplomats (and contractors) are often unforgivably ignorant of local conventions and display a patronising sense of superiority towards Pacific leaders and officials. They are quick to dismiss Pacific island expertise and sometimes impose solutions hopelessly mismatched to needs on the ground.
  • Diplomats (and Australian politicians) often view Pacific island nations as pieces in a grand geopolitical game of chess. This denies the agency of Pacific Island countries and is deeply counter-productive.

Of course, there are exceptions. After all, Batley – once a pillar of the foreign policy establishment – has himself made the jump into academia. (I clearly remember one DFAT official once remarking “thank God he’s there!”) And some Australian diplomats and staffers (particularly more junior ones who worked for AusAID before it was swallowed up by DFAT) are anguished by the current government’s climate policies.

Still, the broad cleavage I’ve outlined is real, and it’s stark. Perhaps it’s unremarkable to long-term Pacific watchers. But as a newcomer to this intellectual space (I still am) I was struck by it.    

Of course, “both sides” (if you like) have stores of ammunition they can draw on. Academics and advocates point out that many Pacific island communities share their deep frustration with Australian Government policies and attitudes.

Diplomats point out that in the end Australian political leaders and citizens are their masters, not Pacific island communities. And they are a running a substantial (and growing) development program in the Pacific at a time when many voters are increasingly sceptical of foreign aid.

Does the gulf between the two matter? I’m not sure. Perhaps this tension between practitioners and theoreticians is healthy. And it’s not surprising that different world views form in different institutions which, after all, have radically different purposes.

But there was a fairly constant refrain on the sidelines of the 2018 State Pacific conference: both practitioners and academics should look for “new ways” to cooperate, share resources, share information, share expertise. With the Pacific facing intensifying threats – climate change, geopolitical competition, unemployment – collaboration was more vital than ever.

And it is difficult to see how this will happen if diplomats and academics look across to the other side and see only caricatures staring back at them.


Stephen Dziedzic has covered federal politics, the Pacific, and Australian foreign policy for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He’s currently on leave from the national broadcaster and is living in Singapore, where he writes on geopolitics in the Asia Pacific.