Labor broadcast plan comes at low ebb for Australia’s Pacific voice

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it “farcical”, but a Labor proposal to expand ABC broadcasts into the Pacific comes as Australia’s voice in the region is at its weakest point in decades, an expert on the media in the Pacific says.

As part of a wider Labor policy to expand development assistance to the region by more than $500 million, the ABC would receive $8 million a year to expand its transmission into the Pacific and beyond.

A resumption of short-wave radio broadcasting, the cessation of which five years ago greatly reduced the reach of Australian journalism in the region, would also be considered.

A former ABC journalist with decades of experience covering the Asia-Pacific and a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Graeme Dobell, said highly politicised arguments about the nature of the ABC’s domestic programming distracted from its role in Australian foreign policy.

“In the South Pacific, Radio Australia has been an important element in the region for 80 years since World War II,” he told The New Daily.

“But today the Australian voice through Radio Australia is as weak as it has ever been.

“Suddenly, we need to be able to talk to the South Pacific about some pretty fundamental concerns.”

Coalition cuts

The ABC’s international broadcasting was a service launched by Robert Menzies.

But cuts to Radio Australia since the Abbott government have left it with an estimated one-third of its former budget for programming, while its reach outside capital cities reduced dramatically after a 2017 decision to terminate shortwave broadcasts.

Short-wave radio has much greater reach than FM transmission outside a country’s capital city and is also resistant to censorship.

China has meanwhile spent billions of dollars over the past decade on a “soft diplomacy” push that has included beaming state television into the Pacific.

Chinese state television and radio content are now carried by broadcasters in countries such as Vanuatu and Samoa.

“The real dumbing down and curtailing of the service really starts from 2013,” Dobell said of Radio Australia.

“That’s the point where, for a range of domestic reasons, the Australian government took its eye off what international broadcasting could do for Australia, particularly in the South Pacific.

“What were once Australian frequencies are now Chinese frequencies. That’s a metaphor for the larger problem.

“If we are in something like a new Cold War, what are the Cold War instruments that will really matter? One of them is an ability to be part of the international media conversation.”

Australian support misplaced

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a leading Pacific academic who was previously a chief negotiator in the Solomon Islands 2000 Townsville Peace Agreement, said Australia should focus on aid contributions that make a lasting contribution.

“The bigger issue is not so much the absence of Australia, but how Australia strategically deploys such assistance, so that it has an impact on the ground,” said Associate Professor Kabutaulaka, now at the University of Hawaii.

“The focus has been on security – security meaning military or fight against drug smuggling, people smuggling and so forth. And those are important. But for a lot of Solomon Islanders […] and I could extend that to mean Pacific Islanders more generally, it’s social economic issues and issues of livelihood each day that matters.

“Chinese assistance tends to be very visible, but not necessarily sustainable.

“The cost of maintaining a lot of that infrastructure will revert back to the host government, many of whom can’t afford to look after [it].

“[For] Australia, being more strategic in its assistance, in making sure that it touches the livelihood of people outside of Honiara of most Solomon Islanders, I think that’s what’s important.”

‘It’s farcical’

The ABC policy was met with derision by Mr Morrison and others, such as breakfast television’s Karl Stefanovic, who suggested Labor was relying on Bananas in Pyjamas as a solution to regional security challenges.

“It’s farcical,” Mr Morrison said.

“Their answer to solving the Solomon Islands problem is to have Q&A in Honiara”.

Labor’s broader $525 million commitment over the next four years would include a new permanent visa category for workers from the Pacific, whose alleged mistreatment has been the subject of a government investigation.

“We will work with our Pacific family to support specific projects that deliver real change in areas of health, economic growth, education, climate change adaptation and resilience,” shadow foreign minister Penny Wong said.

The plan includes an expansion of military training and co-operation and greater monitoring of Pacific countries’ exclusive economic zones to prevent the loss of income to illegal and unregulated fishing.

But Mr Morrison disputed Labor’s claim that Australia needed to engage more deeply with the region.

“I could understand Labor’s criticisms if we hadn’t established six additional embassies missions as they’re called in the Pacific,” the Prime Minister said.

“I could understand if Australia hadn’t moved to be the only country in the world that has embassies in every single one of the 20 Pacific Island Forum nations.”

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