On be(com)ing happy

(Originally published on the Pacific Policy blog. Republishing it here on the anniversary of cyclone Pam, which shattered the lives of half the country in 2015.)

During an interview for a documentary film about climate change some years ago, I was asked how Vanuatu came to be known as the Happiest Country in the World. On the face of it, the title is quite apt. Wherever you go in Vanuatu, you will find smiling faces, warm welcomes and open hearts.

Even in the aftermath of cyclone Pam, which directly affected half the population and badly damaged dozens of their islands, Ni Vanuatu people still managed to smile and laugh. I confess that even after a decade living here, I found it astonishing that people would show such grace in the face of adversity.

In the Malapoa Waetwud neighbourhood of Port Vila, a man calmly described how he and his family would live off fallen fruit for a few days, then they’d dig up whatever hadn’t rotted in the ground; but after that, he wasn’t sure where the next meal was coming from. On the southern island of Tanna, which had been ravaged by 230 Kph winds, I sat with a group of mamas in the shade of the only remaining tree trunk in the village, and we laughed and gently teased each other as we passed the time.

And it’s not that they were oblivious. On the contrary. Only half an hour earlier a village elder came up to me, looked me in the eye and spoke with brutal simplicity: ‘I nogat wan samting.’

‘There’s nothing left.’

It took me days—weeks to be honest—to understand how people could remain light-hearted in the face of the loss of everything of value in their lives.

The penny began to drop when I visited Cildo (pronounced SEEL-doe) and his parents in Erangorango, in the foothills overlooking Port Vila. Cildo was a sturdy, plain-spoken, twelve-year-old boy originally from Malekula. His family home had been shattered by a massive tree which fell at the height of the storm, injuring his father and barely missing Cildo and his mother. I interviewed him for UNICEF, as part of a series of videos taking stock of the effect of the storm on children in Vanuatu.

Cildo was remarkably matter-of-fact:

When the cyclone came we went inside and ate, then we all went into one room. Then a tree fell onto our house, and we all sat in the remaining corner until morning.

That’s it. Plain facts, delivered without inflection or stress. And when I took his photo standing in the ruins, he flashed the brightest smile.

It was only a couple of weeks later, as I was reviewing all the shots I’d taken in the days following the disaster, that I realised his secret: You don’t need a reason to be happy.

Children returning from the community cyclone shelter found their way blocked by a damaged bridge. Hundreds were forced to walk home.

Transactionality and causality are so deeply ingrained in the western European psyche that it comes as a revelation that actually, happiness does not need to be pursued. It can be found wherever you happen to be standing.

The rootless and sometimes purposeless nature of consumer societies often stand in the way of such realisations. For my part, I spent the better part of my childhood coping with damage that never should have happened, and spent my young adulthood as a half-formed Angry Young Man. I was ruled by surges of anger, righteousness and cynicism, until circumstances finally forced me to conduct an existential stock-take.

By the time I arrived in Vanuatu in 2003, I was ready to learn. And before eighteen months had passed, I knew that this is a place where I could be happy. I could be happy, not because things are better here; in many ways they’re not. I could be happy because I no longer needed a reason.

Back in 2010, I wrote:

I’ve been stuck in cyclones, got malaria, dengue, been hospitalised from the after-effects of prolonged dehydration, had more parasites in more places than anyone really wants to know. I’ve been stung by things straight out of a Tim Burton movie. I’ve had death threats and constant, insanely unreasonable demands on my time and my pocketbook.

And yet, and yet in spite of it all, I was happy. Further back, in 2008, on the event of the perfectly preventable death of a little boy, I wrote about his funeral:

To an outsider, it’s wildly incongruous to watch the mourners as they approach the deceased’s house, chatting quietly, even laughing amongst themselves as if on some innocuous errand. The only clue about their destination is a cloth draped across one shoulder, to wipe the coming tears.

At the very instant they reach the gate, the wails begin. They are contrived, it’s true, but utterly heartfelt. The display of pain and sorrow at a funeral is more than most people of European descent have ever seen. To hear women moaning and weeping during the vigil and the burial is an uncanny and deeply moving experience. Though ritualised, the depth and sincerity of the emotion is starkly undeniable.

And then, as quickly as it begins, it is done. Life goes on, there’s food to be cooked, children to be tended to, and laundry to be done. The laughter, the scolding and the [conversation] start up again, as they always do.

Everyone in Vanuatu understands the place of things, and the need for everything to be in its place. Respect for public display and private observance of all of life’s events is universal. If someone smiles and jokes with his friends and colleagues just days after his first-born son has died… well, that’s as it should be. The funeral is over, and though there will be other opportunities to look back and mourn over the next hundred days, life goes on, whether one wants it to or not.

But it took a decade—and a cyclone of historical dimensions—for the lesson finally to land: People in Vanuatu are not happy because of anything. They are happy because the alternative doesn’t bear considering. Living as they do in a Least Developed Country with little or no modern technology in village life, with death and disaster around every corner, and people with whom you might or might not get along tucked up nice and cosy next to you (and you’re on an island, remember; they’re not going anywhere)… well, the least you can do is have a laugh now and then.

Children play marbles under a pair of massive trees defoliated by cyclone Pam

Vanuatu’s designation as the happiest place on earth was the result of research conducted by the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think-tank. Their Happy Planet Index actually placed more emphasis on the happiness of the planet than its people. It is a measure of people’s well-being in proportion to environmental footprint. Vanuatu was included in the inaugural 2006 survey, but not in any subsequent studies.

Still, the title endures because it fits. And now, as we face the impact of the developing world’s environmental footprint in the form of rising ocean levels and storms of unprecedented severity, this ability to be happy in the face of adversity will no doubt serve us well.

But don’t for a minute let that lead developing countries to complacence. Just because we smile our way through the hardship doesn’t mean that life is easier here. It’s not easier at all; it’s just better.

And honestly, developed nations would do well to take a lesson from this. Disasters wrought by climate change are inevitable now. The damage is done. The storms will reach you too. You’d better learn to smile through adversity as well, because you might not have much else to smile about.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Rip it open

Men worry a lot about being falsely accused of sexual assault. The stigma attached to a sexual predator is so immense that the slightest insinuation is enough to ruin a life. Best say nothing until you’re sure.

If you’ve actually done the crime, that’s the only defence you’ve got, really. You out-victim the victim and don’t ever let up.

If you’re not guilty—or far more likely, if you recall the events differently—then you find yourself regretting the damage done to others, but feeling that there’s no way to defend yourself without casting doubt on your accuser.

That’s how a lot of men will see it, anyway.

I don’t.

I was falsely accused of possession of child pornography by the actual owner, and let me say unequivocally that I would have given anything for a proper investigation.

Instead, I lost my job, and about half my friends, and in the end I was run out of town.

It happened in Iqaluit, a couple of years before it became the capital of the Nunavut territory. It’s a tiny place, with a population about 4500 when school was in session, and barely 4000 when it wasn’t.

Some of the people involved are still alive, and some aren’t, and out of respect for them all, I’m going to be deliberately vague.

I was one of a handful of people in town who knew anything at all about computers. I was working late one evening, recommissioning a server that had been in a colleague’s possession for over a year. I’m going to call the guy X, because I can’t bear to associate any human name to that animal.

The computer had a bunch of personal files on it, and I browsed through the folders quickly to make sure nothing essential would be lost when I reformatted the drive.

I found the images in a folder named ‘Family Photos’.

I was sexually assaulted when I was a child. I don’t think I’ve ever actually written those words before. I only do it here to demonstrate I knew what I was seeing1.

It’s not possible to describe the revulsion I felt at that moment, or my horror when I realised I’d have to look again to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.

I did, though. Then I called my boss, the owner of the company, an Inuk man my age. X was this guy’s mentor; he’d looked after him since childhood. My boss listened to me, then admitted that he’d long suspected him of abusing girls.

He confessed to me that his younger sister had committed suicide when she was 12. He was a teenager at the time. He told me he still had her private journal, and said that two pages of it directly incriminated X in her distress. He was clearly conflicted, and equally clearly, couldn’t reconcile his affection for the man with his suspicions.

That was my first step in his twisted world. There are no straight lines. Anyone who suspects becomes complicit. From the moment they choose to ignore even the mildest signs, they’re caught. It costs them more and more to maintain the fiction over time, but the pressure to excuse increasingly glaring evidence only enmeshes them deeper.

The worse it gets, the further you sink. It’s quicksand.

I couldn’t let it go, though. My boss intimated that we could beguile X, lure him into self-incrimination and turn the tables on him once we’d got him dead to rights. I didn’t dissuade him, mostly because I was still processing the realisation that he’d known about the matter for years.

But I removed the disk from the machine, and took it home.

Back at our apartment, I put the hard drive onto the coffee table, and in fits and starts, explained to my partner what was in it. It became clear to me that I had two options.

The first was to take the .30-30 calibre Marlin rifle out from under my bed and shoot that fucker dead. His house was out near the edge of town, and it would be trivially easy to stake him out from behind a rock in the endless tundra, then put him down as he walked to his car. People hunt caribou all the time, and the herds regularly stroll right into town. A stray bullet would be easy to arrange.

I was perfectly at home with this option. I’m still okay with it. I would put him down like a dog if I thought it would fix things.

I sat there, staring at that drive, for about three hours, undecided. Finally, I phoned the police.

It came down to this: If I did for him, no one would know what he’d done. He’d get what he deserved, but the rest of the community would not.

I trusted the staff sergeant of the local RCMP detachment. He’d been quite good about a brutality complaint that I lodged against a constable I’d witnessed beating a handcuffed man. I felt I could trust him to see this through.

He sent a corporal around, and she took possession of the drive, but seemed nonplussed about what to do with it. This was the ‘90s, and not many people there had seen the inside of a computer before. They took the drive back to the station, but didn’t take a statement, or take any step that I could see to confirm chain of custody.

The next morning, they called X in to take his statement. He told them that only two people had ever touched the contents of that computer, and since he would never have put illegal materials onto the drive, it must have been me. He said he felt bewildered and betrayed. He couldn’t explain what would motivate me to attack him this way.

A week or so later I lost my job. I got a disciplinary letter for removing company equipment (the hard drive) from the premises without permission. It was clearly—I’d say pointedly—written by X. The next day, my boss showed up, and went off on me, angrily listing all my shortcomings. When I started to reply, he lost it. He repeatedly screamed at me to fuck off, and to get the fuck out.

So I did. It was the only time in my life I’ve been fired for cause, and I don’t regret it.

The moment he started shouting, I realised what was happening. I recognised how tortured the guy was, how he was willing to do anything, anything at all, to avoid dealing with awful truth.

It didn’t stop there. The whisper campaign had only just begun. Quite literally, the town wasn’t big enough for the both of us. X pulled out all the stops. An accomplished manipulator, he managed to poison about half the friendships I had in that close-knit community. I didn’t even try to find another job.

Over the next six months, I bore up, but the writing was on the wall. I sent out applications for employment back in Ottawa, secured a decent consultancy, and moved.

It broke my heart. I love the Arctic, the people and the land. It should have been my home. I was there during an historic moment—the creation of the first territory in North America to be governed by its indigenous people. The challenges were huge, and I’d have given anything to help.

More than anything else, I felt bruised in my soul, knowing that X, that monster, had skated. I’d been exiled. But he remained, likely still preying on the innocent.

He killed that little girl, and got away with it. The fucker. He got away with it.

He got away with it.

That’s what ate at me every day. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t get him. In the years since then, I’ve told this story to a few trusted friends, but I’ve never written it down. It was just too hard. I could explain everything, or nothing. One way or another, we all become enmeshed in the lies.

The story ended well, by the way. Maybe not for me, but for the town.

About two years after I’d moved down south, I had to meet the Iqaluit flight to pick up a friend. Standing in arrivals, I was startled to see another acquaintance approaching. We’d always been cordial but distant. He shook my hand (not everyone did) and said, “Hey, I bet you’ll be glad to hear this: X is in jail.”

The boil at the heart of that town had finally been lanced. It turned out that the talk didn’t stop after I’d left. Within a year or so, three adult survivors came forward. Canada had recently removed the statute of limitations concerning sexual and child abuse. He was placed on trial and convicted for crimes he’d committed many years before.

I don’t know if it was my accusation that started things. It might have been, it might not. But the prosecution succeeded because the the law was changed to allow abuse survivors to report in their own time. No matter how many years had passed.

I have an idea how Christian Porter must be feeling now. But what I can’t understand is why he would want anything but justice. And justice means openness. When I was falsely accused, I wanted nothing more than for every single fact to be exposed.

I desperately, futilely wanted to step in front of the people shunning me and yell at them to accuse me to my face so I could prove my innocence. But the poison of sexual abuse doesn’t allow that kind of behaviour. It’s all shadow games, mistrust piled on distrust.

It’s lies all the way down.

I believe the only way to deal with this is to rip the scab right off2. Tear the whole thing open. Let the world see every hideous bit of it. The last thing in the world I wanted was for people to shut up. I wanted to shout my innocence from the rooftops. I wanted to confront every one of those faithless so-called friends who believed me capable of such hideous cruelty. I wanted to shove my innocence down their throat.

If Christian Porter is innocent—and he claims he is—then he has an opportunity. He literally writes the laws. He can find a way to establish the truth of the matter. Yes, the accusation has cost him immensely. I understand exactly how that feels.

What I cannot understand is how an innocent man could want anything but the entire truth. For himself, for the poor woman, for all of us. There is no way I would not want everything laid bare.

It’s the only way we can ever get past this.

1 Don’t ask me to discuss the details. I won’t. Not with you. This isn’t my story. My story is done. It wasn’t a family member. The guy who did it died long ago. I’m alive, and he isn’t. And that’s all I need.
2 Yes, I can see the paradox. This is from the guy who for over half a century never told a soul about his own assault. And refuses talk about it even now. I get it. This is precisely why survivors deserve the right to confront the truth in their own time.

This Isn’t A Debate


A rehearsal of the Wan Smolbag Theatre play Kaekae Rat, a show about conspiracy and deception

My first head-on encounter with wilful disinformation was trivial and illuminating. Back in the mid-80s, I was barely 20 years old, working in one of Ottawa’s busiest restaurants. As with restaurants everywhere, artists, students and social misfits were over-represented.

A pair of very pretty front of house people, he a dancer and she a budding intellectual, were discussing Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, as young lovers do. They were leaning across the service bar in the back, making eyes at each other. Professing her love for the, uh, book, she said something astonishingly wrong about it. He enthusiastically agreed.

I, the stunted Beatnik, stupidly thought their enthusiasm was driven by a shared love of learning.

“No it’s not!” I blurted. “The whole point of the book is that there won’t be any resolution!”

They didn’t even break eye contact with one another. I offered a couple more increasingly agitated points, but they ignored me.

I was right there. Speaking. To them.

And they ignored me. Me. Who was right there.

God I was stupid.

It took me decades to come to terms with a thing I should have learned right then and there: Ideas aren’t debated. They’re contested. Ideas exist only to bind us together.

Yes, only. The fact that ideas also allow information to be stacked up so that even a fool such as I can pontificate about the ornate intellectual structures in Foucault’s Pendulum or Gravity’s Rainbow is Darwinian coincidence. We’re flying to other worlds on peacock feathers.

If we survive as a species, it will be through the power of ideas to build common cause and save us from ourselves.

If we collapse, it will be through the power of ideas that unite (enough of) us in opposition to the idea of a common cause.

The fact that it’s taken me decades to come to this realisation makes me very sad. The fact that I’ve come to this realisation at all gives me hope.

Climate change theory isn’t up for debate. It never was. Ever. It was just a widening body of data leading inexorably to a more nuanced understanding of the same conclusion: If we change the composition of the atmosphere sufficiently, the climate will change too.

Voter fraud isn’t subject to debate. Fraud is remarkably easy to detect, and always has been, even back in the days of Machine politics. Actual voter fraud generally isn’t designed to hide the results. It’s a show of force. It’s a public statement of contempt for the mere concept of democracy. It is the idea of autocracy embodied, designed to unify the population in submission.

Fake narratives of voter fraud are, paradoxically, the same thing.

Vaccination isn’t subject to debate. Discovery? Yes. Research? Of course. But not debate. There is literally nothing in the fundamental proposition that is subject to question: If we assist the body in developing immunity to dangerous diseases, we will suffer less as a species.

But if we do allow people to pretend it’s a debate, every word of that last sentence can be assailed:

“If—” Ah! You’re not even sure yourself and you want to force me to take that poison?!

“we—” Who’s we, Kemo Sabe? I never consented to this!

“assist the body in developing immunity—” Assistance?!? It’s invasion! We’re messing with God’s Plan! We’re poisoning ourselves now and for generations to come!

“to dangerous diseases—” It’s no worse than the flu! I had it, and I was fine!

“we will suffer less—” MORE

“as a species.” Leave me out of your mind control plots, Bill Gates! I’m not even sure we are the same species.

And yet, in the face of this, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to equip the truth-tellers, the fact-checkers, the cooperators and the listeners with tools to cope with the liars and the stone-hearted exclusionists.

Forgive me if this simile offends, but telling reputable media professionals how to better contend with this phenomenon is disturbingly similar to telling women to dress sensibly. You’re demeaning us, second-guessing what we’re already doing, and making the problem ours alone when it’s emphatically not.

We haven’t lost our readers’ trust. It’s not like it slipped between the cushions while we were streaming Tiger King. We’ve been systematically delegitimised and defamed by bad faith actors.

In this light, telling media people to Do Better and to Build Trust is counter-productive. We should do it, of course, but not because it’s going to solve the disinformation blight. Better information is a public good in and of itself, but it’s not a suitable antidote to false narratives that unite one group against another.

We won’t win this contest by debating. We win by exposing bad faith.

The solution has always been the same: Single out the ringleaders and show them up for the charlatans they are. Because the charlatans are there. Every time—or at least so often that the exceptions are statistically unmeasurable.

Purveyors of falsehood and conspiracies know this. That’s why they reserve an especially virulent stream of invective for the most charismatic leaders, the ones who don’t argue, but persuade. They’ll stop at nothing if they fear their ideas are taking hold.

That’s not how we roll, of course. But we have a weapon that is equally effective. We can expose. We expend exabytes of data—years of effort every day—exposing the lie, but only a fraction of that exposing the liars and their selfish motives, and punishing them. And yet:


Twitter avatar for @yoyoelYoel Roth @yoyoel

Research has shown that many types of harmful misinformation are disproportionately spread by small groups of dedicated bad-faith actors. Clearly defined and enforced strikes are a way to address these harms in a proportionate, straightforward way.

evelyn douek @evelyndouek

Super clear system. Repeat offenders are a huge part of the problem: now, they’re on notice, with plenty of chance to adjust to Twitter’s rules, which it’s entitled to have https://t.co/qmQWiEMo0g


At every nexus of false conspiracy, there is always a liar. There’s someone who knows better, and still does the deed. And does it for reasons people despise. Always. That’s who should be targeted. That’s who should be punished. People who wilfully and knowingly spread falsehoods for their own benefit.

It’s a shockingly painful grind, but it works. It worked against Tobacco, arguably the most addictive recreational substance going. The day we turned the corner on tobacco abuse was the day governments in the USA and elsewhere got the tobacco companies to admit they lied, and made it intensely painful for them to continue lying.

The day will never come when people are no longer in the thrall of ideas that elevate them by debasing others. But here’s the thing: powerful ideas have to be sincerely held. Once the liars are exposed, it becomes easier for people to congregate around better ideas.

Again, what needs to be exposed is not just the lie, but the liar. You can’t just catch someone out in a contradiction, proclaim ‘You lie!’ and consider them forever disqualified. You need to expose the corrupt end their duplicity serves, and punish that.

Trump could wear a dozen impeachments like medals on his chest in service of his Big Lie, and nobody would flinch. It’s the tax fraud that’ll do him in. The outcome of an impeachment is debatable by design. A fraud charge much less so. The outcome is contestable, sure, but not debatable. Except in very limited circumstances, you can’t win by redefining fraud1.

And then, when that’s done, we need better ideas about how to save ourselves. The data comes later. We know how to save ourselves. We just have to find a way to agree that enough of us want to.

1 This isn’t a general argument against legal precedent. It’s a specific argument that for most intents and purposes the definition of fraud is settled, and it’s considered a serious crime.


The underside of the world woke up today to find their world turned upside down. Facebook made good on its threats, and then some. Faced with legislation that would require it to pay for sharing news content on its platform, the company didn’t just take their ball and go home. They tore the sandlot up, too.

They didn’t just block the flow of Australian news to Australians on their service. They blocked Australian news globally.

Their definition of ‘news’ was construed in a childishly literal way. Caught in the blast radius were government-run public health and safety sites, literary publications, travel sites, and a broad swathe of material by and for people in the Pacific islands.

This scorched earth strategy is astonishingly short-sighted.

Before we go further though, let’s dispense with a few arguments:

Some have argued that the Australian government’s law is nothing more than a shakedown driven by Rupert Murdoch, whose malignant silhouette looms even larger across the Australian media landscape than it does the American.

That’s partly true. It is hard to imagine the Murdoch-backed Coalition government enacting this sort of thing at anyone else’s behest. In fact, early drafts of the bill left Murdoch’s lifelong nemeses, the public broadcasters, out in the cold.

But the current legislation has the support of all major media companies, large and small, public and private. It’s also backed by the majority of Australians.

There’s no question: This FB-Bomb will be a public relations disaster Down Under.

Some say the government’s intervention is unprecedented and unconscionable. It may indeed be novel. But it’s not nearly as controversial as it’s portrayed.

Government regulation in the media sector is hardly new. There isn’t a nation in the world that doesn’t do it. Taxes are used in a number of jurisdictions to subsidise media. Calling this a shakedown is only true if you’re one of a group of internet libertarians who haven’t yet come to terms with the fact this we’re done homesteading the Noosphere. The Internet’s been staked and fenced for a while now. This battle’s between the Land Barons.

Some have claimed the Mandatory Bargaining Code is an unworkable mess. It ain’t pretty, that’s true. But it is workable.

It’s awkward, though. The whole premise that media companies should negotiate a fee with platform companies is… novel. I suppose if this were the EU, the government would have set a fee per thousand clicks and run the payments through its taxation service. That would have been a much blunter—and heavier—instrument, but more equitable. And (justifiably) likely to make the libertarian crowd bark even louder.

But here’s the thing: The bill outlines a well-defined process that enforces an even-handed and equitable approach to the matter. This lever pulls in both directions. Much moreso than a top-down tax.

In a move that Kara Swisher accurately described as ‘cloddish’, Facebook reacted to bill by reaching straight for the Big Red Button. Only a few sentences in, we’ve reached the La La La Can’t Hear You stage of the argument.

They could have targeted their anger.

The Bill requires that news organisations register themselves with the Australian Communications and Media Authority and express their intent in order to be eligible for mandated negotiation. If Facebook had simply said, ‘If you register, we will block you’, they’d be entirely within their rights.

Nobody’s questioning their right not to pay.

Instead though, Facebook grabbed a general definition of a news source from the prefatory matter in the legislation, and axed everything even remotely resembling that definition. In the process, they made it harder for millions of Australians and Pacific islanders to receive cyclone warnings and weather updates, vaccination information, bush fire alerts, and community notices. They even blocked their own media page.

Amy Remeikis adds that even the North Shore Mums group has been silenced, for heaven’s sake.

And we here in the Pacific islands are sitting here bemused. Learning once again that when whales go to war, it’s the minnows that suffer.

Facebook has a de facto social media monopoly in most, if not all, Pacific island countries. Telcos used free Facebook as a loss leader to lock users into their platforms. As a result, millions of cash-poor mobile users use the platform as their primary interface to the internet. News, alerts, current events all begin—and sometimes end—with Facebook.

Social media content is cached locally, too, reducing costs for telcos, who pay some of the highest bandwidth prices in the world. Video and image content from other sources is often much, much slower.

In the minds of many islanders, it’s just too time-consuming and too costly to load even a single web page on spec. People are so accustomed to Facebook, it’s likely that most wouldn’t even know what to type into the address bar. You may think I’m exaggerating. I wish I were. A disturbingly large number of people do not know how to use Google search. They access everything online through social media.

I’m not blaming Facebook for these problems. I’m blaming them for not caring about the damage they’re doing. They have options. There are absurdly easy ways to target a service block if that’s what they insist on doing.

But with the way they’re acting now, they’re harming millions of people who didn’t need to be harmed. As the Ms Swisher said, “In the war between whom do you like least, FB will inexplicably lose to Murdoch.”

In or Out?

Back in my university days, I roomed with a lovely couple. Smart, talented, unorthodox—my kind of people. And stable, too. That meant a lot. But about a year in, I felt the tension rising. I’d hear them speaking in terse undertones, then stop suddenly when I entered the room.

Finally, I had to ask. Is everything okay?

“Not really. We’re either going to split up or get married.”

I was nonplussed. How could those be the only options? How could those options exist side by side?

Now, watching the messy, all-too-avoidable spat between members—and possibly, soon to be ex-members—of the Pacific Islands Forum, I think I finally get it.

There comes a time in every relationship where you’re either all in or all out. Some people in Australia and New Zealand may think that decision belongs to the Micronesian states alone. And based on that assumption, they’re no doubt working behind the scenes right now, doing their best to chivvy the northern alliance apart. Hoping that if they can induce one state—Nauru most likely—to go back on its promise to leave, lost cohesion will drive the others back into the fold.

But the catalysing moment here was not Micronesia’s decision to leave. It was the collective drift from consensus to majority rule. It’s unfair to blame the developed members of the Forum for driving that choice. But they can fairly be taken to task for failing to understand the countless subtle reasons why consensus, not plurality, is so important to the Pacific.

If there was a misjudgment on their part, this was it. They should have known they’d be seen as the deciding—and dividing—votes.

It’s up to them now to learn this lesson, and to take it to heart. If they’re going to be truly Pacific partners, they need to adopt Pacific ways.

It’s not enough to listen, consult, and weigh what’s best for the organisation if those considerations are only made at a distance, as some sort of benefactor. They’re not there as donors, or development partners. They’re there as members. They should not dominate (and by all accounts, they haven’t here). Neither, though, should they defer.

The decision to be in or out of the Forum belongs to Australia and New Zealand as much as it does to the bloc of five.

First, though, let’s get a few things straight. If we’re honest about it, Henry Puna is by all accounts a more qualified candidate than Gerald Zackios. But as Dr Transform Aqorau astutely pointed out, if we’re basing the selection only on merit, Jimmy Stevens is the one who stands out. He’s a deft facilitator and talented administrator with decades of experience at the regional level.

We can conclude that competence was not the sole criterion, but it wasn’t absent either. Certainly, it ranked above the principle of a sub-regional rota.

Secondly, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that Mr Puna’s selection was foisted on any individual member. Certainly not by Australia, and probably not by New Zealand.

If the Micronesians have a complaint—and they assuredly do—it’s with the Forum itself, not with any imagined interloper.

We can find fault with many of the individual players in this debacle. I mean, we’ve just witnessed our ship’s officers argue their vessel across miles of sunlit open ocean, right into the only reef in a thousand miles. There could not be a stronger argument for a clearer, more detailed and more transparent leadership selection process.

But new rules can only come once comity is restored. And that’s not something that’s going to happen in Canberra or Wellington. The last election to cause real division was that of Greg Urwin, whose candidacy was driven by John Howard. Many rightly complained about the ham-fisted manner in which it was handled. I was a newcomer to the Pacific at the time, but even I was aware of the ructions, and of the widespread perception that this was an Australian ploy to keep tabs on its Pacific neighbours.

It was Mr Urwin himself who saved the day. He did it by being one of the best Secretaries General the Forum has seen. He won his second term by acclamation, but was tragically struck down by cancer before he could complete it.

The current crisis will test Henry Puna’s mettle. It will also be a test, not just of the depth, but of the kind of commitment Australia and New Zealand are willing to make to the Forum.

As happens during any crisis, there’s a lot of pressure on Canberra and Wellington to Do Something. But what can they usefully do? They will almost certainly be cast an interlopers if they try to broker a step-down. Rightly or wrongly, it’s an age-old Pacific tradition to blame the outsider.

They can’t be just be some sort of benevolent Spirit Guide, either. They can’t pretend to be inert or neutral in this. They’re members just like everyone else.

Most importantly, they can’t cast this as an external matter. New Zealand knows this already. It has repeatedly reaffirmed its stance as a Pacific nation. And the sooner Australia quits thinking of the Pacific as a frontier, the better.

To my knowledge, Julie Bishop is the only Australian politician of note who has ever uttered the phrase ‘Australia is a Pacific nation.’ It’s not bordered by the Pacific. It’s in the Pacific.

It’s neither a passenger nor a benefactor. It’s a member. And the sooner it takes that membership seriously, the better. The sooner it learns to operate as a Pacific nation, surrounded by its Pacific peers, the better.

The answer here for Australia and New Zealand is not to Do Something, but rather to Be Something. They need to be good members. They need to treat their role as neither a sideshow nor a star turn. That means shouldering the duties and responsibilities, and wearing the results.

The sooner they accept that they’re in the Pacific, the sooner they’ll be able to do something about it.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Oceans Apart

William Francis McGarry was born on April 2, 1927 in Dublin, Ireland. His early life was lifted from the pages of a Joyce novel. His father married an older woman, a starlet from the operettas no less. It’s tempting to believe that scandal was the one they whispered about in The Dead.

Bill and his younger brother Cecil attended Clongowes College, site of the early scenes of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But Cecil, not Bill, was the Stephen Dedalus. Or rather, his antithesis. Cecil’s blazing intellect led him to holiness, not heresy. He became a Jesuit, was appointed Provincial to Ireland, and given the Sisyphean task of implementing the Vatican II reforms.

A Good Soldier of Christ, Cecil did it without demur. It cost him immensely, and sent the Irish church into paroxysms. His labour complete, he spent over a decade in the Vatican, advising the Pope and guiding his order. He spent his last years in Kenya, living in relative seclusion, providing spiritual advice to many of East Africa’s Christian leaders.

A reformer and noted ecumenicist, he did much to modernise—and humanise—an appallingly archaic Church.

Compared to that, my father was a lout.

At least, he was in the eyes of Queeny and Bill, his imperious diva of a mom, and her quick-tongued husband who deployed his wit like a lash.

Where Cecil’s intellect and achievements blazed, young Bill merely did well. I suspect it took him decades to realise that in any other family, he would have been a standout. He was smart, athletic, good-looking and hard working. A standup guy with a pugilist’s persistence.

Bill and his sister Doreen were erased. Queeny loved Cecil, and Bill Sr loved Queeny, and that was all the love there was.

He met my mother at a house party while he was studying engineering at University College Dublin. She too had distant parents. Her father had skippered a small vessel during WWI and, against appalling odds, helped kill a German U boat. He was awarded the DSO for that, and was mentioned in despatches later in the war.

Whether it was the war or something else, he checked out. He landed a do-nothing job, and spent his time fishing and playing tennis. He dropped dead on the court one day, still in his 40s. He shared the fate of countless men who returned from the fight with no visible wounds.

(Mom’s life too was overshadowed by a famous Jesuit. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a neighbour and friend to her father and his young siblings during his years as a Classics professor at UCD.)

A martyr for his mother’s love fell for a fatherless child. The two completed each other.

They were married shortly after he graduated, and took ship for Canada the next day. They turned their backs to family and home, and never returned.

The young couple lived in Toronto briefly, then moved to Ottawa, looking for room to grow. Determined to be everything their respective parents weren’t, they wanted a dozen children.

They would have had them, too. But after her eighth pregnancy, Mom was told that the next one would kill her.

So we adopted instead.

Dad rose as people used to do, from lowly draughtsman to Vice President of an engineering firm.

He raised us in the pulsing heart of Canadian suburbanism, if such a thing existed. The house I was born in was built by Bill Teron, the developer who pretty much defined residential design in the ’60 and ‘70s. He also rescued much of Toronto’s waterfront from industrial hell.

I spent my early childhood years in another Teron brainchild, the show home for the brand-new community of Kanata, Ontario.

We were a model family, living in a model home. Proud citizens of Stepford.

But my father wasn’t done. Over a couple of decades of Thoreauvian endeavour, he carved a patch out of the bush, building what would become a sprawling living compound on a stony hilltop immodestly named Kincora.

That decision defined my childhood. It tied me irrevocably to the bush, inured me to the cold, left me bug-bitten, alone and adrift in an ocean of forest.

Not lost, though. I quickly learned how to find my way around. Leaving my sisters at home, I trudged along endless miles of logging road, spent entire days paddling our canoe across every square metre of three adjoining lakes.

My mom may have thought it was cute. It wasn’t. It was escape.

The endless days of solitude were punctuated each Friday by the sound of a car approaching. The place we lived was so remote you could hear a car coming literally from miles away.

My father had us hauling, digging, cutting and hammering pretty much from the moment we were able to hold a tool. His return from the city each Friday meant an end to aimlessness, and the start of a dawn to dusk parade of chores.

He’d pull up with the station wagon (of course!) full of sheetrock, timber, plaster, nails, food supplies, fuel for the chainsaw, joints, fixtures… it was uncanny how much stuff that car could hold.

From the moment of his arrival, the work began. All the materials had to go up the hill to the house. I still recall struggling to balance a sheet of gyprock taller than me, feeling it burrowing inexorably into my fingers, praying I didn’t crumble a corner on the stony trail.

I don’t know what bred my aversion to that work. I’ve never shied from labour.

The more I think about it, the more I realise my aversion was to him. I’m ashamed of that. I was then, and I am today.

The crushing inevitability of my dad’s arrival was always almost too much. More than once, I ran and hid in the bush, pretending for a while to be too far away to hear him bellow my name. Didn’t do me a lick of good, of course. I’d just get a solid smack or two, and still have to do the work I dreaded.

What he achieved over the years was a monument. He turned an un-insulated one-room plywood box into a sprawling year-round home, with outbuildings, a private lane, and an expansive deck down on the lakeside 150 metres distant.

I had a hand in much of it. I don’t feel proud of what we did, because it was his achievement. His in a way that excluded you. But I know—down to the nail, I know—the measure of the effort.

The man could not stop. He built our first set of living room furniture. He built our toy chest, and the building blocks inside. He built our bunk beds. He built our counters. He cut the wood for the fire. He built the bloody road to our door.

He built and built and built. And I hated him for it. His devotion to the idea of a perfect family home poured out of him. It raised timbers, hewed rocks and razed forests. He was a vessel of devotion, hollow inside.

By the time I was 12, I was spending every weekend with him, renovating a house in the city that would become our home. We ripped the guts out of the place, and floor by floor, made it into a spacious, luxurious residence.

I earned a dollar a day.

I earned that dollar.

He knew I was smart, and he fostered my learning. I was reading the classics at home at age six. He never pressed or prodded. He just gave me what my mind required.

I cannot count the nights I strained to see the type as dusk brimmed over the hill, and turned the page toward a west-facing window to catch the last light of the sun.

If I’m a writer today, it’s because of him.

I still don’t know what broke us as a family. I don’t know if any one thing did.

But I know it wasn’t him.

I could itemise the screaming fights, the blows, the misery overlaid with propriety and perfect manners, like ice above a drowning man. I could write, and re-write, and even on the fortieth draft, there would still not be a point where you could say, ‘There. Right there. That’s what he did.

But every one of us emerged from that household gifted, driven, blazing fiercely with the fire of their own unique self-destruction. We were athletes, experts, artists—sometimes all three. All destined to fail.

We’ve all survived so far. Physically. Each of us cramped and broken in their own way, handing down the double gift of misery and devotion.

We can’t even win at tragedy.

Collectively we’re a cracked idol, a torn and smoke-stained testament lying in the dust behind the chancery.

We did everything right. We got everything wrong.

Bill never emerged from the shadow of his younger brother’s saintly genius. But he was merciless. He whipped his desire for mastery into shape, and made it serve him.

He left his engineering firm in the ‘80s at the top of his game. His work had taken him from Kenya to Iqaluit to the coal mines of Sydney, Nova Scotia. Twice he won North American awards for excellence in design. I found the certificates beside the furnace.

He was hired as an alternative energy advisor by the government of Canada. He knew what the world would need before most of us did. Then, almost to the day of his non-compete agreement lapsing, he took a golden handshake, left the public service, and set himself up as one of the premier insurance investigators in the business.

Like his father before him, he only became happy after the weight of raising a family was lifted. He was in his sixties when I first saw him really smile.

It was too late for me by then. Our hopeless tangle of devotion and revulsion was too deeply enmeshed. His battles may have been mostly behind him, but mine weren’t.

I was fighting depression and an inherited sense of anguished worthlessness that I still struggle to withstand.

One day in my mid-thirties, in the latter half of an extended car trip, driving back over the Rockies to home, I realised I was happy. At first I didn’t know what I was feeling. It had never happened to me before.

The most liberating moment of my life was the bitterest: I knew right then that if I wanted to be free, all I had to do was drive away.

That was over 20 years ago. I didn’t just keep driving. I crossed an ocean too.

I’ve found happiness here on the other side of the world.

And if I’ve found it, I learned that from him too.

I don’t build things for my children. That would be cruel. I give to them instead. I try to show them every day that they’re loved, that we may struggle but they will never want. That they matter. That they matter to me.

But I do make things. I can’t stop. I make and I make and I make. I can’t be a person unless I’m making something. Software, photographs, music, videos, stories—it doesn’t matter. As long as I don’t stop.

I try not to think too much about what keeps pouring out of me. I guess my old man didn’t either.

My dad died last night. It was cancer. He’d lived to 94. From what I’ve heard, he was ready to go.

I thought a lot over the last few years about returning, trying to reconcile. But honestly, I never felt I had to. I knew him pretty well by the time I left, and I like to think he knew me too.

I like to think he saw himself in me. The way I turned away, and forged a home from nothing.

And like him, I’m still building. Always building. Relentlessly, helplessly, hopelessly building.

Cecil’s endless grace and Bill’s endless drive are most of what made me whatever this is—this slack-jawed lump of flesh and sentiment, poking at a keyboard, frog-marching a procession of characters—walking shadows, signifying nothing—across a screen in a vain attempt to fill the space of this cavernous loss.

I had a father once. He was a terror and a perfect man.

I had a father. And now I never will.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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2021 – The Year Ahead

The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the worst since the end of WWII. Global economic shocks, pandemics, the rise of totalitarian regimes and the political disintegration of a superpower were all played out against the backdrop of the increasing and unabated progress of climate change.

Help may be on the horizon for COVID-19 and the economic suffering it brought, but there’s no reason to believe that 2021 will mark the end of our pain.

We need to be prepared for a long slog.

The Global Economy

Not since 1870 have so many countries seen their economies shrink. The World Bank reports that advanced economies will likely have shrunk by 7 percent by year’s end. Emerging and developing economies are expected to have contracted by 2.5 percent. That would make 2020 the worst for them in 60 years.

Shipping, travel, air and international land transport have all experienced massive disruptions. Not only are people buying less, it’s taking longer to get goods of all kinds from one place to the next.


Ongoing trade wars and supply chain disruptions are also contributing to a dismal outlook, the World Bank says.

The best-case scenario for the coming year is a return to relative stability in international relations, and a concerted international effort to eradicate COVID-19 and relieve the restrictions that the pandemic has imposed on us and our economies.

If that happens, the World Bank estimates a modest growth rate of 4.2 percent.

But this isn’t certain. International and domestic stresses may make things worse before they get better. Debt distress could set in, domestic policies and freedoms might not bounce back. Trade restrictions and international tensions could continue, or even worsen.

Developing countries are especially vulnerable to these risks. One forecast suggests that the impact of global recession alone could result in a contraction of as much as 6 percent. The downside could be almost 9 percent for the worst affected.

Vanuatu’s Economy

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Vanuatu’s economy is hard to know with any certainty. The Department of Finance and Treasury’s monthly financial reports have been unavailable since March, and no formal economic summary has been provided since the mid-year report in August last year.

Finance Minister Johnny Koanapo offered some insight into GDP impacts and outlooks in his budget speech to parliament in November, but questions have been raised about the validity of the GDP estimates and projections. Mr Koanapo’s numbers did not match the numbers in the mid-year report, and his projections are based on assumptions that are unlikely to come about in the year ahead.

The 2021 budget narrative document is expected any day now, and when that is released, it will contain accurate revenue and expenditure information for 2020.

In the Pacific as a whole, the Lowy Institute is warning of a ‘Lost Decade’ due to the pandemic. The impacts are so severe, the report argues, that without support and assistance, the human and developmental deficit created last year will burden us for a generation.


The Lowy paper suggests that a large-scale debt forgiveness programme could help. Vanuatu is better positioned to handle its existing debt, and performance in recent years has exceeded expectations.

The Finance Minister’s assurances that Vanuatu will recoup its losses in a year seem optimistic. He’s not the only one to say so, though. The IMF’s 2021 projections for Vanuatu are more pessimistic, but they too appear to believe that a V-shaped recovery is likely.

Travel and tourism may re-open in the coming year, but that almost certainly won’t happen in the first half of the year. When things will return to normal—if they do at all—is anyone’s guess.

Economic Priorities

Agriculture will remain a focus area as the country seeks to re-base its economic activity to place prosperity in the hands of agriculture workers. There’s a lot still to be done.

The recent pilot project to export taro to New Zealand has still to prove itself. Money exists for at least one more go-round, so time will tell if bulk root-crop exports will prove sustainable.

The Ministry of Agriculture will need to become a lot nimbler if it hopes to avoid a repeat of the debacle that saw farmers stuck with tens of thousands of ripe pineapples and no one to sell them to.

Efforts to rebase the coconut economy on more high-value products (such as virgin oil) are commendable, and arguably easier to sustain, but until global trade and shipping normalise, it’s hard to see how people will make a decent living, let alone thrive.

Other commodities that had seen growth in the past, particularly kava, will likely see a small rebound in the next 12 months, but again, until shipping and trade flows regularise, it’s hard to imagine growers and exporters doing more than treading water.

Fiscal/sectoral intervention will continue, but will be paid mostly from unspent funds from 2020. Finance was overwhelmed by demand during the first rounds. It’s not clear if they’re better provisioned to handle the increased workload for another year.

This is cause for concern. There is evidence that unemployment has risen steadily all year, and that economic hardship is biting deeply into urban households. Job announcements that might have received half a dozen applications in the past are seeing ten times that many today.

Without significant intervention, the number of business failures could jump sharply in the next 9-12 months. There’s not a single business owner in the country today who isn’t worried about the future of their business. Most will be confident about surviving, but a disturbingly large minority are facing an existential crisis.

The knock-on effects of a cascade of business failures seems to be too sensitive for policy makers, who are trying to keep a brave face. If contingencies do exist, they’re not sharing them.

Public Income

The EU, Australia and now China have all announced budget support measures in the form of grants. All told, external development assistance will reach nearly VT 20 billion this year. This will backstop waning tax revenues and provide a degree of confidence as the government continues its ambitious infrastructure rollout.

Citizenship by investment programmes continued to cook along in 2020, with an estimated VT 12 billion in revenue for the year. This represents roughly 70 new approvals every month.

How this compares to VAT isn’t entirely clear. Days before this went to press, Customs & Inland Revenue released a chart showing monthly revenues to the end of 2020.

Using a bar chart showing tax revenues for 2019 for comparison, it appears that tax revenues have dropped considerably, and they fluctuate much more than in previous years.

Beyond that, there’s just not enough data to make a firm statement.

Information Starvation

Finance’s silence is consistent with other public information services. The VNPF has not responded to repeated requests for member numbers and contribution rates. The National Statistics Office latest trade reports date from December 2019.

As things stand right now, it is nigh impossible for members of the public to know the current state of our economy.

Information keeps changing. July’s Half Year Financial Update report stated that GPD growth in the first half of 2020 was 0.6 percent, but when Finance Minister Johnny Koanapo addressed Parliament in November, that number had been revised to -4.1 percent. The growth forecast for 2021 was 4.0 percent in the Half Year report, but by the time the minister spoke, it had reached 5 percent.

The International Monetary Fund appears to contradict both of them, forecasting a -8.3 percent contraction in real GDP for 2021. The IMF’s models overestimate tourism’s role in the economy, and the Fund wasn’t able to conduct an Article IV review last year, due to the pandemic.

But even allowing for a relatively large waffle factor of 3 percent, the IMF’s forecast still seems more plausible.

In the face of unprecedented crisis, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. But with the economic health of the nation at stake, openness and transparency are needed now more than ever.



The hole is deeper and wider than anyone thought it would be. Australia’s top health officials are now saying they doubt their borders will re-open this year. That means near-zero incomes for many operators.

Without more fiscal intervention and a much more concessionary financial environment, international chains actors will be forced to make hard decisions about their global operations. These could impact hundreds, even thousands of livelihoods, directly and indirectly.

Locally-owned up-market resorts may be better positioned to weather a prolonged drought, because their community ties will help them and their employees to work together to ensure their collective survival. But this has to be weighed against chronic cash flow, staff, and supply chain management challenges they face. Without help, it’s likely that some of our greatest local success stories won’t survive.

Boutique operations, especially beach-side attractions and guest houses, will be more resilient, but the massive cost of two consecutive dry years might be enough to dissuade them from re-opening. If their priorities change, they may change permanently.

The knock-on impacts on education, nutrition, sanitation and healthcare are considerable. Without a significant investment in community level social services, 2021 could bring real hardship to parts of Sanma and Tafea, as well as rural Efate.


A rebasing is underway to enlarge the role of agriculture in the national economy.

Despite a number of good ideas and a clear goal, an actual strategy has been slow to emerge. Early plans haven’t adapted well to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, continued inflows of domestic and donor support will make agriculture more attractive to many Ni Vanuatu than any other activity. With employment likely to drop drastically, we may see more peri-urban and rural land on Efate placed under cultivation than ever before.

Santo is best positioned to benefit from increased commercial farm activity, with Malekula and Tanna not far behind.

In the face of a piecemeal rollout, those with the most entrepreneurial spirit will be the most likely to prosper.


Heaven help Air Vanuatu.

The airline has suffered mostly in silence since the beginning the pandemic. In hindsight, its ambitious expansion plans could not have been timed worse.

The knock-on effects of the 2018 ATR crash have gone largely un-noted, but the airline’s decision to scapegoat the pilot rather than address the institutional issues that resulted raise serious concerns about its ability to manage even its domestic fleet.

Even before domestic travel restrictions and cyclone Harold threw its inter-island service into a cocked hat, the airline was already under capacity, facing chronic scheduling problems and rising passenger dissatisfaction.

Their newly selected CEO is an old hand. Whether this is the talent the airline needs to avoid an existential crisis remains to be seen.

The potential impact of a failed airline on the national economy is enough to make even the most cold-blooded observer flinch.

International shipping will continue to suffer from global interruptions, and air cargo is almost non-existent. VAT and excise revenues will therefore be extremely volatile for the rest of the year at least.

Domestic shipping and local land transport have covered some of Air Vanuatu’s decline. But lack of regulation is raising real health and safety concerns. One local passenger liner was spotted traveling in reverse with visible flames spouting from its stacks. No enforcement action was taken.

The widespread increase in rural road quality is opening up real opportunities for land transport operators across the country. Improved access to markets is helping farmers nationwide. This is one bright spot in a gloomy year ahead.

Industry & Construction

Small-scale alternative energy generation will continue to grow, fostering a cottage industry in provision and rollout.

Hardware and residential construction in Sanma and Penama provinces will continue apace as these provinces slowly emerge from the chaos of cyclone Harold. School and health centre reconstruction projects will benefit local contractors for years to come.

Nationwide, we should see significant activity as the country’s ambitious infrastructure buildout continues. The degree to which contracting and procurement remain unmarred by graft will be a major determining factor in the impact of these projects on the nation’s economy.


The coming year will be as hard, if not harder, than 2020. Without major sectoral and financial intervention, those whose plan was just to survive until the new year will be facing a major gut-check. The calendar has rolled over, but nothing’s changed.

Given what we know about the state of affairs globally, regionally and nationally, it’s hard to be optimistic. If we can generate more of the grit we found to survive 2020, we will make it through.

Last year was a write-off. This year may be too. All our time and energy right now should be focused on avoiding what the Lowy Institute calls a Lost Decade.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Plotting a longer course

It’s no mystery why there’s an increased sense of urgency in news and commentary regarding China’s every move. Deng’s oft-quoted admonition to ‘hide your brightness; bide your time’ has become increasingly threadbare over the last decade.

We have yet to see any irrevocable actions by the CCP, but it does seem clear that the tempo of their engagement is increasing. It’s often hard to see a coherent plan in China’s decade-long drive to expand its influence, but even without one, it’s obvious the point is to dominate.

They don’t want a place at the table; they want the table itself.

That means coopting the international mechanisms that might place limits on its dominance, and diminishing the power of any nation that might contest their pre-eminence.

Australia—and to a lesser degree, New Zealand—have found themselves at the increasingly sharp end of a shoving match between the USA and China. Donald Trump’s illogical and strategy-free dust-up with his rival may actually have distracted and diffused China’s own plans, pulling them into a tit-for-tat trade war they likely didn’t want.

But opportunism has been the hallmark of Xi’s foreign policy pretty much from the start. He’s been happy to pave the most-trodden trails that his billionaires and generals have blazed and call it a (Silk) road. Sure he’s chastised those who, like Jack Ma, have wandered too far, but for all his voluminous Thought, he hasn’t really promulgated a clear vision beyond a vaguely Trumpian ‘China First’ stance.

That might be enough. The world stood by and watched Hong Kong fall. Germany has discovered that trade is the better part of valour. New Zealand has scuttled behind the ferns, hoping to escape notice. And Australia is feeling increasingly isolated and vulnerable, with no clear plan of its own, and few clear assurances from its traditional allies.

In tense times, it’s hard to resist the feeling that you should be doing something, or that what you’re already doing isn’t working.

China’s recent moves in Hong Kong, India, the South China Sea, near Taiwan and in its international trade relations are all designed either to incrementally advance its own position, or to incrementally diminish that of its rivals. They are designed to make our fear of escalation preclude any retaliation at all.

It’s a common tactic, used by most powerful nations at one point or other. It’s specifically what a Rules-Based Order is designed to curtail. When we accept that there are objective limits to behaviour, the ability to bluster and bluff is diminished. Retaliation is placed outside the bilateral relationship, and is applied in a predictable and repeatable manner.

China’s not the first to deviate from this regime. They’re just the ones who are clear about wanting to be quit of it.

No, wait: That’s not accurate. They want to replace the Western rule set with their own.

For decades, the world has watched the USA diligently applying trade rules, treaties and international law to every problem but its own. It has championed the development and maturation of the WTO, the UN and countless other institutions. And it has flouted them with equal energy and aplomb.

Their (mostly) unspoken role from the start has been to maintain order, not to subject themselves to it.

To a lesser degree, this is the path that Australia has followed.

In the Pacific in particular, Australian foreign policy has been served with large helpings of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ For all its claims that its aid is benevolent and altruistic, it becomes negotiable and subject to review the instant Australian national interests are challenged.

In fairness, there’s been a lot more carrot than stick over the last five years. The Pacific Step Up has consisted largely of fatter budgets and more attention to Pacific island priorities, often at the expense of broader global engagement.

This is a direct response to the more transactional approach taken by China when dispensing foreign assistance. With one major proviso, it can be described simply as ‘Be a good friend, and be rewarded.’

The proviso is that, as I hinted above, Xi isn’t always driving the agenda. Commercial interests play an oversize role here. CCECC is arguably more influential than the CCP in the Pacific. Kickbacks, incentives and fat contracts are honey to our political classes, and to Chinese contractors who are increasingly desperate to keep the income flowing.

But again, Xi’s schtick is to pave the pathways and call it policy.

After China pulled Solomon Islands out of Taiwan’s orbit, there was some speculation about what would happen to MPs’ constituency development funds. These funds have grown over the last two decades to achieve an outsized importance in the political landscape. They dominate the budget. They create a significant incumbency factor. In the past, MPs had a slightly more than 50 percent chance of being re-elected. In recent years, the return rate is over 75 percent.

As one academic put it, you either have to be an incumbent or rich to stand a chance of being elected.

Taiwan was largely responsible for creating these funds, but spent the better part of a decade extricating itself from them. By the time it left, its contribution to the CDF was negligible. The Chinese were reportedly hesitant to support them at all, but that stance seems to have shifted. It may be that they see the benefits of being greeted by the same faces every time they come calling.

It’s been rumoured that they’re considering exporting the tactic, too. As early as March this year, we may see an announcement concerning Chinese ODA being given directly to Vanuatu MPs. If this happens—and that’s still a live question—it would likely coincide with a trip to China for some of them.

China’s increased reliance on grants and gifts rather than commercial or concessional loans is an indication that the CCP is willing to nationalise what were primarily commercial relationships.

The question of how to counter what’s perceived to be a tightening grip on Pacific power elites is, quite rightly, a pressing concern in Canberra. There is an increasingly loud chorus arguing they should fight fire with fire. The same kind of transactional approach should be taken. Individual MPs, ministers and power brokers should be wooed away from China. Not for reasons of ideology or national interest, but simply because Australia is the better friend.

This will no doubt appeal to Scott Morrison, who excels at building personal relationships, and who downplays principle in the face of politics.

There’s a certain logic to playing to his strengths. But he should resist it. The reason is simple: If it comes down to a bidding war, Australia will lose.

The only way to win is not to play.

It’ll be tricky, trying to find the balance. But Australia’s national interest is best served by sticking to principle, to making the International Rules Based Order stronger, not weaker. And that means subjecting itself to those Rules, too.

Climate change is a global imperative, and must be recognised as such.

Australia may have a momentary respite in trade and diplomatic pressure as China re-orients to face smarter, more coherent opposition from the USA. It should use that time to reformulate and re-energise its support for democratic principles. That means renewed institutional support for large-scale labour mobility and freedom of movement generally, good governance processes, stronger media relations, backstopping security and strategic concerns, and Being There when disaster strikes.

Australia’s longer-term commitments in the areas of health, education security and governance often go overlooked. That’s because they’re designed to be low-key, driven by local actors, and responsive to local needs. But most of its successes have come from here.

A few of its failures have too, but they too tend to be less visible. Better still, they’re correctable. Longer timelines make recalibration not only easier, but inevitable.

Scott Morrison needs to see beyond his own tenure as Prime Minister in order to navigate Australian competition with China in the Pacific. That means DFAT and Defence primarily will have to do some quick work to plot a longer course in the face of a rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

US Defence Strategy for the Pacific Islands

This is just a footnote to the much more informed and insightful analysis by Rory Medcalf of the recently declassified US Defence paper on the Indo-Pacific.

Buried down below many other details is an expression of the desire to “Solidify our diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic, development assistance, and information advantages across the Pacific islands.”

Those islands, somewhat curiously, are listed as the “US Territories, Freely Associated States, Melanesia and Polynesia”. So I guess Kiribati and Tuvalu can wait. (Of course they’ll be included, but it’s indicative of the knowledge deficit that currently exists in Washington.)

Of all the items that need solidifying, I’d suggest that ‘information advantages’ need it most. Building more familiarity with the dynamics in Pacific island nations, cultures, organisations and sub-regions is a rewarding undertaking. It’s pretty low-cost, and can be achieved in a number of ways.

Mostly it’s just a matter of actually being here. Getting a first-hand look at the scene became a priority for James Mattis when he became Secretary of Defence. He sent two top DoD officials on fact-finding tours, and followed up with lower-level visits. Following his departure, the torch seems to have been passed to White House National Security Council, who sent Matt Pottinger on a round of the islands. He later became Deputy NSA.

Pottinger recently made the news by resigning in protest against Trump’s despotic coup attempt. From a selfish perspective, that’s kind of a shame, because he could have been an effective advocate for what Professor Medcalf suggests is an ongoing attempt to ensure that the Biden administration will stay the Indo-Pacific course.

There are several steps that could go a long way to rebuilding ‘information advantage’ around here. Travel, tourism, trade and cultural exchanges are all trivially easy to ramp up (relative to military spending, at least).

Airline subsidies, budget support for tourism-related infrastructure development, and spending on media and the arts are all areas where even a few millions dollars could make a startling difference for a Pacific island country.

Providing a diplomatic backstop for Pacific efforts concerning climate change would also breed a lot of positive karma here. Especially so if American clout were used to gently inch Australia toward a slightly more sane climate posture.

Easing the onerous—and for most people, effectively prohibitive—visa requirements for prospective visitors to the USA could also be easily done, and because there are so few of us, it would have almost zero impact on domestic views on travel and immigration.

Television shows and movies regularly featuring Pacific content have a proven audience. Just ask Disney, or Jason Momoa, or Dwayne Johnson. With New Zealand just a short flight from most locations, the logistics of shooting here are easier to manage today than ever before.

Direct participation in international law enforcement work, and especially in the Cybercrime Fusion Centre planned for Port Vila, would go a long way to building trust between partners and instilling more understanding and respect for rule of law.

And this may seem trivial, but expanding—and in some cases, re-establishing—the presence of the Peace Corps in the Pacific would also have a significantly positive impact at the community level here. And as anyone who’s ever lived in the Pacific knows, everything happens at the community level here.

The recent string of visits to Pacific nations by senior American officials represented the highest-level of engagement many of our countries have seen since WWII. It should be continued. If the declassification of this defence strategy document does nothing else for us, that alone could still be counted as a win.

One last note. Rory Medcalf notes a gap in the strategy document: a failure to anticipate “the challenge of Chinese influence in the South Pacific” which he characterises as “an indication that Canberra’s activism there is an Australian initiative”. I’d be inclined to agree, though with a different inflection.

Australian alarm at the perceived potential for Chinese military expansion into a patch they considered their own was almost certainly a contributing factor for Sec. Mattis’ decision to get his own eyes on the problem. I read that as a sceptical response to Australian concerns then, and I suspect the failure to rank it as a significant threat in this document means their assessment didn’t match Canberra’s.

The decision to declassify this document helps promote Pacific island interests. I only hope there are people here willing and able to follow up, people who are not afraid to ask for more.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Ain’t no 3rd World No More

If nothing else, we can hope that the ongoing shitshow in Washington will serve as a reminder that the trope of corruption-ridden Third World autocracies is false. And if we take that lesson to heart, we need to consider what that does to the assumptions ruling much of development theory—and indeed in defining what development even is.

Back in 2015, the decision of Speaker and acting head of state Marcellino Pipite to pardon himself and 13 other partners in crime was treated by the international press with supercilious glee. It will be interesting to see whether the USA will be as successful at countering such a threat to their democracy as we were then.

More than a few people in the Pacific and elsewhere have challenged developed countries’ right to define good governance, and to prescribe how it can be achieved in young democracies.

A number of them are quick to criticise because they don’t want to be held accountable. But an equal or greater number sincerely question the moral right of more powerful countries to dictate norms.

China was arguably the first wealthy country with a presence in the Pacific to pull away from this behaviour. Their transactional approach to bilateral relations was welcomed by some politicians—mostly those who were tired of being lectured to. They appreciated the deference shown to them. They appreciated being treated as equals.

Prime Minister Charlot Salwai attended an international conference on ‘Global Economic Governance Innovation’ on his first visit to Beijing. On each of several visits, he was treated to the same pomp and circumstance accorded to any other head of government.

Decisions concerning development priorities and use of Chinese grant funds were not negotiated. The amounts and timing were, but not how they were used.

I once pressed the Chinese Ambassador for an explanation of why China agreed to gift our much-maligned conference centre to the nation. He insisted it was entirely the government’s choice.

“I asked them, ‘Are you sure?’” he said. “They said yes.”

He shrugged and smiled helplessly. Co-owning the bad ones is the price of showing respect for the government’s decisions.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its pride of place in the Pacific development landscape, Australia had never invited a Vanuatu prime minister to visit. Not at least until increasingly frantic representations from the local high commission were finally heeded. Malcolm Turnbull finally welcomed Mr Salwai to Australia in mid-2018.

Parochialism has always underpinned assumptions about development. From Bob Geldof’s well-intentioned but snide suggestion that wealthy nations should let starving Africans know it’s Christmas to the parachute aid mechanisms developed by international NGOs, and so accurately lampooned by the anonymous author of the Hand Relief International blog. I expect it will survive us.

There’s been more than a little holier-than-thouness among the chorus of adherents to a Rules Based Order that seems quick to impose expectations on others that are not being met at home.

But last week’s events have highlighted the fact that democracy is a process, not a product. It can’t easily be packaged for export, although it appears to be susceptible to purchase.

If only one thing that emerges from this horrorshow, let’s pray for a collective realisation that democracy:

  1. Costs a lot;

  2. never stops costing a lot;

  3. takes constant effort;

  4. cannot be taken for granted; and

  5. is vastly better than the alternatives.

There are signs that some people, at least, are beginning to see the world differently, and are realising that Us is just Them viewed from a different angle. On Friday, dozens of US State Department officials called for a communiqué to:

“explicitly denounce President Trump’s role in this violent attack on the US Government. Just as we routinely denounce foreign leaders who use violence and intimidation to interfere in peaceful democratic processes and override the will of their voters, the Department’s public statements about this episode should also mention President Trump by name. It is critical that we communicate to the world that in our system, no one — not even the president, is above the law or immune to public criticism.”

That’s a heartening sign, but it’s clearly a minority view. Already, the forces that drove the American insurrection are gathering themselves for a second putsch—er, push.

So even if there is a transformation in the way we approach development and democracy building, I doubt that will happen quickly. And even if it happens soon, it’s likely to be focused much closer to home.

I fear the result of this will not be an embrace of global values, but a collapse into inward-focused nation-building.

On the one hand, that could buy Pacific nations some intellectual space to define themselves and their own particular values.

On the other hand, it could provide cover for any number of selfish acts committed under the banner of nationalism.