Australia Must Confront Its Past as a Colonial Power in the Pacific

Anthony Albanese’s Labor government claims that it views Australia’s neighbors in the Pacific as “partners.” For this to be more than hollow rhetoric, Australia must face up to the injustices it has committed as a colonial power in the region.

A crowd gathers in New Guinea as a proclamation of British annexation is read in 1884. The territory then became an Australian colony in 1902. (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales via Wikimedia Commons)

After winning the federal election in May this year, Anthony Albanese’s Labor government has devoted considerable attention to strengthening Australian relations with Pacific island nations. Only days after being sworn in, foreign minister Penny Wong visited Fiji. Then, in July, Australia sent a strong delegation to the Pacific Islands Forum, led by the prime minister himself.

In part, these diplomatic endeavors represent an implicit criticism of the previous Liberal-National Coalition policy. Pacific island governments frequently criticized the administrations of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, and Scott Morrison over their weak stance on climate change and their insensitivity toward Pacific Islanders. Wong, by contrast, has claimed that Labor’s foreign policy is different, and that Albanese’s government sees Pacific island governments as “partners.”

While the new government’s rhetoric suggests a respect for Pacific island interests, a look at this shift’s geopolitical context raises doubts. Recently, China has also taken a renewed interest in the Pacific. And indeed, Australia’s history is full of moments when governments have “discovered” the Pacific after fearing that an external rival would displace Australia’s dominant position.

Australia Rediscovers the Pacific . . . Again

Germany prompted the first Australian panic over the Pacific in the 1880s, when the former took possession of Samoa and pushed toward New Guinea. Indeed, Queensland premier Thomas McIlwraith was so concerned about German expansion that he unilaterally annexed the eastern half of New Guinea in 1883. The move upset the British authorities, who weren’t interested in competing with Germany over small Pacific colonies. As a consequence, they blocked the annexation. In 1884, however, Britain and Germany signed an agreement splitting New Guinea. This gave the British control of Papua, the south-eastern quarter of the island, which then became an Australian colony in 1902.

Australian concerns over the German presence in the Pacific dissipated after World War I, as Australia took control of German New Guinea and Nauru. At the same time, as Japan absorbed Germany’s former Pacific colonies north of the equator, the Australian capitalist class began to fear a new competitor.

Australian fears over Japan’s growing influence were rooted in racism as much as in strategic concerns. During the interwar period, the White Australia policy was at its strongest, and this influenced Australia’s geopolitical worldview. Compounding this, the imperial Japanese government was set on an expansionist course, as it demonstrated in Manchuria and China in the 1930s. Australian leaders therefore envisioned New Guinea as a security “shield” against Japanese attack.

During World War II, this New Guinean shield proved extremely important, as thousands of Australians and New Guineans repelled the Japanese invasion. While the bitter fighting in 1942 along New Guinea’s Kokoda Trail has become part of Australian national mythology, it is rarely noted that at the time, the trail was within Australian territory.

Following the war, Australia became less interested in the Pacific, with the exceptions of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), which it administered until 1968 and 1975, respectively. Australian politicians largely refocused on Southeast Asia, given the region’s significance in the Cold War, which largely bypassed the Pacific.

Australian disinterest began to change in the 1980s, by which time most former French, British, and Australian colonies in the Pacific had obtained their independence. This, combined with political upheavals in places like Fiji, spurred fears among the Australian foreign policy establishment that the Pacific was ripe for Soviet influence. Having once again “rediscovered” the area, the Australian government increased its economic and military spending in the region to shore up its dominance.

In the 2000s, Australia’s interest in the Pacific once again went into a lull, as relations with the region were defined largely by negotiations over refugee detention and Australia’s poor record on climate change. But now, thanks to strategic concerns over China’s growing influence, Australian foreign-policy makers are once again turning their attention to the Pacific.

Australia’s Pacific Empire

From the beginning of the twentieth century until the mid-1970s, Australia was a colonial power in the Pacific region, controlling Nauru and PNG. The two colonial possessions were dramatically different; as a result, both offer some insight into how current Australian foreign policy views the Pacific islands.

Australia administered Nauru between 1921 and 1968. As a condition of taking charge of Nauru, the League of Nations and later the United Nations required Australia to regularly report on the island’s progress toward self-government, a condition that also applied to PNG. This international oversight was, however, a minor impediment to Australia’s main purpose in Nauru: mining phosphate.

Under the auspices of the British Phosphate Commission, Australia imported Nauru’s rich phosphate deposits, which were converted into fertilizer to be used on Australian farms. It is estimated that this left Australian agriculture around one billion dollars richer in the currency of the time than if the country had paid the market price for phosphate.

By contrast, Nauruans received small royalties on these phosphate exports. Although this left the island with a very high standard of living by the mid-1970s, the benefits proved short-lived. Nauru is now marked by an inhospitable landscape, all that remains after the phosphate was extracted. The island’s limestone pinnacles are a constant reminder of Australian colonial rule.

In contrast, Australia’s other, much larger colony, PNG, provided less wealth for the imperial metropole. Between World War II and PNG’s independence in 1975, Australia made many attempts to establish various industries, ranging from mining to logging. However, this never proved profitable, and Australian expenditure totaled over $900 million over the three postwar decades — spending that was necessary to adhere to UN oversight.

Australia maintained a strictly paternalistic administration in PNG. The authorities did not encourage secondary schooling until the 1960s and did not build a university until 1965. An Australian-led executive council wielded true power and denied any say to indigenous political representatives well into the 1960s. Indigenous Papua New Guineans were required to adhere to a curfew and were prohibited from consuming alcohol.

Throughout the colonial period, the Australian administration in PNG effectively segregated indigenous and expatriate populations. This regime was an extension of the White Australia policy, and it also barred Papua New Guineans from entering the mainland, even though they were Australian citizens. The legacies of this policy continue today, as Australia is home to greater numbers of Polynesian migrants (from places such as Samoa) than Melanesians from PNG.

When independence came in 1975, it came in a hurry. Until the 1960s, Australian ministers had continued to argue that Papua New Guinean independence was still “generations” away. However, by the end of the 1960s, Australia rapidly shifted its perspective as a result of international pressure and growing domestic opposition to colonialism. Australian authorities had expected it would take decades for institutions like a national parliament and education systems to take root. Now that Australia needed to get out, however, PNG found itself lacking the institutions required for independence.

Legacies of Australia in the Pacific

Today, many Australians have forgotten the nation’s history of colonial domination in the Pacific — if they were taught it in the first place. The reverse, however, is certainly not the case, and Pacific perceptions of Australia are still shaped by this history of exploitation.

Indeed, Australia still indirectly dominates the region. It’s no surprise that Australia chose Papua New Guinea and Nauru to host offshore detention centers housing asylum seekers barred from entering the Australian mainland. Papua New Guinea is the largest recipient of Australian foreign aid, while Nauru is almost entirely dependent on Australian aid.

And while Australia didn’t directly colonize other parts of the Pacific, it has historically exerted significant influence over countries like Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Leaders in these countries understand well Australia’s tendency to forget and then rediscover the region.

It is too early to know how genuine the new Labor government’s friendly overtures to Pacific island governments really are. People from the region will be paying close attention, however. And if Albanese’s Labor government wants to live up to its rhetoric of partnership, Australia will need to take responsibility for the past injustices it has committed.