The Pacific wants cash, not ‘gifts’
8 July 2022
My favourite grandson, Asher, outspokenly declared to me at the age of 8 what he didn’t want for his Christmas present. ‘Please don’t give me a woolly jumper, they’re so scratchy!’ It was an unusual answer to the question of what he did want. When I asked him how would he react if he had received the woolly jumper, he answered he would thank me, but only out of politeness as instructed by his mum.
Gifts are a tricky area. One Christmas, I gave my wife a nicely wrapped copy of the Norfolk Island Telephone Directory. After unwrapping this very slim booklet, she asked me for an explanation.
Hugging her, I declared, ‘Darling! You are so unique, I thought I would buy you a present that no other woman in this whole country would get for Christmas!’
I watched her smile turn to a menacing frown, and – in case she had the urge to stab me with the letter opener knife she was holding – I quickly gave her another gift of jewellery wrapped in Christmas paper.
You have to do your homework on gifts and ensure they meet the basic desires of the recipient.
So, what on earth have the Samoans done to Australia that warrants us giving them another Guardian Patrol boat as a gift when it is of no use to them?
In 1976, Australia donated the $6.5m ferry Queen Salamasina to Samoa. This ‘gift’, designed and built in Dillingham Western Australia, was too deep in draft to get within 200 metres of the ferry terminal at Mulifanua. I was there at the arrival ceremony, and the furious Prime Minister Tui Ātua Tupua Tamasese Tupuola Tufuga Efi demanded that the Australian High Commissioner Allan Deacon take it back and give Samoa the money instead. Deacon persuaded the Prime Minister to give him six weeks to sort it out, and within four weeks Deacon was posted to the Middle East
This Queen Salamasina became an economic millstone around the necks of the 200,000 residents of Samoa as covered in detail in Denis Gallagher’s recent book Of Shoes and Ships and Scotland.
Three years ago, Australia gave Samoa a Guardian patrol boat Nafanua 11 – a skinny Western Australian designed and built monohull with exposed propellers and rudders either side of the keel, absolutely useless for South Pacific small harbour access that are mainly fringed with coral outcrops, and easily damaged which it was. After an Australian taxpayer $2 million exercise bringing it back by submersible barge all the way to Cairns, it was classed as a total write-off.
Just firing up the 2x2000kW caterpillar-powered Guardian class patrol boats adversely affects the GDP of these 13 recipient nations, where diesel now costs close to $3 per litre. So, to patrol each of their economic zones of roughly 125,000 square miles, is generally unacceptable to their stringent budgets and most of the time these vessels lie idle.
Does anyone in DFAT visit and ask these South Pacific nations what they need? Or are these bureaucrats still in lockdown and ‘pretending’ to working from home while watching as old gunboat diplomacy movies like Sand Pebbles?
Only Fiji’s ex-Prime Minister and formerly brigadier in charge of Fiji’s defence force, Sitiveni Rabuka, has had the boldness to say to Australia in 2002 at the Interferry Conference on the Gold Coast:
‘Please do not treat us as beggars and give us a boat that carries 14 people and a gun. When I have hundreds of my people stranded on a beach after a cyclone or tsunami, I need a practical vessel that can carry and land ambulances, medical aid, bulldozers etc.’
While the press gave wide coverage to Rabuka’s speech, this didn’t stop the flow of patrol boat ‘gifts’ to our South Pacific brothers.
With the usual patronising attitude, our Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in her first visit to Samoa, ‘We are giving you another Guardian Class patrol boat as a gift.’ The inexperienced Minister Wong should have added, ‘Or is there something else you would prefer?’ The Samoans, like all the other island South Pacific nations, would have answered promptly, as they have a very good knowledge of what vessel types work, but are too gracious to reject this unwanted gift.
Australia has a track record of foisting unsuitable ‘gifts’ into the South Pacific. This is partly why the Chinese had an easy entry to all these nations by asking, ‘What would you like?’ despite the questionable underlying terms and conditions.
Years ago, I spent a hilarious dinner evening in Vanuatu with agricultural and civil engineering consultants where we swapped stories of unsuitable Australian Aid gifts and we came to the conclusion that Canberra should be renamed ‘Fort Fumble’.
Watching two senior media figures last month on television discussing the Solomon Islands’ ‘ungrateful attitude’ towards Australian aid gifts made me jump for my laptop and send them a quick lesson from the marine industry perspective. Our lazy media should get off their backsides and do some fact-finding visits.
My other favourite grandsons are well organised in carefully nominating their gift preferences writing the exact specifications including colour, size, serial or model numbers, firm in the knowledge that I will remain within their guidelines. Perhaps there are job vacancies in DFAT for 13 and 15-year-old boys who already are highly skilled on the subject of gifts…