TO KILL TIME following a minor a delay to their meeting schedule, three middle-aged men with thinning hair, charcoal-grey suits and blue ties stood awkwardly in a line and attempted banter.
HUNCHED AGAINST THE incessant rain and strong winds that were the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Pam, which struck Vanuatu in 2015, I made my way slowly towards the National Disaster Management Office. Port Vila’s buses shot by, splattering me with water and mud, and from one eye I caught their eerie and incongruous mottos: ‘Rasta never die’, ‘facebook’, ‘happiness is free’ and ‘Paris shopping’ flashed past. The turn-off to the government offices was marked by an Ezzy Kill pest control shop that showed a large picture of a stricken rat, while further on, as the street hugged the coastline, there was a wrecked fishing boat, the name of which protruded from a shattered gunwale. Tru Blu II, it read. A short distance away, its sister ship, Felicity, listed dangerously on the foreshore.
‘Don’t stand in the puddle,’ shouted a well-dressed aid worker hurrying past as I stood dripping wet in front of the building. ‘You’ll ruin your boots.’ He handed me an immense multi-coloured umbrella and, brandishing this, I entered the small, glass-sided room known as the fishbowl. I spent almost every waking hour for the next three months in the fishbowl, working as an aid co-ordinator for the international humanitarian response to Cyclone Pam.
Cyclone Pam was the strongest cyclone, until Cyclone Winston in Fiji the following year, ever to have hit the South Pacific.[i] It crashed through twenty-three of the country’s sixty-five inhabited islands at two hundred and eighty kilometres an hour. Two thirds of Vanuatu’s total population was affected. More than thirty thousand houses were destroyed, and there was major damage to crops. Eleven people lost their lives.
This number of deaths was strikingly low, though; many aid workers had flown in from the Philippines where Typhoon Haiyan – until then the most recent experience of a super-typhoon – had smashed cities and killed more than six thousand people. ‘It’s not Tacloban’ (the devastated city in the Philippines’ province of Leyte) was often the observation of uprooted aid workers arriving in the Pacific’s small island states for the first time. The low death toll was a testament to the work done by the Vanuatu government and various development agencies over the years. In my office at the Red Cross office in Melbourne I had a poster in Bislama (the Vanuatu pidgin) that announced ‘Yumi save stanap agansem disasta’ – ‘We know how to stand up against disasters’. It depicted two scenes: one taken before and one taken after a cyclone. In the first picture, a Ni-Vanuatu man stood proudly to attention in front of a carefully prepared house with neat grounds and thatched roof weighed down with heavy palm fronds. ‘Prepareded’ announced the poster with a satisfactory flourish. In the second picture, an absence of such vigilance was evident: a beautiful thatch house had been destroyed, a Ni-Vanuatu woman stood crying out the front and a stern-looking European man with a floppy white hat, short shorts and a backpack was standing by with his hands on his hips. ‘Unprepareded’ read the caption.
Fearing the worst, as the cyclones made landfall, the Vanuatu government had called for international assistance and aid agencies had poured in, accompanied by the military assets of six governments: Australia, New Zealand, France, US, UK and Tonga. In the fishbowl, civil–military co-ordination officers jostled with sprightly French naval logisticians in green jumpsuits and NGO representatives clad, like racing drivers, in emblem-encrusted gilets announcing an endless parade of funding agencies and partners – a compulsory sartorial item known as the ‘wanker jacket’. Prominent among these were the representatives of the Australian government, whose own wanker jackets were emblazoned with red kangaroos and the words AUSTRALIAN AID in bold, in case there was any doubt. While not quite resembling the shorts-and-hat clad versions of international disaster relief envisaged by the Vanuatu disaster preparedness authorities, the Europeans had very definitely arrived.
The relaxed pace of life in Port Vila had suddenly been replaced by military briskness, shouted instructions and a propensity to bellow ‘Yes sir’ at anyone in any position of potential authority. A number of the Australian defence personnel turned out to be white South Africans and, in quieter moments, conversations in Afrikaans whispered around the fishbowl. The soldiers were periodically joined by a surly UN operative who had grown up in what had been Rhodesia and now resided in Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands. Their shared, knowing glances seemed to say ‘We’ve seen these sorts of places before’ – perhaps reminiscing about the good old days back in the Transvaal or the Orange Free State.
By coincidence, I met an old colleague who I’d worked with a decade before in Pakistan. He was also South African, of Indian ancestry, and over dinner he recalled how his family had to run the gauntlet of the authorities as ‘coloureds’ under the apartheid regime. ‘You know what,’ he said, suddenly turning to more cheery matters as he tucked into a rare steak and an ordinary bottle of Côtes du Rhône, ‘I recently had a heart attack. UNICEF has the highest rate of heart attack and divorce in the whole UN System.’ I couldn’t help noticing a touch of pride – the apartheid regime couldn’t beat him in his youth, and he wasn’t going to let cardiac arrest in the service of the United Nations get him down now.
Every now and again, the clamour of the fishbowl would be interrupted as someone from the prime minister’s office appeared and tried to remind the assembled militaries and aid agencies that the government still existed. The director of the PM’s office, Ben Shing, would periodically turn up and read the riot act. With his clipped English accent, army boots, Afro and full beard, he looked more like a 1970s political agitator rather than a high-level bureaucrat. Unlike the quieter and more retiring public servants, he was a ‘Big Man’ in the Melanesian tradition – a relation of the prime minister, an influential figure with licence to alternate from the charming and incisive to the grandiose and overbearing modes of political expression. Staring sternly over his steel glasses, he informed the fishbowl inhabitants that any deviation from the highest standards of humanitarian assistance as expected by the government would result in expulsion. ‘I can make any of you persona non grata,’ he roared one day, particularly incensed by some out-of-date food supplies that had been brought in by the World Food Program. ‘Yes sir,’ shouted the various militaries, while NGO representatives cowered at the back of the room.
Despite the evidence of an already strained relationship between the international responders and the local officials, I needed to find someone in the Vanuatu government to work with. Soon after I arrived I visited all the offices in and around the fishbowl. Slowly, a whole apparatus of administration emerged that had been almost entirely invisible. From corridors and back offices, from behind photocopiers and bookshelves stuffed with mildewed development reports, the state’s representatives slowly appeared. Some I had met on previous visits to Vanuatu and they were softly spoken, courteous and deeply knowledgeable. It was an entirely different world from the self-aggrandising assertiveness of much of the rest of the response community. I asked one government employee if she minded being kicked out of her work space by the arrival of international response. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘In a couple of weeks the men in green will have left and things will be back to normal.’
FOR THE FIRST few weeks after Cyclone Pam struck there was intense activity in Port Vila. In the harbour, the usual parade of cruise ships had been replaced by equally vast naval assets, HMAS Tobruk and HMNZS Canterbury, that steamed around the islands delivering assistance, accompanied by Tongan patrol boats that darted into narrower straits to reach areas inaccessible to the larger vessels. Black Hawk helicopters flew constant sorties to the outer islands, while massive military transport planes overshadowed the local airport as they arrived with fresh supplies. It was a fast, hectic and impressive display of military co-operation and prowess – a logistician’s paradise as the men in green developed elaborate plans to integrate the assets of six different military forces. With incredible precision, French military helicopters would intersect with Tongan patrol boats via Australian and New Zealand cruisers in distant islands and on schedules designed down to the last minute.
But it also seemed excessive. ‘Never let a disaster go to waste’ is a phrase attributed to every hard-nosed politician from Winston Churchill to Henry Kissinger, and it seemed to me that, despite the obvious humanitarian needs, there was something else at play. A delay in shipping items from Australia meant that many of the military assets flew around with relatively little to deliver. Commercial transport companies quickly resumed operations and NGOs quietly and efficiently went about their work, chartering ferries, trucks and banana boats to deliver aid while rendering much of the high-volume military effort redundant. Yet with fears of a rising China beginning to assert itself in the Pacific, Cyclone Pam seemed the perfect cover to flex combined military might and test the strength of the FRANZ Agreement in which Australia, France and New Zealand had agreed to co-operate in disaster response in the Pacific, presumably with a view to wider geopolitical realities. It also presented opportunities for tourists: outside the fishbowl I met a young Australian who’d just been on an assessment mission, having spent the day hurtling over Vanuatu airspace in a Black Hawk. His previous experience in humanitarian assessment had consisted in a brief stint staying at a local resort. ‘Great way to end the holiday,’ he said when I asked what he’d seen. ‘I can’t wait to tell Mum I’ve just flown in four Black Hawks.’
Some days later I was also in a helicopter, trying to get a sense of damage to housing on some of the outer islands. I’d jumped on board with a Red Cross delegate who was managing a program that tried to restore family links. Concerned relatives from New Zealand and Australia had contacted him to ask about the fate of their distant cousins and long-lost aunts. There were five people he had been unable to contact and the only way of ascertaining their wellbeing was to track them down in person. We flew over the deep blue of the Pacific for hours, gazing out at the distant islands and listening to the deep drone of the rotor blades. This wasn’t a fast-paced Black Hawk or snarling Puma but rather a small commercial helicopter that more closely resembled a mechanised mosquito. We scanned the horizon and studied maps, searching for the co-ordinates of villages and possible landing sites.
The pilot descended slowly on unsuspecting hamlets, circling with intent before finding a clear patch in the centre to put down a sophisticated machine in places where there was no electricity or running water. Children spotted us first and swarmed towards the helicopter, excited and trepidatious. Some had seen war films and had observed the flight of powerful military craft charging across the Pacific sky. They assumed, they told us, that we would leap out with guns blazing to start a war. More cautiously, the village elders approached and we announced our purpose: we were looking for missing people, and had a report that an elderly woman in the village had not been heard of since the cyclone. Did she live here? Maybe we could talk? The elders smiled and accompanied us to a small thatched hut at the other end of the village. Having handed her a satellite phone, we stood at a discreet distance as, perplexed but then delighted, the woman spoke at length with a worried relative in New Zealand, packing ten years of life since they had last seen each other into the twenty short minutes allowed for the call.
It was a moving experience. For a day, we were not part of the impersonal apparatus of planning and management that characterised the response co-ordination epicentre of the fishbowl. Instead of the reports and spreadsheets and myriad administrative tasks required to keep donors and headquarters happy, we were assessing the wellbeing of specific individuals – random enquiries by concerned family – who were not necessarily the most powerful, influential or well known in their communities.
After ensuring the woman was well and unharmed by the cyclone, we walked back to the helicopter. As we strapped ourselves in and the pilot started the rotor blades once more, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the elders were clutching mobile phones – possibly able to have communicated the news themselves. It was unclear if the phones worked or whether they were symbols of status and authority that were otherwise defunct. I said nothing at the time and we flew on to the next village.
EARLIER IN 2015 Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, had given a speech at the Australian National University in Canberra to announce a new aid policy. The speech was, in some ways, predictable for a relatively new government that had come to power on a platform of Australia-first populism. There was conventional neoliberal dogma about slashing the aid budget to an all-time low, abolishing allegedly wasteful aid expenditure, reducing aid dependency and dismantling the well-regarded national aid program, while subordinating what remained to narrow perceptions of Australia’s economic and strategic interests rather than the more urgent needs of people living in crisis or poverty or both. The promised new ‘aid paradigm’ would not simply ‘shovel money overseas’ – as both the treasurer and the prime minister had warned – but would underpin economic investment.
‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ observed Bishop – an infelicitous phrase given the likely effect of sea-level rise on small island states. If any of us in the audience thought this was a metaphor, it was soon apparent that she meant it literally. Cruise ships had brought increasing prosperity to Vanuatu, Bishop said, and this, somehow, was to be the model for the future aid program. But there was more to come. The Pacific was personal. Long years ago, she’d had a tryst with destiny: a fervid teenage correspondence with a pen pal in Papua New Guinea meant that Australia’s work in the Pacific, the foreign minister announced, would be ‘a labour of love’. And then she left in a sudden swoosh of security guards and ministerial advisors, closely followed by a cordon of ambassadors to Pacific states, already marching in step to their new instructions. My neighbour, an employee of the government’s soon-to-be-axed independent aid program, tapped me on the arm and asked how she could get a job with the Red Cross.
LATE ONE NIGHT, while visiting the volcanic island of Tanna in Vanuatu’s south – hard hit by the cyclone – I sat with some local volunteers in a nakamal[ii] drinking strong kava. The night was clear, and we listened to the sound of the waves as the powerful crushed-root drink began to take its numbing effect. In an idyllic setting, as the sun set and the evening breeze picked up to relieve us from the heat and intensity of the day, there was also a constant, almost symphonic hawking, hacking and spluttering. Vanuatu’s kava, lightly infused with hibiscus leaf, is among the strongest in the Pacific, and even for regular drinkers the immediate taste is so wrenching that many nakamals have designated areas for drinking and spitting before customers return to their shaded seats beneath trees or thatched huts to resume their conversations. The depth and auditory variety of the hawking spoke of a deeply musical society whose best male voices trained their art in the production of copious quantities of phlegm.
Between shells of kava and protracted bouts of expectoration, we sat and talked long into the night. NGOs had arrived in Tanna to provide assistance and training on how to build houses, but had found indigenous construction and wood-working skills so profound that they had little to teach. Twine cropped from the bush and infused with wood smoke from fires had a tensile strength greater than galvanised wire. The high-vaulted roofs made from local nipa or palm thatch were the cathedrals of the Pacific: cool and strong, they had weathered the cyclone easily. It was the more modern houses that had collapsed. With income from tourism and migrant workers, the newly wealthy in Tanna had started to build with concrete and breeze blocks – ugly, squat and uncomfortable buildings, many of which had collapsed under the pressure of powerful cyclonic winds. Families and sometimes whole communities, having thought concrete buildings would be stronger, had fled as they collapsed, seeking sanctuary in locally built houses and traditional nakamals as the storm was at its height. Those who died did so in this precarious moment of indecision about whether to stay in a collapsing concrete structure or flee into the fury of Cyclone Pam.
In Australia in 2013 I had been attacked in the right-wing populist media for ‘scaring children with climate-change alarmism’, having had a small role in promoting a cartoon that tried to advocate for greater disaster preparedness measures among communities in the Pacific Islands. Being wary of similar responses in Vanuatu, I coined a new and ungainly phrase to avoid the combination of words that were so polarising at home. ‘Do you think the environment is changing?’ I asked the locals. ‘You mean climate change?’ came a chorus of replies. ‘Of course, it is here with us now. We see it all the time – there are few in Tanna who do not believe that this is what’s happening to them.’
They had been slow to understand the initial symptoms, but these became more evident as the effects of climate change magnified. Traditional farming patterns gradually changed as cropping and planting seasons began to occur later and later. Dry and wet seasons had become more extreme and less predictable. Harvests of taro and coconuts had been affected by rising sea levels as salt water had gradually intruded into seaside agricultural lands. And then there were the cyclones, of a strength and unpredictability that shocked everyone, especially as the cyclone season appeared to have become longer. ‘There is no doubt what is happening to us,’ the locals said, but it was not clear what the future held. Many had already left the island and migrated to cities in search of paid work and to escape the growing instability of traditional life, but the money coming back had changed Tanna. New and less-secure buildings replaced sturdy traditional structures, and fast food had proliferated – accompanied by immensely high rates of diabetes and heart disease – replacing indigenous crops. In silent protest, tarpaulins delivered by aid agencies and emblazoned on one side with red kangaroos (to ensure there could be no mistake as to whom the beneficiaries owed their gratitude) were turned inside out, so houses would not be branded by nationalistically assertive donors. As we talked, my lips grew numb with the kava and the ground under the tree softened. The hushed, resonant tones of islanders reflecting on their societies and their place in the world, with levels of sophistication unknown to Australia’s politicians, drifted out on the evening breeze and up into the night.
When I returned to Australia after three months working on the cyclone response, I found a surprising letter. I had been nominated, along with a number of colleagues, for a national award by the Vanuatu government for humanitarian services during Cyclone Pam. I was honoured and regretted that, owing to prior commitments, I wouldn’t be able to attend the ceremony. Several others did, including one person who flew in from San Francisco to receive his medal. But just as Australia’s politicians in Canberra seem to inhabit a parallel universe to the rest of the country, Vanuatu’s leaders exist in an unstable, cutthroat environment far removed from the subtleties of quiet evening reflection in the nakamal. Shortly before the ceremony was to take place, the prime minister had left the country on official business and members of his cabinet decided it was a perfect opportunity to instigate a coup. In a rage, the PM got the next flight back to Port Vila, storming into the government buildings and accusing the coup makers of corruption. With the police on his side, the mutinous politicians were thrown into a shipping container on the wharf – along with their lawyers, for good measure. At the outdoor arena where the awards ceremony was to be held, excited guests dressed in their finest attire waited to receive their decorations in the balmy afternoon breeze. But in the midst of the counter-coup, the awards were forgotten and the deflated humanitarians returned home gong-less.
Some months later, by way of compensation, another letter arrived containing a certificate of participation to which the label of a Granny Smith apple had mysteriously become attached, further endorsing the Vanuatu government’s apparent recognition of my efforts with the words ‘fresh and tasty’.
THE RISE AND rise of Australian populism has had catastrophic effects on Australia’s relations with states and communities in the Pacific Islands. The unrelenting denial of climate change and wanton celebration of coal and other fossil fuels – despite the real and immediate threats facing Pacific communities – means that Australia only worsens the conditions of people and places that its politicians like to consider, in an unselfconscious colonial echo, as ‘ours’. Equally, in appealing to its right-wing base, Australian aid has become simultaneously more assertive, less effective and massively defunded. The relatively sophisticated aid program focusing on long-term development and poverty reduction that existed until the election of the Abbott government has been replaced with the greater use of military response and bigger emblems: oversized red kangaroos now dominate the Pacific humanitarian landscape. While some of the display is aimed at an Australian geopolitical assertiveness in the Pacific, the parade of Australiana is also focused on a domestic audience. ‘We’re big and tough and ready’ the new policy seems to say, despite the fact that the aid program is now funded to the lowest levels since it was established in the 1950s and is based more on chauvinistic self-assertion than on the actual needs of people in developing countries.
In another neo-colonial echo, the deep poverty of current Australian political visions in the region is evident in the use of Pacific states as penal colonies for refugees and asylum seekers. Rather than develop a web of relationships and alliances that would enmesh Australia in what is fast becoming the ocean of the twenty-first century – connecting China, Russia, Japan, the US and South America – the government is sacrificing a crucial element of foreign policy to placate xenophobes in swing seats. As Peter Dutton jokes about climate change, Abbott declares that coal is good for humanity and Turnbull insists on further destroying the Great Barrier Reef. The ‘labour of love’ Julie Bishop articulated so poisonously one autumn morning in Canberra is rapidly becoming the kiss of death.
For all the tragedies of populism, one of the greatest is that those who perpetuate it fail to see themselves as they really are. Australia, too, is a low-lying Pacific island with a small population, fragile economy and vulnerability to climate change that is defined by migration and mobility. The uncertain future of smaller nations may well one day be ours.
[i] Tropical Cyclone Winston hit Fiji with wind speeds up to 320 km per hour.
[ii] A nakamal is a traditional gathering place in Vanuatu, usually quite dark and secluded where men gather in the evenings to drink kava and discuss. It is unlike a Western bar as kava has as mild sedative effect and so conversations are often long and engrossing.