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Australia says no. Charles III will ‘acknowledge.’ What now for Pacific islanders?


The people of Yaohnanen on Tanna Island in Vanuatu celebrate the coronation of King Charles III. Photo courtesy of ABC News


By James C. Pearce

London-- Australia overwhelmingly rejected a plan to give its indigenous people greater political rights this month. This comes against the backdrop of increasing noise over whether the former British colony will become a republic. The head of that former colonial power, Charles III, is meanwhile expected to acknowledge the “painful aspects” of the past on a trip to Kenya.


On the face of it, this seems like another setback for the ancient peoples of the Pacific. The focus, perhaps rightly, all seems to be on Africa, which suffered exponentially under British rule. Charles even signaled his support in April for research into the British monarchy’s historical links with transatlantic slavery, after the emergence of a document showing a predecessor’s stake in a slave-trading company.


Certainly, the transatlantic slave trade and Britain’s role in it were abhorrent. Few serious people would deny or want to avoid this. But looking a little deeper into the Australian referendum, we can see Western politics playing out in real-time in the Pacific. Hot-button cultural topics extend all the way out here, even if the conversation is centered elsewhere.


First, let’s consider Australia’s "No" campaign. What were their main arguments for not extending a greater political voice? Primarily, that it would be "divisive." Ordinary people, they argued, do not want to dwell on the dark side of their nation’s history. Leave it for the museum and history classroom, they say. Well, providing these are not overly negative about the white man that is. The same arguments have played out in Britain, the U.S., Belgium, the Netherlands and France as they confront the dark chapters of colonial rule.


But yes, dear reader, I used the term "white man." If we look at another reason the "No" camp put forward, subtle racism is on full display. They argued that giving the indigenous peoples their own voice would "slow down the process of government’." The "wink-wink" insinuation is that the native population is lazy, incapable of government and not up to the task of ruling themselves.


I now ask the reader to search deeply. What stereotypes are thrown around in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and other countries about the native people of Oceania? Does any of this sound familiar? Are the First Nations peoples not still considered primitive beasts or civilized savages?


Most Americans I worked with in the Marshall Islands, including those in high-ranking positions, complained repeatedly about the uneducated Marshallese; their lethargic work ethic, inability to adapt, or listen to basic instructions. A former University president, who shall remain nameless, said it was all a game to the locals, who wasted aid money allocated in the budget, did little work and were dull on a good day. Western colleagues in Micronesia and Fiji made similar comments in private. Diplomats in the Pacific moan off the record to the press about the incompetence of the national governments, musing that private companies could do a better job.


What few admit is that they had an impact on the negative stereotypes and behavior of native peoples. Even fewer want to consider the idea that Western modernization was not necessarily a good thing for the Pacific. To that point, some indigenous peoples backed the No campaign. Their leader, Sen. Lidia Thorpe and the Indigenous-run Blak Sovereign movement. In Thorpe’s own words, "This is not our constitution, it was developed in 1901 by a bunch of old white fellas, and now we're asking people to put us in there - no thanks."


Australia’s No campaign claimed the indigenous people already had a voice. Their ads were vitriolic and often based on falsehoods. They ignored and dismissed the idea that Australia’s indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged in the country. Indeed, across Oceania, foreigners usually live better than the locals. They have more rights, freedoms, economic success and resources than the locals. And how should that make them feel, I wonder?


For many in Australia’s Yes campaign, much like those in New Caledonia who voted for its independence from France, this is yet another rejection from the colonizers; every Australian state voted "No."


That said, there is hope for the Pacific. Charles is more publicly astute than his mother on the negative role his ancestors played in the colonies. He has long been an advocate of climate change and realizes, more than most. its negative effects in the Pacific. He was promoting green policies in Britain before it was even a fringe issue. Moreover, in 2022, Prince William, the heir to the British throne, acknowledged similar historical difficulties on a controversial visit to Jamaica. The Dutch King also made recent apologies for The Netherlands’ role in Indonesia.


The signs all indicate greater acknowledgment of the past is on the horizon. The next question to answer is this: is it ironic, bittersweet, or necessary for Western monarchs to lead the way on that?


Dr. James C, Pearce previously worked at the University of Liverpool and the College of the Marshall Islands, and lived in Russia for almost a decade. He is the author of The Use of History in Putin's Russia, and has written on Russian memory politics, historical narratives, education policy and historical anniversaries. Send feedback to jcpearce.91@gmail.com




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