This chapter outlines the importance of Australian companies acknowledging the cultural differences and different business practices between Pacific island countries, between Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians and between tribal groupings.
The Sub-Committee listened to the diplomatic representatives of most Pacific nations explain the cultural importance of the ceremonial drink kava for many Pacific peoples and heard how much less restrictions on the importation of kava into Australia would open up significant trade opportunities. Members were also informed about the safety net provided to Solomon Islanders by their tribal wantok systems. The Sub-Committee also listened to the importance of churches across the Pacific and the potential and positive influence on leadership and business linkages of the Pacific Churches Partnerships Program.
Business networks and understanding of Pacific culture
Understanding that the values, norms and ways of doing things matter a great deal to Pacific islanders will be important for Australia’s engagement with the Pacific region, according to the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University.
Pacific island people routinely hold in their minds, consciousness and actions a recognition and a celebration of their cultural diversity alongside a sense of commonality of interest, respect, trust, reciprocity and an understanding of culture. Interacting in sympathy with this ‘Pacific Mode’ of working together – in all its complexities and commonalities - is essential.
Pacific people are looking for reassurance that Australia shares their concerns and is working alongside them, as an equal partner, to address shared challenges.
In trade, aid and other engagements, the Whitlam Institute stressed Australia was only one of many potential relationships for Pacific islanders.
The domestic concerns of Pacific islanders are connected more than ever before to global issues, notably but not exclusively through the climate crisis. Many Pacific islanders are also mindful of the region’s geostrategic significance. Pacific islanders are thus acting with more urgency and confidence in working with international partners, chiefly other Pacific states, Australia, New Zealand and China. In this environment Australia’s natural advantages are confounded by our inability to engage with the ‘Pacific Mode’. Pacific island states can and will turn to other partners if their interests and world-view are not acknowledged by Australia.
Despite Australia’s geographical proximity to many Pacific island countries, Entura that provides renewable energy, water and power engineering services to the region, noted there were cultural differences to be aware of in business with Pacific nations. In Entura’s projects in the Pacific, it would strive to build respectful relationships with governments and communities, and be understanding of Pacific cultural practices and norms.
Some cultural and traditional factors can affect project activity, so it is advantageous to understand these factors and anticipate them in project planning. As one example, the timing of ceremonies or festivals and the expectations regarding involvement in such events need to be considered in setting project or meeting schedules. Another example may be the potential for strong religious views to influence decision making (such as differing perspectives on human versus divine responsibility to mitigate against climate impacts).
Entura submitted it was also important to recognise that the Pacific nations are ‘…increasingly experiencing cycles of movement, in which people leave their homes to seek training or employment, but then return as their families grow’.
Over time, these generational cycles are radically changing the traditional cultures and the economic activity of the region. The cycle of movement, however, can have implications for skills retention, and this should be factored into project lifecycle planning. Including in-situ upskilling and training, institutional strengthening and capability/capacity building as integral part of projects will benefit communities by reducing reliance on imported expertise, and therefore promoting greater independence. Understanding and respecting cultural differences should be an ongoing goal in Australian relationships with Pacific nations and may uncover untapped potential for increasing trade and investment.
The Cairns Regional Council outlined Cairns’ ongoing Sister city relationship with Lae and wider engagement with the Pacific has embedded practices that maintain a natural connection with its Pacific neighbours.
According to the Regional Council these practices are reflected in the presence of organisations in North Queensland such as the Cairns Exchange Innovation and Information Centre (EiiC) and Tradelinked-Cairns-PNG-Pacific. The EiiC and Tradelinked-PNG-Pacific and their Pacific networks are well-placed to provide support in developing trade and community links with our Pacific neighbours.
Differences can be supported and accommodated through their knowledge of cultural practices and nuances developed through extensive experience of working with partners from Pacific nations.
Solomon Islands as a melting pot of Pacific diversity
The Solomon Islands Government submitted that while the country is a Melanesian country, it also ‘…manifests a melting pot of diversity of peoples’.
The heterogenous Melanesian cultures of the country and society is complimented by minority Polynesian communities who populate parts of Malaita Province, Renbel Province and the Temotu Provinces, and, a Micronesian community who were resettled in the country ante independence by former British Colonial Administration in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Solomon Islands is a country with a heterogenous society with cultures differing from island to island and region to region in some of the bigger islands. Some 80 – 85 percent of the population live in the rural areas and engage in subsistence with some participation in the informal sector for sustainance of livelihoods. Youths account for 60 percent of the population.
The Government highlighted that a common but prominent feature of culture in Solomon Islands is close to attachment to family and tribal groups and that land ownership and tenure is determined by blood relations. More than 90 per cent of land on the Solomons is ‘…customary land owned by tribal groups’.
Wantok system is Solomon Islands safety net
The Government described the tribal connections are the basis for a common societal domain across Solomon Islands communities called the ‘wantok system’.
This literally serves as the safety-net in a society where there exists no social welfare system in place to look after the vulnerable and older segments of society. In the days of old and even today, the younger and active members of family and community are expected to accord respect for and take care of their older folks. Generally, the Wantok system is attached to sense of belonging and identity amongst Solomon Islanders.
The Government admitted that the Wantok system for all the ‘…positive nuances it holds also creates also causes challenges’.
It can be a source for devisiveness and discord when there are situations that test social cohesion in a society so heterogenous by setting. Such tests were manifested during the periods of ethnic unrest when Solomon Islands almost collapsed as a country, only for it to be given the lifeline by the regional intervention mission funded and led by Australia and New Zealand in between 2003 – 2017. On the same token, the Wantok system and affiliations sustained rural communities in the different islands when the entire government machinery almost came to a stand still with scarce or no resource to fund public social services such as education and health.
Recognising the cultural importance of kava
Listening to the concerns on the restrictions of kava importation from across the Pacific by the Pacific diaspora and diplomatic representatives, the Australian Government submitted it has relaxed some limitations on kava imports and begun a pilot program.
In recognition of the strong cultural and economic importance of kava both in Pacific island countries and for the diaspora in Australia, we have eased the restriction on kava imports into Australia. We have doubled the amount of kava that can be imported for personal use from two kilograms to four kilograms and will commence a commercial importation of kava pilot program by the end of 2020 to Australia.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, declared it works closely with counterparts in the Pacific to ensure that ‘…cultural practices are supported by trade while ensuring that biosecurity is maintained, viable trade is supported and cultural diversity respected’.
As part of the evolving relationship with Pacific island countries, the Australian Government recognises the importance of kava to family and social life in Pacific Islander communities living in Australia. The department is working with other agencies including Health, Home Affairs, and Foreign Affairs and Trade to facilitate the Prime Minister’s initiative to increase the amount of kava that can be imported into Australia. This acknowledges that kava is vital to the livelihood of Pacific farmers and a potentially important export for Pacific island economies.
DHL Express Oceania that operates extensively throughout all Pacific Islands believed there was much merit relationships-wise in Australia lifting the four kilogram limit further on such a culturally important product as kava in the personal baggage of mostly the Pacific diaspora.
The current import restrictions on kava into Australia may, at one level, seem trivial however kava represents an important part of the Pacific Island cultural fabric. The ability to import more than the 4kg personal baggage allowance would be a good opportunity for producers throughout the region to open up markets in Australia, which contains a significant Pacific Islander population.
Deputy Head of Mission in Australia for the Kingdom of Tonga Mr Curtis Leonard Tuihalangingie agreed the Australian Government was conscious of the need to be fair and to promote trade under the current Pacific Step-up but queried why the importation of kava into Australia is currently restricted.
Take kava, for example. Kava is often perceived in a very negative light—when consumed, it’s a dangerous drug. However, these negative perceptions have simply been debunked.
Mr Tuihalangingie called on Australia to strongly consider the scientific studies that he claimed have proven the pharmaceutical benefits of kava.
These studies have helped to facilitate and maintain market access across the United States and New Zealand, to me to name a few, after years of research and hundreds of millions of lost revenue to the Pacific Islands. Kava not only requires scientific based research to be understood but also requires human-to-human interactions, understanding and discussion…Here you will find that kava is the cornerstone of our cultures, our traditions and our daily life. It binds our communities and it keeps our youngsters from committing crime.
Last year, when we participated in the multicultural festival, 80 per cent of the people that came and asked if we sell kava were Australians with no Pacific island background—80 per cent. Most of them were young fellows in their 20s, 30s or 40s, but kava helps so many things, like stress and anxiety. So we have to look into the other aspect of kava and not only the negative impact of kava.
Mr Tuihalangingie told the diplomatic roundtable that such a culturally important product as kava should even become a cornerstone of Australia’s Pacific Step-up policy.
Allow me to humbly suggest that, should you wish to ensure the success of the Pacific Step-up policy, please include the cornerstone of this region in the Pacific Step-up…I am confident that Australia will recognise the social and economic benefits of kava if it is incorporated in the Pacific Step-up.
Solomon Islands High Commissioner HE Robert Sisilo added that kava was also a booming new crop in the Solomon Islands.
…whenever we talk about kava in the Pacific, it was usually about Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, but not anymore. Solomon Islands, thanks to COVID-19, has now gone into kava planting big time, especially in the rural areas, where they own about 80 per cent of the land.
Mr Tuihalangingie supported the trial, and it being postponed until late 2021 because of COVID-19 but it has led to shortages of supply for the diaspora in Australia and he would welcome kava being allowed come into Australia by post.
We submitted lots of submissions regarding this trial, but, at the moment, the current policy or regulation towards kava only permits an individual coming on a plane to hand carry or check-in four kilos of kava. However, there’s no-one travelling now…Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Health to see what we can do to loosen the restriction, at least to allow the posting of just one kilo or two kilos of kava for the time being until normal travel is permitted and we can go back.
Now it’s $300 for one kilo of kava, and the prices keep on going and going up because there is less and less kava coming in…
The High Commissioner of the Republic of Vanuatu HE Samson Vilvil Fare cautioned against ignoring other international studies of kava when evaluating Australia’s kava pilot.
We should not neglect the good work that has been done in different international bodies that Australia and Vanuatu, but also other Pacific Island countries, are members of. I’m thinking mainly here about the Codex Alimentarius, which is the body that regulates international food standards and which both of our countries are a member of, where kava has been discussed intensively...
High Commissioner Vilvil Fare urged Australia’s Department of Health and other departments that are looking into kava in Australia to take into account ‘all the proceedings and the good work that have been done on kava, not only by the Codex Alimentarius but also within the European Union’.
High Commissioner Vilvil Fare also highlighted the importance of kava to Vanuatu’ economy, exceeding that of tourism, as kava is being exported to different countries, other than Australia.
…in terms of Vanuatu’s GDP, in 2018 kava surpassed tourism to contribute to 64 per cent of our GDP. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have no more tourists coming into the country, but kava is still moving forward. Vanuatu has a huge interest in kava. I think we have the highest number of varieties of kava in the world in the country itself.
When considering standards, High Commissioner Vilvil Fare stressed the importance that Australian Government acknowledges the work of Codex Alimentarius that branded kava as a food and not as a narcotic or as a drug.
This is also something that is important to consider when we’re doing this pilot project with Australia: kava should be labelled not as a drug or narcotic but more so as a food, as a consumable food, that can be consumed by the population.
In the future, we would like to see it moved to an office that is looking after food standards so that we can give kava a positive image by making sure that kava is not classified as a drug or a narcotic—obviously, there are abuses.
Kava was regarded as a food in New Zealand according to the New Zealand High Commissioner Hon. Dame Annette Faye King.
My understanding is that you can import kava into New Zealand…It is treated as a food in New Zealand, but the setting of food standards is done in a joint way by Australia and New Zealand, the states and territories. It is the Food Standards Australia New Zealand agency that actually sets those food standards. I used to sit on that committee, so I have some knowledge of it. You would need to have a proposal for it to become a product that has a joint food standard and then an agreement. It’s not just an agreement with the federal government; it would need to be an agreement with the states and the territories because of the Federation, and New Zealand.
High Commissioner Dame King was unaware if whether kava had ever been proposed by Pacific nations that it be put as a food standard to FSANZ and believed it should be something to consider after the pilot project.
High Commissioner Vilvil Fare believed a lot of negative publicity around kava was due how it is processed.
…that’s mainly because we do not understand the whole process of kava itself and how it’s being processed, from farm to table and the whole value chain of kava…It’s really important that we understand the whole value chain of kava in order have it on the market when it comes to the very end of that. That value chain should also permit the countries who are suppliers but also the receiving countries to be able to have a traceability mechanism in place…so that, if there is a problem within the distribution pattern or its implementation, we can trace it very quickly and look into that.
The founder and director of Fiji Kava Ltd, Mr Zane Yoshida, told the inquiry that his company processes a farm-to-shelf range of supplements and complementary medicines made from kava, which they import and sell in Australia, and in various other markets.
Mr Yoshida welcomed the concept of allowing a ‘kava bubble’ due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and the announcement in Fiji by the visiting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a two-phased approach to the re-entry of kava into the Australian market.
Phase 1 is now complete in that we’ve increased the personal importation of kava from two kilos to four kilos. The second phase of the initiative was the commercial import trials of kava, which were scheduled for 2020. However, due to COVID that’s now been pushed back to December 2021. Given that access to kava by Pacific islander communities in the short term is now restricted, I’d like to request that an interim measure or a kava bubble per se be allowed ahead of the commercial import trials taking place in 2021.
Mr Yoshida stressed the recent breakthrough for the kava industry that Codex Alimentarius, and as a result the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization now adopting kava as a regional standard.
…which means that, as a minimum, kava will be processed to food safety standards. There are a number of exporters in the Pacific, not just Fiji, that already have HACCP Australia food safety accreditation, which would allow kava a pathway for export into Australia for traditional use, as well as for commercial use, meeting, at the very minimum, food safety standards.
The project lead of the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute Dr Tess Newton Cain believed there is a particular discussion needed to be had by the Australian Government around establishing a ‘kava bubble’.
…there is a lot to be done and can be done in the short term about opening up the Australian market for kava, which is a key agri-export for a number of Pacific island countries.
Dr Newton Cain warned the impact of COVID in relation to ‘…opening up the Australian market for kava has been very poorly received in the region’.
I think the opening up a kava bubble, which would allow people to receive their legally allowed personal allowance by having it posted to them, would be a very strong signal on the part of the Australian government as to the importance that they accord and recognise Pacific people being able to express their culture here in Australia, including by use of kava.
Mr Tuihalangingie from the Kingdom of Tonga High Commission stressed that kava presented a potentially ‘…really good trade opportunity for Tonga, for the Pacific and Australia’.
We see that some of our colleagues in the Pacific have turned to other countries beyond our own region. I don’t want to name countries, but Australia could avail the opportunity to have this pharmaceutical here, rather than in Asia or other regions in the world.
Supporting the Pacific Churches Partnerships Program
The Australian Government is contributing $2 million until 2023 on the Pacific Churches Partnerships Program, which aims to build up the leadership capabilities of Pacific Island church leaders to contribute to development outcomes in the Pacific, according to DFAT.
The PCPP provides bilateral and regional capacity building opportunities for Pacific island church leaders, including female and young church leaders, and strengthened partnerships between Pacific island and Australian church leaders. The program is being adapted to assist Pacific churches to manage the ongoing socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 on the communities while fostering links and cooperation with Australian churches and church organisations.
The Cairns Regional Council highlighted the importance of the Pacific Churches Partnerships Program too, and also provision of Australian media content to the Pacific.
National endeavours such as the Church Partnerships Program and the provision of Australian media content to Pacific nations helps foster a welcoming and familiar connection which supports local initiatives such as those delivered through groups such as EiiC and Tradelinked Cairns-PNG-Pacific.
Churches have a role to play in anti-corruption measures
Like any civil society organization, faith-based organisations such as church can play a key role in preventing and fighting corruption, according to the United Nations Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption (UN-PRAC).
In our experience, civil society organizations can and have influenced legislative, policy and political change. Civil society organizations can act as watchdogs and call out corruption in the public and private sectors, act as key agents in corruption prevention (e.g. promotion of values, education and awareness-raising), lobby governments for change, and offer a voice, also to vulnerable groups such as women’s groups, youth organisations and organizations for persons with disabilities, so that their experiences of corruption are acknowledged and addressed.
The UN-PRAC noted many Pacific Islanders practice a religion or belief with Christianity very influential in most Pacific countries.
In most Pacific island countries, the dominant religion is Christianity (e.g. in Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu, it is estimated that respectively 99.2 per cent, 97.5 per cent and 93 per cent of the population is Christian). However, there are also other faiths, such as in Fiji, where approximately 27.9 per cent of the population are Hindu and 6.3 per cent are Muslims.
Therefore due to the large amount Pacific Islanders adhering to a religion or belief, UN-PRAC believed faith-based organisations are influential to a large part of the population.
They have the ability to raise awareness of what corruption is and its risks, to take action to mitigate them, to promote measures to prevent and fight corruption (e.g. how to make a corruption complaint, make a Freedom of Information request), and to undertake values-based advocacy.
UN-PRAC expected faith-based organisations, like other civil society organisations, can play a role in changing social norms and ‘cultures of corruption’. Referring to ‘Ringing the Church Bell: The Role of Churches in Governance and Public Performance’ discussion paper, UN-PRAC noted that churches in Papua New Guinea ‘…advocate for social justice and the rule of law through their involvement in organisations, such as the Community Coalition against Corruption’ or through consultations between church leaders and PNG Government officials.
Faith-based organizations can draw on values from their respective faiths to urge their constituents not to engage in corrupt behaviour and therefore work to change existing ‘cultures of corruption’.
However, UN-PRAC warned that it is important to note that, like ‘any other hierarchical institution, faith-based organisations are also susceptible to corruption’.
It is therefore key not to ignore corruption risks within faith-based organizations themselves. It is paramount that religious leaders are not allowed to act with impunity. Given the ‘many-hats’ situation, where prominent Pacific people can often serve simultaneous roles in government, media, churches, parliament and the private sector, there has been a growing trend observed of such leaders advocating for similar accountability for their church roles as in their government roles.
UN-PRAC noted in PNG for example, churches provide about half of the country’s health services and – in partnership with PNG Government – co-manage some 40 per cent of the primary and secondary education facilities along with two universities.
Given the prominence of churches in the Pacific, their role in sectors such as health and education, and the economic importance of tithing, many Pacific communities have advocated for countries reviewing their national Leadership Codes (i.e. codes of conduct for ‘leaders’) to include faith leaders within the gamut of those ‘leaders’ required to comply with accountability and transparency provisions.