Wed. May 27th, 2020

To bubble or not to bubble – there are Pacific questions

SYDNEY, 18 MAY 2020 (GRIFFITH ASIA INSTITUTE)—It should not come as a surprise to learn that there have been mixed responses from Pacific leaders and communities about the idea of including their countries in an expanded Trans-Tasman travel bubble.

These responses reflect a number of things: there are economic concerns, political preoccupations and social anxieties to be taken into account. Not everyone’s concerns are the same. Some are articulated more clearly than others. The only surprising thing about this is that anyone finds it surprising.

In Cook Islands, Prime Minister Henry Puna has said that his country (which has had no Covid-19 infections) will need to re-open the borders to tourists. Cook Islands is one of the most tourism-dependent countries in the region. Having recently become a ‘developed’ country, the government is now looking at having to forego that status in order to access financial support that is not currently available. But the fear of moving too soon and risking the introduction of a deadly virus weighs heavy on political leaders. The region has a history of having been ravaged by illness introduced by foreigners and in the Pacific, people have long memories. And even if they didn’t, last year’s devastating measles outbreak in Samoa, which saw more than 80 deaths is fresh, to the point of being raw. Most recently, Ralph Regenvanu who is leader of the Opposition in Vanuatu has said that pre-departure testing is non-negotiable when it comes to entering his country.

So, as things currently stand it appears that many people in the Pacific are prepared to wear a degree of economic pain in order to safeguard life. Whilst there has been a lot of work done to ramp up health systems across the region, there are still very serious concerns that they would be overwhelmed if outbreaks were to occur.

The question is, how long can this be sustained? In a number of countries, governments have introduced stimulus packages to support struggling businesses and people whose jobs disappeared overnight. However, maintaining these programmes over extended periods of time will prove challenging.

Whilst much of the discussion about the “Pacific Bubble” has been focused around tourism, it is more likely that opening up corridors to facilitate movement of labour will come first. There are a number of reasons for this. First, is that there are already Pacific workers in Australia and New Zealand. They are, in effect, stranded with repatriation efforts by their own governments proceeding slowly and very cautiously. Their plight is mitigated to the extent that they have had their visas extended and can continue working and sending money home. Secondly, numerous employers in both Australia and New Zealand have established relationships that see workers from Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa, and elsewhere return year in, year out. In terms of maintaining efficiency and productivity, they are likely to want to maintain these relationships. Thirdly, other sources of seasonal labour, via working holidaymakers, are likely to be unavailable for some considerable time. Access to workers that come from Covid-19 free countries may well prove attractive to those who have not made use of Pacific labour mobility schemes before. However, there is more to learn about where the gaps in labour demand actually are and are likely to be.

Again, what is required here is to open a conversation of partners and equals. A conversation that is focused on pooling available resources to address shared challenges. This provides an opportunity to shift gears on the Pacific step-up: to move it from something that is done ‘to’ or ‘for’ the Pacific to something that is done WITH the region. As with the question of reopening borders to tourists, there are likely to be mixed reactions to facilitating movement of Pacific labour. Vanuatu is a major player in seasonal work schemes in both New Zealand and Australia. The outgoing Salwai government suspended participation in March and we have yet to hear from the Loughman government what their thinking is on if and when it should be resumed.

The bubble thinking should be expanded further to include opportunities for Australia to become a better and bigger market for Pacific products. Without pre-empting the findings of the ongoing inquiry into Australia activating greater trade and investment with Pacific island countries by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence & Trade, there are significant moves that can be made now. Key among these is to prioritise the trial of commercial importation of kava and to make it fit for purpose by extending its length and providing tailored support to producers and importers to maximise take-up and earning opportunities. As Dr Transform Aqorau, CEO of iTUNA Intel has commented recently:

“For me a bubble would be now working towards a regional economy where we buy and sell to each other, supporting each other by making it easier for all our peoples also to travel freely and easily work in our respective bubble”

To return to tourism, which is where this conversation started, it is clear that political and industry leaders in some countries want a seat at the table. The Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Australia may have given the impression that there isn’t a table yet, let alone a seating plan. However, that is not strictly the case. The Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum has convened an expert group with stakeholders from government agencies and industry to look at what would be needed in order for people to travel safely between Australia and New Zealand at some point in the future. The group is chaired by Ann Sherry who is well known in the Pacific from her days as CEO of Carnival Cruises. Sherry is well placed to ensure that Pacific stakeholders are part of this conversation as it evolves……PACNEWS