“As Christians, we are called to walk or to voyage in the way of Christ. To tread lightly on the earth and to sail gently on the seas. We are called to act justly, to be compassionate and to live humbly with our God.”
From the deck of the traditional voyaging canoe, the Uto ni Yalo, Rev James shared a message on 1 Corinthians 12:14, 26 “one body, many members” and what that means for people in the Pacific.
“As members of the global family of God, the global household of God, we are reminded that we are our sisters and brothers keepers,” he says.
“In this time of climate crisis, as creation is groaning, as our sisters and brothers continue to cry out for justice: economic justice, political justice, social justice, justice for creation… We are called to act.”
The Women in Ministry project supports women in the Pacific to study theology and seek ordination, equipping them for leadership in the Church and community.
UnitingWorld’s Mardi Lumsden and Tanya Lee Fenwick have prepared an update about the scholars currently supported.
“Our determined and resilient scholars have hit the ground running in Semester One. This is the first time all our students have been undertaking post-graduate study. It is a testament to their determination and the support of their churches. We also have some wonderful news to share about past students’ success. In this update, we have included video links with greetings from Rev Geraldine and 2021 graduate Asinate, as well as current student profiles. We encourage you to print these profiles and display them to remind you or your congregation of the women you are supporting. Your support, both financial and prayerful, is so important to the students, their churches and the team at UnitingWorld.”
More than 70% of women in the Pacific experience violence at the hands of a man in their lifetimes.
With the vast majority of people across the Pacific self-identifying as Christian, Pacific churches have been taking responsibility to speak up for the rights of women and girls, and calling out violence and inequality as a sin. As part of their mission to support the welfare of communities, churches have been using biblical teaching to encourage men and boys to understand that gender justice sets people everywhere free to live life to the full.
While many countries in the Pacific escaped the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and economic slow-downs placed additional pressure on communities already at risk of gender-based violence. UnitingWorld supported partner churches to step up their efforts to protect women’s safety and autonomy during a season of extreme crisis.
Pastor Dorothy remembers being astonished by the idea that God’s vision for humanity included equality between women and men.
“I attended my first workshop in December 2018 with Rev James Bhagwan from Fiji, who opened the Bible to show how gender equality is part of God’s plan for us,” Pastor Dorothy remembers. “It was incredibly eye opening. I had never seen it before, and it had certainly never been taught in theological college.”
Pastor Dorothy is now the Gender Equality Theology Minister with the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu in a part of the world where women are too often held back from reaching their full potential. Men are the traditional gatekeepers of power and authority, and women have often been regarded as possessions, to be disciplined in whatever way a man chooses.
“The work we do is critical and allows me to help all different groups of people–clergy, administrators, congregations and children–to understand how equality between men and women is part of the Biblical story,” Pastor Dorothy says. “We work together to make practical changes like stopping family violence and giving women opportunities to lead in our homes, families, churches, communities and nation.” The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu is actively evangelistic, and has oversight of schools and colleges, as well as a theological college to equip its ministers.
Like many Pacific nations, Vanuatu is constantly threatened by natural disasters and their impacts on people’s livelihoods and the wider economy. Alongside the gender justice work, the Presbyterian Church also educates people about the need to be prepared for and actively work against climate-related disasters.
“As a church we draw inspiration from John 10:10 where Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life, and life in abundance,” says Pastor Dorothy. “That means the gospel is relevant for every aspect of life. Jesus is a very practical saviour for humanity, a man of justice and compassion.”
UnitingWorld supports this Pacific-contextual biblical teaching, developed and led by respected Pacific theologians, to work in and through churches to address violence and advocate for gender equality. It challenges the patriarchal ideas of ‘male headship’ and ‘wifely submission’ that often justify gender-based violence, countering them with Bible-based theology of gender equality and respectful relationships.
Ultimately, this work shifts behaviours by changing beliefs: churches develop equality and protection policies, and preach and model equality in their communities.
Between January and June 2020, UnitingWorld’s partners delivered Bible-based messages supporting national government health and domestic violence advice to 49,675 people across fourcountries. This past financial year, 23,109 men and women engaged with our gender equality program.
Around the world and here in Australia, church leaders are active in the fight against conspiracy theories targeted at people of faith.
In Sydney, Rev Alimoni Taumoepeau who works for Uniting Mission and Education, says he worries that migrant communities are being influenced by views that vaccinations are a conspiracy to control populations, and that COVID-19 is part of God’s judgement on the world. Rev Alimoni, along with the incoming Moderator of the NSW/ACT Synod of the Uniting Church Rev Faaimata (Mata) Havea Hiliau, have been vocal about the importance of following health advice as an imperative of faith.
Further afield in Fiji, COVID-19 cases continue to climb and political unrest has destabilised the country even further. The Fiji Council of Churches is urgently conducting webinars and calling on the church and religious leaders to use Scripture and teaching to encourage their members to get vaccinated and adhere to COVID-19 regulations.Among all our partners, churches are using their extensive networks in hard-to-reach places to share credible information in the form of posters, radio broadcasts and through social media.
The United Church in Solomon Islands (UCSI) released the below statement on COVID-19 vaccinations recently. We were encouraged by the faithfulness and wisdom shown by the UCSI leadership to guide people past fear and misinformation. Many more partners across the Pacific, Asia and Africa have been supporting national vaccine rollouts by asking their leaders to set an example and urging every eligible person to get vaccinated.
The Stand of the United Church in Solomon Islands on COVID19 Vaccination
The United Church in Solomon Islands has always taken a very positive and supportive stance of the view, policy and strategic actions of the present government regarding COVID19. When COVID19 became a global pandemic, and from the time the government declared a State of Emergency, the UCSI has been proactive and active in its advocacy and educational awareness efforts, utilising the wide reach of its presence and network. While church members were asked to pray fervently for God’s protection, they were also encouraged to listen to and obey instructions from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services. The UCSI recognises the reality that COVID19 has crossed into our borders, and affirms the fact that all Solomon Islanders and expatriates who reside/work in our country are vulnerable.
“The United Church in Solomon Islands holds firmly to the truth that grounded faith and sound medical-scientific advice are not enemies!”
The United Church in Solomon Islands holds firmly to the truth that grounded faith and sound medical-scientific advice are not enemies! They are companions on the journey of and toward wellness and wholeness. The church believes that wisdom and knowledge are from God, including medical-scientifc discoveries and breakthroughs. In this light researches into, discoveries and development of COVID19 vaccines are manifestations of such knowledge and wisdom. They are answers to the prayers of all God’s people. Life is God’s gift, and all that affirms, saves, protects, nurtures and advances this one life is within God’s vision for life to thrive on Earth. Contrary to the many negatives that people say, vaccines – including COVID19 vaccines – are life forces within the vastness and depth of God’s immeasurable loving kindness and generosity, which science continues to tap and harness for the wellness and furtherance of human life.
Faith is vital to Christian life and living. Yet, without appropriate action, faith means nothing – it is dead! COVID19 is more a medical infliction than a crisis of faith! COVID19 is not about choosing between faith or taking the shot! It is about both faith and taking the vaccine shot! Taking the vaccine shot validates and actualises faith during these COVID19 times. Leaders of the UCSI who serve at the church headquarters have all been fully vaccinated. Many other church leaders and members have also received their two vaccine shots.
“Taking the vaccine shot is a duty of love for neighbour”
“Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is a Christian imperative! In COVID19 times, “your neighbour” includes infants and children and youths who are under 18 years old and, therefore, not eligible for the vaccine shot! Taking the vaccine shot is a duty of love for neighbour! “Do no harm. Do the right thing. Do the good thing.” Obviously, these are ethical wisdom from our cultural and traditional moorings. These are also ethical principles from our Christian heritage. Taking the vaccine shot is the best and wisest ethical choice anyone can make during COVID19 times. Emmanuel means “God with us”. This “God with us” is best told and seen when we demonstrate God’s protective, saving and healing presence to our families and communities by doing the right and good thing that does no harm to them – that is, by getting the COVID19 vaccine today!
The Pacific Conference of Churches has invited members to celebrate the Season of Creation (1 Sept to 4 Oct 2021) by reflecting on our place in the oikos (home/household) of God and what it means to renew our relationship to a creation under threat.
The oikos is a home for all but it is now in danger because of greed, exploitation, disrespect, disconnection and systematic degradation. The whole creation is still crying out. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution the geography where we recognize God’s creative power has continued to shrink. Today only scraps of the human consciousness recognize God acting to restore and heal the Earth. We have forgotten that we live in the household of God, the oikos, the Beloved Community. Our fundamental interconnectedness has been at best forgotten, at worst deliberately denied.
It is our hope and prayer that we can become again this beloved community of intentional discipleship. We hope to move beyond the programmatic and didactic aspects of life to the prophetic and spiritual life to the action and way of life, which is shaped by Jesus.
May we be the champions to renew life, the servant leaders of all life in the Beloved Community, the oikos of God.
(Taken from the introduction to the Celebration Guide)
The PCC’s Ecological Stewardship and Climate Justice team has provided a liturgy, activities and Sunday School Bible Studies to guide congregations through the season:
The Pacific Conference of Churches’ (PCC) annual Pacific Day of Prayer will be observed this year on Friday 7 May.
The liturgy for 2021 year revisits the theme of the 11th PCC General Assembly: ‘Singing the Lord’s Song in Strange Lands and Times.’ Click here to download PDF
The introduction from PCC General Secretary Rev James Bhagwan has been republished below.
Songs of Lament, Songs of Resistance, Songs of Hope
Warm Easter Greetings from the Pacific Conference of Churches Secretariat!
I apologise for the delay in this Pacific Day of Prayer Liturgy which this year, revisits the Theme for the 11th PCC General Assembly and is at the heart of our work from 2019 to 2023: “Singing the Lord’s Song in Strange Lands and Times”.
To say that these past 14 months have been difficult would be an understatement. This has been a major challenge for our Pacific people as also around the world, in a way that we have most likely not faced in the last 100 years. COVID-19 has shown our resilience in many ways. Amid sickness and death, unemployment, increased gender-based violence and socio-economic and political challenges, we have strengthened our spirituality, adapted our worship and drawn on our culture of sharing and caring as community and our indigenous knowledge to survive and help others in need.
Yet while the world’s focus is on COVID-19, in our region we continue to face the impacts of Climate Change – rising seas, ocean warming and acidification and extreme weather such as severe tropical cyclones. Lockdowns have been used to impinge due governance and democratic processes in some Pacific Island countries. Our sisters and brothers under the weight of colonial powers face not only economic, ecological and social oppression, their communities are at risk from COVID-19 because of decisions made by their colonizers. Under closed borders our seafares cannot return home, and while larger countries are not sending their citizens as tourists (thus compounding our economic challenges with the collapse of the tourism industry across the region), they are extracting our people as labourers under seasonal worker programmes and labour schemes to fulfil their needs. Under neo-colonialism and neo-liberal economics, extractive industries further desecrate our land and pillage our sea as many of our governments follow policies that lead us further into the foreign debt trap.
And so we cry our songs of lament, protest, hope and justice.
This year’s material includes some information on the impact of COVID-19 in our region, names of some our leaders who have died and the names of 16 West Papuans who were killed in the last 2 years by Indonesian Security forces.
I appeal to our member churches that we endeavour to make this not only a day of prayer observed by women’s fellowships but use this material throughout the church, whether on 7th of May as the first Friday in May, or during your annual conferences and synods or on another day this year.
God’s blessings and our love be with you all.
Rev. James Bhagwan,
Pacific Conference of Churches
Easter Message from the Principal of the Pacific Theological College, Rev Dr Upolu Lumā Vaai
This time last year we sailed into the Easter week under a newly arrived phenomenon that amended significantly the texture of normal life for all of us, the Covid19 pandemic. Since then, our lives have been altered forever. As we draw closer to Easter, one year since the pandemic infiltrated our shores, we must thank God and be grateful. The spirit of gratitude must always precede the spirit of negation. The former Principal of the college, Rev Dr Sione ‘Amanaki Havea from Tonga, has reminded us in his theology of celebration that because the Pacific is founded on communal sharing, the idea of celebration underpins life. Every gift should be matched initially with celebration. The gift of life, community, and the Earth. To lose this gift of celebration is to lose the realization of being gifted.
As we sail into the Easter spirit this year, while we normally focus the faith spotlight on the death and the resurrection of our Lord as the main events, it is natural that what happened on Easter Saturday (other Christian traditions called it Bright Saturday) is dismissed. Throughout history questions have been raised: What really happened on Saturday? Was Jesus really in the tomb? Was he sleeping? Was he really dead? Whatever happened on that day, it is clear from the biblical storyline that Saturday is part of the salvation process that God intended through the life of Jesus Christ. Easter Saturday, just like Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is not just one of the three days Jesus was dead and back to life again. Rather, personally, I would prefer to think of Saturday as symbolic of God’s time to expose our fragility and vulnerability. A time to remind us that God’s willingness, through Jesus, to be in the tomb is a divine resolve to be in deep solidarity with those still trapped in dark depressing tombs ― whom S.J. Samartha named in his poem “Saturday people”.
Squeezed between Good Friday and Easter
Ignored by preachers and painters and poets Saturday lies cold and dark and silent
An unbearable pause between death and life There are many Saturday people
To whom Easter does not come
There are no angels to roll the stones away
In the pre and post-Covid19 era, some people have moved on, resurrected from the torture and agonies imposed by uncontrollable forces such as pandemics and climate change. Some are still struggling, still carrying an unbearable cross in a never ending road to find one thing: Release! However some are still trapped in dark tombs, unable to see the dawn of the resurrection day, immersed in an unbearable pause between death and life, the now and the beyond, the here and the not yet, with no angels to assist to move them out of the tomb. Like some Israelites and prophets in the wilderness, they never get the chance to move into the promised-land. They dreamt of milk and honey but never tasted it.
Most Saturday people are not strangers to us. These are the people who are unable to press further, trapped in depressing tombs endorsed by rapacious systems designed to unroll tomb stones and eliminate hope for life in the beyond. There are children who never grow old because they die from the malnutrition and the scarcity of food and water due to unjust economic systems in many countries. In the midst of wars and crises refugees sail on crowded, poorly equipped dinghies ― never arriving on dry land to find the peaceful, normal place where they hope to raise their children. Climate displaced communities never have the chance to heal from climate induced disasters. Vulnerable women, men, and children never see another day, due to constant beating and to extreme family violence that is also systemic. Adults never see the success of their children because they suffer from non-communicable diseases due, not just to individual choices, but more to the breakdown of the national health and socio-economic system. Detainees and immigrants never see a courtroom to fight for justice as they seek a home away from their troubled and war torn homes. Students fail before even trying, never see their full potentiality because their cultural and distinctive worldviews are normally denied by the established education system. Covid19 victims never see their loved ones for the last time before they die, abandoned by a failed health system. Many indigenous peoples are pushed not just to a margin, but to a margin of margins by rich corporations who flourish by turning lands and oceans into crucified ecologies. Economic systems, assisted by political complicities, are designed to make people accept without question the modern human-made tombs such as poverty, slavery, and secularism, to name a few. These are Saturday people that require our attention as we move into the Holy Week.
This Easter, one year after the start of the Covid19 pandemic, we are invited to resituate and realign our mission strategies to target those who die outside the promised-land. Those who continue to carry crosses built by empires, trapped in crucified bodies. Who remain in depressing tombs not because they want to but because they’re forced to.
But in order to do this, the church needs to redeem itself first from the traditional priestly plinth that normally situates priesthood and Christianity as a heavenly elitist society. The church needs to resituate its story within the radical justice-oriented earthly mission of Jesus on behalf of the Saturday people: the poor, the orphan, the outcast, the marginalized. A church that disturbs and unsettles rapacious systems that are Babylonian in nature ― in order to set free the vulnerable bodies of women, sick people, marginalized communities, and tyrannized ecologies; that assists in “opening up graves” in order to “bring out the dead” who have been turned by war hawks into “dry bones” (Ezekiel 37:10-12), giving them fresh breath, growing sinews, flesh, and skin. Saturday people are normally those who never reach resurrection, who suffer and die with Jesus “outside the city gates” (Hebrew 13:13). We need a church that dares to upend the curse of these depressing tombs to invite the light of the hope of the resurrection to these people.
Resurrection should not be just a bygone phenomenon that vaguely affects our lives, that finds its cadence only in worship liturgies nor should be about a supernatural otherworldly escape. Rather it should be about being in the world to make a difference. As Anthony Kelly reminds us, “the effect of the resurrection is to see the world and to live in it otherwise”. In Luke’s gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus hit the road again, ate and broke bread with disciples. In John’s gospel, Jesus went back to cooking fish and feeding people on the beach. The “resurrection effect” starts with fresh empowerment to go back to deal with real stuffs, real people, real issues, and the real world. It draws its mana and strength from the resolve to enter the darkest experiences of victims for the sake of liberation. For God to be in the tomb changes the whole meaning of following the resurrected Christ. It involves empowerment to be part of the real struggle of real people to help dismantle the systems that prevent them from realizing the promise of an empty tomb.
Let us remember the many victims of Covid19 during this Holy Week. May this post-covid19 Easter set a new tone of response to the crucified Saturday people, and a resurrection-filled cadence to those still trapped in dark depressing tombs! Manuia le Eseta!
Upolu Lumā Vaai Pacific Theological College 29 March, 2021
In so many places around the world, relationships between men and women can be a source of much pain, anger and suffering. Violence against women is distressingly widespread, not only in less developed nations but in our own communities. And attitudes are so deeply entrenched, in some places neither men nor women understand where their beliefs and actions come from, let alone how to change them.
In the Pacific, churches are starting with the heart, and their approach is proving incredibly successful.
Like most places in the Pacific, Vanuatu regards itself as a deeply Christian nation. The Bible is revered and on Sundays, large numbers of people attend worship. How is there such a disconnect between the love of God and record levels of gender based violence?
Pacific churches are realising how much change is needed to transform the relationship between women and men, and in partnership with UnitingWorld, are working on ways to make it happen.
The most effective tool by far?
The example and teaching of church leaders who have personally undergone huge shifts in how they understand the role of women and men. These men have the reach and influence to create change at local and national levels- and they’re up for the challenge.
Elder Jennery, pictured above with his wife Faina, is from Tanna, one of the southern islands of Vanuatu’s archipelago. People live in traditional ways and are proud of what it means to be ni-Vanuatu. Jennery took part in a Gender Equality Theology (GET) workshop back in February 2016, and his views and lifestyle were completely transformed as a result. You can hear him talk about the experience, alongside his wife, here.
“When I arrived home, I went straight to my wife and called her “Darling” and hugged her,” he relates. “She was confused because I never did this to her. I then apologised to her and told her about the GET workshop.”
So what’s a GET workshop, and does it produce more than affection for wives?
Elder Jennery and other workshop participants heard from the Scriptures that men and women are created equal in God’s sight.
They read passages that revealed Jesus’ love and inclusion of women, and heard about God’s desire that women and men work together, serving one another and the community in love.
For many men, this is completely eye opening information. The insights have never been presented in quite this way before – and certainly never really heard. The casual superiority of men, and their abuse of this power in the form of violence, was entirely debunked. There could be no justification of the treatment of women as possessions, or of the way they are systematically repressed within many Pacific cultures.
Elder Jennery took the new information to heart.
Keen that his wife understand the full extent of his transformation, he encouraged her to attend a five-day workshop, run by the Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union (PWMU), “so that she could develop her understanding and knowledge, and especially take a break from the housework.”
In response to her concerns that the housework would go untended and the children neglected if she were to attend, he made good on his new values.
“I told her that I would take care of the children, bought her a new dress and took out from my pocket 2,000 vatu for her needs,” Elder Jennery says.
“For the first time for both of us, we did something new. I took care of the children during the absence of my wife, did the cooking, washing of plate and clothes, preparing the children’s lunch box, and my wife left the housewife responsibilities and attended a workshop…
Friday, the end of the week, I was in the kitchen peeling the tapioca [root crop] when she came back from her five days’ workshop. She sat outside the kitchen and started to talk about her experience and what she had learned. She was so excited.”
For good reason. This is how change begins – in the hearts and lives of ordinary people.
Church communities are by no means exempt from the darker aspects of the patriarchal culture they’ve inherited. It’s commonplace for men to discipline their wives with violence of all forms. Women are mostly left in sole charge of household duties and care of their children, meaning they can’t work outside the home or create any economic independence.
Even a simple change in the way men and women relate will have far reaching consequences both now and for the next generation.
“My husband started to help me with the responsibilities at home and with the children and also looked after them when I went to work,” says Jennery’s wife, Faina. “After he did the training I realised he loves me and loves the children – that’s when I saw change.”
Confidence in the love of men for children, too, is critical. Children learn quickly from their parents and community what their culture permits and restricts – and violence has long been condoned.
In a study on Vanuatu by UNICEF in 2015, 17% of women who experienced violence from their partner said their children were beaten at the same time.
They reported that their children:
experience nightmares (16% increase)
display aggressive behaviour (19% increase)
need to repeat a year of school (12% increase)
drop out of school (14% increase).
Elder Jennery has become aware of these statistics and their implications for the future of his people.
“I really want my children to live this kind of life, with women and men equal,” he says. I want my children to follow a new path. We need more of this program, to help run more courses.”
For Elder Jennery, the commitment to a better way for his children has meant exerting his influence as a leader within his community. He travels with his wife more often and they share their educative work. One area of practical change has been in the way their community now involves women in decision making.
Women in Tanna have been traditionally excluded from a direct role in village decision-making through the ‘nakamal’ (meeting place). Every day at 4pm, all the men and boys have to be at the nakamal to have men’s talk. This exclusion is echoed in higher levels of leadership where Church, provincial and national governance structures remain male-dominated.
Due to the influence of Elder Jennery and others, men in his community now accept that women can take leadership roles and have the right to speak in a public place. Since 2018 they have ordained six women as Elders in his session.
Jennery also encouraged his wife to learn Bislama and go to a midwife workshop – she is now the village midwife and has helped reduce the number of maternal deaths and stillbirths in the area. More children are in school, too: both girls and boys.
The community has also seen a reduction in violence against women. Elder Jennery and others have continued to run GET workshops, and the outcomes have been significant.
“On the second day of the workshop I realised that I was abusing my wife and children,” one prominent village Elder admitted after he attended the training.
“My community know about me and knew that I am an Elder, but I am abusive. I have used knife, axe and physical force to abuse my wife, but this workshop helped me to realise that my actions are wrong and I would like to openly confess to my community that I will never again practice violence in my home. The GET workshop has helped me understand that we men and women are equal because we are created in the image of God and we must love and treat each other well.”
Perhaps most significantly, the change is being recognised as necessary not simply because some men behave badly, but because of deeply entrenched cultural attitudes that require an overhaul. Opening the Scriptures, and with them the hearts of both men and women, holds real potential to make it happen.
“I think we need to admit that this part of our culture is not in line with God’s word,” a significant village leader declared after attending the Gender Equality Theology workshop. “It is time for us to start to choose God’s way instead.”
This is the life changing, deeply transformative work that your gifts are helping to fund. Thank you!
The Sub-Committee was asked to inquire into how Australia could meet current and emerging opportunities and challenges facing the Pacific island region.
The initial roundtable on June 18 heard witnesses from non-government and intergovernmental organisations working with partners in the Pacific region. UnitingWorld National Director Dr Sureka Goringe was invited as a witness to present to the Sub-Committee and answer questions.
Dr Goringe’s initial comments to the roundtable are below, and the full transcript can be found here (which also contains responses to follow-up questions from Committee members).
We are the aid and partnerships agency of the Uniting Church and, through our relationships with the churches in the Pacific, we have a history that goes for over a hundred years of connecting and collaborating with Pacific island churches and church communities. That’s historically been in collaborations in social services like health, education and WASH, and in more recent times the collaborations have also included support for building up governance and leadership capacity, supporting Pacific churches to do sustainable community development in the Pacific communities, and working on gender equality, in particular around women’s equality and the safeguarding of children. Our perspective is one of both an aid organisation and a church relational organisation which has very deep connections throughout the Pacific.
Our primary recommendation to this inquiry was that our relationships with the Pacific really need to engage with churches in the Pacific, churches being probably the strongest and most influential civil society organisations in the Pacific. Engaging with them has a whole range of reasons around it, which include the fact that they are deeply embedded in community and are very influential in the public. You can build on a very long relationship between Australian churches and Pacific churches, a history of collaboration and mutual respect. Also, the Pacific diaspora in Australia is very active within Australian churches. To channel that and to leverage those connections between the Australian Pacific diaspora and Pacific communities, working through churches, would be very useful. And, finally, churches, as established local community institutions within Pacific countries, have leadership structures at sub-national, national and also regional levels that give us hooks for the Pacific step-up program to connect with and meet people. I think it’s a channel into deep community grassroots as well as highly connected and influential aspects.
Our second recommendation is the Pacific step-up and the building up of relationships in the Pacific really need to be centred on the aspirations of Pacific Island people, and I think that kind of manifests in a couple of different ways in our experience. For us, the biggest thing is that it requires Australia to deal with the issue of climate change with integrity. Before the pandemic wiped everything else off people’s agendas, climate change was the No. 1 issue to worry about. Climate change remains, still, the biggest existential threat to life in the Pacific. And if we don’t engage with Pacific people with a willingness to grapple with that, we have the risk of undermining everything else that we try to do with the step-up initiative.
The second thing that comes out of that—that is, if we focus our desire to build relationships with the Pacific on the needs of the Pacific people—is there is, in our experience of engaging very widely across many countries, a desire for models of development that are not just a mimic of the Western model of development that Australia may have pursued in terms of industrialisation and trade. There is obviously desire for an improvement in quality of living and access to services, but there is also a very strong desire for tapping into Indigenous knowledge, being conscious of social and cultural values in development. In particular, for the past 12 months we have been engaging with a movement called Reweaving the Ecological Map, which is a collaboration between universities and churches in the Pacific. It is actually trying to put together a framework for development, from a Pacific perspective, that brings together the value of the natural environment, and the social, emotional health and wellbeing of people as well as the economic wellbeing of the community. We have an opportunity here. This is a moment in time where Australia could step in—not step in, but step up to partner, to nurture, to support and to accompany Pacific countries in a journey of development that is driven by their own agenda. This is a great opportunity for us to have a huge amount of integrity, rather than necessarily driving development in the Pacific based on our own understanding of what is the right solution.
Another aspect of the needs of communities and people in our relationship is just making sure that with the things we are doing to support Pacific economies, like the labour mobility programs that we’ve got—both of them—that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by creating economic wellbeing at the expense of community. We are finding at community level that long-term absences of working-age parent cohorts cause significant harm to families, and there is a price being paid at the community level for having Pacific Islanders spending long times working in Australia. We’re not saying we should stop that; we’re just saying those schemes need to be re-evaluated to look at social impacts. As an aid organisation we’re being asked by communities to support them to address the social problems that are being caused by the absence of adults when children are growing up, so issues of dependency, abuse of alcohol and other substances, gambling, pornography and whole range of other issues when parents are absent from communities for lengths of time.
And the last aspect of what we’re really recommending to this committee is the whole-of-government aspect and how Australia’s efforts to approach the Pacific through the step-up is perceived in many places as being fairly self-serving. We’re hearing back this idea that Australia was treating the Pacific like a pawn in a game of a regional stand-off with China. I think we need to make sure that other policies and how we work holistically, particularly in trade agreements around our aid program, and in particular how we as a country address climate change with our internal policies, is going to play a significant role in whether our approach to the Pacific is seen to be genuine and have the interests of both parties. The Pacific’s relationship with Australia is very strong. One of the most profound experiences for us in the last months is realising that when, during the summer of the bushfires, when Australia was going through a pretty tough time, all of our Pacific partners raised money for the Australian churches’ emergency effort. This contribution and this mutuality is a very strong base from which to build.
I’ll wrap up by saying that we have very strong relationships between Australia and the Pacific, particularly through the churches and through a huge amount of collaborative work that has been done in social and sustainable community development. But that approach will have to be built on assertiveness in the Pacific and a willingness to grapple with climate change and our ability to make sure that things that we do in one place don’t backfire in other places. That’s what’d we’d like to say, and we’re very happy to take questions later.