"Listening", "Pacific family", "relationships".
I must admit, after hearing those three keywords being communicated by Australia's new Foreign Minister Penny Wong in a recent speech she made during her first visit to the Oceanic Pacific, I thought to myself: she must have Oceanic blood in her!
Seriously though, she hit the nail on the head with the words that she obviously carefully chose to use, because building and nurturing relationships, referring to us as family and confirming that Australia is ready to listen and hear what we have to say is exactly what we have been advocating for in the aid, development and humanitarian spaces in which we all interact. For such a long time.
Wong said: "This is a different Australian government and a different Australia," adding Australia would stand shoulder to shoulder with the Oceanic Pacific as its family during the climate crisis. This needs to be celebrated. I don't think any foreign minister from a Global North country has ever made that specific reference to the Oceanic Pacific, ever. I understand it to be a symbol of decolonisation, equality, shared power and simply respect for each other.
In 2020, I held courageous conversations with 35 women leaders across the Oceanic Pacific who have worked with Global North organisations, including in Australia, over the past three decades to contribute to my research "Creating Equitable South-North Partnerships: Nurturing the Va and Voyaging the Audacious Ocean Together". Many of these women leaders shared with me how they felt unheard and undervalued in many of the projects, activities, and programs they were involved in with these Global North partners. They felt the connection was unequal, where the one with funding or deep pockets held a superior position and the connection was very much a beneficiary-funder partnership. There was no attempt to genuinely listen to each other and invest in building and nurturing relationships.
To quote one of those women leaders: "You can sense it from the way they communicate and the things they care about, which is always about numbers and tables and reports and ticking the box. It's never really about our relationship with each other and making sure we learn from them, and they learn from us."
As a member of the wider Oceanic Pacific women's rights and feminist movements, I feel a sense of excitement and an overwhelmingly new type of energy. It almost feels like I, and many other women's rights activists and advocates, have regained our superpowers back. Developing equitable partnerships and achieving empowered relationships, as Wong has boldly communicated, is a form of superpower. We are so ready to story-tell our experiences, our knowledge, and our visions for a better Oceanic Pacific for all - in particular for our women and girls in all their diversities, who often are at the brunt of the unfolding crises that we have witnessed of late.
We are ready to engage in talanoa so we can learn more about you, and you about us. This is the only way we can move forward together, in an equal partnership with shared values, goals and visions. Decolonising our minds and hearts is at the core of building and nurturing relationships. Tongan academic and poet Dr Konai Helu Thaman defines decolonisation as reclaiming indigenous Oceanic perspectives, knowledge and wisdom that have been devalued or suppressed because they were - or are - not considered important or worthwhile.
Penny Wong has made a strong call to change this, and her commitment to a First Nations foreign policy is an important signal. Linking this to a feminist foreign policy approach would go even further to decolonising Australia's relationship with the Pacific. I, and my other Oceanic sistas working in this space, look forward to having meaningful talanoa with our Australian counterparts in Oceania and in Canberra about the many issues we still need to work on for the betterment of the lives of women and girls, men and boys in all their diversities.
Don't get me wrong, past Australian governments helped tremendously with many economic, social, political, and cultural developments in Tonga, and no doubt the rest of the Oceanic Pacific. But somehow, just somehow, I feel this government is ready to dive deeper into the deepest of ocean basins in the world - the Oceanic Pacific - to nuture relationships and move forward as true partners.
We still have a long way to go with improving the lives of women and girls and ending all forms of violence and abuse, having some of the highest statistics in the world. Globally, we have some of the lowest numbers of women in parliament, and some of us still have laws and policies that outright restrict women's and girls' access to economic resources. To change this story, we need to change the way we have been navigating the oceans. It starts with listening, family and relationships.
Welcome on board to the double-hulled waka, Minister Penny Wong! Let's navigate these waves together, audaciously!
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