Build self-awareness

Understand Australia’s strengths and weaknesses.

What’s the idea?  

Better grapple with Australia’s history and national identity in order to understand its strengths, weaknesses and comparative advantages as a development partner.

What problem does it solve?  

Australia isn’t clear about who it is. The new international development policy sketches out who Australia is: it is proud of its culture, heritage, rights, freedoms, democracy, environment, economy. But many countries would point to these things as core to their national identity. On their own, they don’t say anything distinctive to the region about Australia as a partner. These statements may ring especially hollow when that narrative doesn’t appear to grapple with Australia’s complex history and legacy. Across the region, Australia’s critics have cast it in the role of a coloniser, trafficker, neo-colonialist, double-dealer and party to conflict. Undoubtedly, these perspectives lack balance and nuance. But not talking about these parts of Australia’s reputation, identity and legacy widens the gulf between how Australia sees itself, and how the region sees it.  

Australia isn’t consistently clear about what it thinks is important. In the past, Australia has articulated its foreign policy identity through its values: political, economic and religious freedom, liberal democracy, rule of law, equality, and respect. Recently, commentators have observed that Australia has shied away from a values-driven approach to its development assistance. With the launch of the new development policy, Ministers seem to prefer to talk about the principles that guide Australia’s assistance – such as being transparent, partner-led and non-transactional. In practice, when there is an apparent tension between Australia’s interests in preserving bilateral relationships in the region, and its values around democracy or rule of law, the instinct to skirt around ‘sensitivities’ appears to win.  

Why now?  

There’s momentum for a reset in programs and partnerships. Australia has recently built goodwill through a change of government, a new development policy and rhetoric around partnerships, and overdue commitments on issues that matter to the region. This disruption offers the opportunity to reflect, challenge orthodoxy, and examine the principles that have guided Australia’s engagement. But any government will tell you: the honeymoon doesn’t last for long, and the window to clear the air, acknowledge mistakes and pivot will rapidly close. The Government will have to work to counterbalance the impact of the Voice referendum result on Australia’s international image.

Geopolitical contestation is raising the cost of being a bad partner. China has publicly criticised Australia for its “colonial” and “cold war mentality” in the Pacific, accused it of being a “condescending master” and tried to undermine its partnerships while spreading anti-Western narratives. This messaging finds sympathetic ears in parts of the region, particularly where it intersects with post-colonial urges to address the power imbalances in the global development system. This is not just anti-Australian information warfare: it is also the reported experience of people in the Pacific. If nothing else, changing the way Australia engages with the region simply might give China less to criticise.

How would we implement this?  

First steps would be …

Stop using language that hurts partnerships. Development organisations and Government departments should issue and reinforce guidance against the language and behaviour that irritates partners and harms Australia’s standing in the region. This includes references to the Pacific as ‘our backyard’, development communications that reinforce tropes about white saviourism and perpetuate stereotypes about poverty, and patronising behaviour in meetings. Though Ministers, officials and the broader sector are being more careful to speak respectfully to and about the region, more discipline would help. Australia won’t get it right every time, but it should get it wrong less of the time.  

Understanding what effective partnerships are (and aren’t). A baseline assessment of the health of Australia’s partnerships across the region could inform planning for both development and diplomacy. Not all partnerships are created equal – particularly in international development, where donors and recipients have different levels of power and agency. Using existing tools and resources to define the character and quality of Australia’s partnerships would be a good start. This assessment could also look at who is actually doing the partnering (recognising that Government is often a facilitator or funder of partnerships), and where relationships are mostly transactional.  

Continuing to diversify organisations and perspectives. Government, and the development ecosystem, have committed to diversifying their workforces. This is critical, not just so the face Australia shows the world reflects its community, but so that these organisations benefit from more diverse internal perspectives, that challenge assumptions and biases, and are able to work in different ways.  

Bigger steps would be … 

Measuring Australia’s relationship performance as a partner. Establish measurement of partnership health as a core indicator of Australia’s effectiveness. This could look like incorporating an indicator of relational proximity – which looks at factors like directness of communication and the frequency of contact – into monitoring and evaluation of country programs (for example, through Development Partnership Plan mid-term reviews, or internal program operations health checks).  

Being realistic about the types of partnerships Australia can sustain. Conceive of partnerships as a balanced portfolio of relationships with varying depth and complexity. The collaborative, knowledge-based, exploratory and adaptive approaches that define truly effective development partnerships require intense effort and time. In its current constrained state, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) does not have the resources or capability to do this in more than a handful of countries. Sharp analysis can direct its effort, with clear signaling to staff that elsewhere it will adopt much simpler programs, typically delegated to other partners whose in-country knowledge and interests are greater.        

Reckoning with the past and demonstrating humility. Continue the recent practice of speaking more openly about Australia’s complex legacy in the region. In July 2023 Foreign Minister Penny Wong acknowledged that actions by past Australian governments in Timor Leste had not been in the “spirit of friendship” and were disappointing, and prompted the need for a reset. And in a recent speech, International Development Minister Pat Conroy noted that it was important to acknowledge the mistakes of the past – like the White Australia Policy – “not to pass smug judgement from the 21st century [but] so we can reflect on the past … and do better.” This kind of truth-telling is uncomfortable but necessary. It offers the promise of a new, shared understanding of Australia’s history and role in the region – and with it, space for stronger partnerships.  

A comprehensive response would be … 

Instituting formal feedback processes. If it wanted to go further than conducting the internal, baseline assessment of partnership health, suggested under ‘First Steps’, Australia could expand this into a two-way feedback process with its partners. Doing this at the government-to-government level as part of annual high-level consultations would be illuminating, but all development organisations working with counterparts could institute this kind of process. Partners would score Australia’s partnership performance across criteria such as relevancy, responsiveness, mutual respect and accountability, learning and knowledge exchange, etc. If bilateral relationships couldn’t yet sustain this level of trust and candour, Australia could invest in objective assessment processes – like, for example peer reviews through regional bodies like the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) or Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – that would provide frank feedback on its strengths and weaknesses.

Moving beyond development assistance. Take a truly transformative approach by offering the region comprehensive cooperation on shared priorities, and greater access to Australia itself – its markets, systems, places, and standards of living. This would be a shift away from the donor-recipient paradigm – in which ‘development’ is something that happens offshore, through projects – to something that looks like a mutual exchange of prosperity, security and resilience through deeper integration. Australia is on this track already – connecting with Australia is one of the focus areas of the new international development policy – and has made tangible commitments through its Pacific labour mobility schemes, the Pacific Engagement Visa and the Falepili Union with Tuvalu. Taking this as Australia’s paradigm across both Southeast Asia and the Pacific would recognise the interdependency between Australia and its regional partners.

What is the policymaker’s take on this?  

All of the above will be entirely unconvincing for those who see the soft power and strong ties Australia has throughout the Pacific, and many parts of Southeast Asia. Australia’s complex legacy isn’t holding regional countries back from asking for its development assistance and wanting to deepen engagement in other sectors like security.

And we wouldn’t disagree that Australia builds effective relationships with regional governments, particularly when they’re based on transactional exchanges of funding and assistance. But deepening those ties – so Australia is partnering with a country’s people, not just its leaders and elite – requires a clear assessment of Australia’s strengths, weaknesses, and unique appeal. Looking inward is critical if Australia is to confidently project outward.  

Clarity about who Australia is as a partner – what draws regional partners to us, and what turns them off – could boost the effectiveness and coherency our development assistance, deepen the resilience in those bilateral relationships, and only strengthen our security and position in the region.  

What inspired this idea? 

  • Professor Biman Prasad’s (Fiji’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance) opening address at the Australasian AID Conference 2023  
  • The work, insights and resources of the Partnership Brokers Association and its Funders as Partners initiative
  • Soli Middleby and Susan Engel’s blog for the Lowy Interpreter asking whether Australia’s aid sector needs an anti-racism strategy
  • ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Louise Guttenbeil-Likiliki’s paper on creating equitable north-south partnerships  
  • The Asia-Pacific Development Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue’s webinar on improving Australia’s Pacific literacy  
  • Dame Meg Taylor and Soli Middleby’s paper, ‘Aid is not development: The true Character of Pacific aid, and their respective interviews on the Lab’s Readout podcast  
  • The Whitlam Institute’s research on Papua New Guinean and Pacific perspectives on Australia and the world
  • The Griffith Asia Insitute policy brief on strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific region
  • The Pacific Island Forum Secretariat’s peer review of Australia’s development cooperation in the Pacific
  • The Unites States Studies Centre’s debate paper on the role of democracy promotion in Australia’s foreign policy  

Research and analysis team

Heather Murphy with support from Richard Moore, Bridi Rice, Martina Zapf and Ruby Saulwick. The Pitch is produced by Lab staff, based on analysis and interpretation of open source material, and represents the views of Lab staff only.

Not talking about these parts of Australia’s reputation, identity and legacy widens the gulf between how Australia sees itself, and how the region sees it.

Not all partnerships are created equal – particularly in international development, where donors and recipients have different levels of power and agency.

Looking inward is critical if Australia is to confidently project outward.