Nauru: we should treat our neighbour with more respect
Nauru has been struggling to get a good run in the press of late. Tales of business largesse, overseas trips, and big deals make juicy copy, leaving scant oxygen for any other news about Nauru. Coupled with the reporting on the detention centre which characterised Nauru as a bleak island in the middle of the Pacific, the Australian public could be forgiven for having a dim view of the place.
And yet such a view would not appreciate the deep history and friendship which has existed between Nauru and Australia since Nauru’s independence and before.
Originally known as Pleasant Island for its natural environment and the friendliness of its people Nauru is one of two nations (the other being Papua New Guinea) which has a history of Australian administration pre-independence. This history alone means Australia has a particular role of friendship to play in modern Nauru.
With no secondary schools in Nauru for most of the twentieth century there was a long history of Nauruans being educated in Australia. The most prominent example of this was Hammer DeRoburt, the founding President of Nauru, who served in that role for the better part of the first twenty years of Nauru’s statehood.
Hammer was educated at Geelong Technical College and began a long association between Nauru and the state of Victoria and Geelong in particular.
Having a generation of leaders spending their most impressionable years in Australia led to other cultural exports reaching Nauru. Hammer’s love of AFL footy and the Geelong Football Club saw the sport played in Nauru from the 1930’s. It is now the country’s favourite pastime leading to an obvious trivial pursuit question: Which is the only country in the world to have Australian Rules Football as their national sport? Answer: Nauru!
They play the game tough in Nauru. The main oval consists not of grass but rather crushed coral. A gruelling tackle is made at a cost to all concerned. At times tribal frustrations are played out on the footy field leading to brawls which saw an entire season suspended a few years back.
But passion for the game is not lacking. It has a far higher participation rate than in Australia and the 1999 Grand Final saw 30% of the entire population attend the game. There are Nauruans walking around today with christian names that include Gary, Dermot and even Akermanis and Jesaulenko.
The economy of Nauru has long been associated with Australia and phosphate. The phosphate mining, which once saw Nauru have one of the highest per capita GDP’s in the world, was originally run by Australia. It was sold to Nauru around the time of independence. Thereafter Australia remained the principal place of export.
The earnings from the industry were placed in the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust which regrettably saw its capital squandered, much of it through investments in Australia including Nauru House in Melbourne.
From Australia’s view point there are two important characteristics of Nauru which inform our relations.
The first is that Nauru is a small nation. What, by international standards, are small amounts of money become very large in a Nauruan context with a population of only about 10,000. For Nauru it is hard to establish the kind of critical mass which can attract investment and development and keep it. Nauru struggles for economic gravity. And so sadly, what has come easily for Nauru has also gone just as easily.
The second is that Nauru has an intimate history with Australia which makes us very close friends. We have a governance history. The people to people links are strong. We love our sport. We share the same currency. For two peoples with vastly different ancient origins we have, in the last century, established much cultural commonality.
Both points lead to the same conclusion. As a close friend of Nauru, all Australians should act as friends are meant to act.
In the current context of the Getax affair, Foreign Minister Rudd has made clear the seriousness with which Australia takes the allegations of bribery of foreign officials and ensured the AFP continues to conduct a full enquiry. So long as that enquiry is proceeding the less said about the specifics of the affair the better.
Yet this saga points to the dilemma a small nation has in battling within a world of large players – public and private – with financial reserves which dwarf those of the Nauruan people and government. To be sure politicians in Nauru also have a responsibility to understand this and to rigourously pursue the path of Nauru’s national interest.
It also highlights that Australia retains a special role in relation to Nauru. As a government we need to be the very best friends that we can be. And as a people we need to treat Nauruans with exactly the same respect that we would treat each other.
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