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Australia's Sporting Advantage: Taking Policy to the People of the Pacific

Politics seems to be becoming increasingly ill-defined in the traditional militaristic, interventionist, and realist fashion of the previous centuries. In recent years we have seen soft diplomacy take the stage, with many nations engaging each other through culture. Australia is one of these nations as it reaches out to the Pacfic . 

With an encroaching China seeking influence within the Pacific, Australia worries most about the geopolitical and socio-economic security of the region as the pacific's most influential western aligned power. Despite matching China’s progressions in trade and military influence, another specific angle has emerged over the past four years - sport. 

If you are not immersed in the sporting world, one wouldn’t realise how impactful sports diplomacy has been for Pacific nations (particularly rugby), let alone its potential impact - if initiatives continue to be implemented with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I experienced it first hand, gaining an internship as the Communications Manager for Penina Pasifika, a DFAT funded, Rugby Australia and World Rugby supported Tongan and Samoan women’s professional rugby team – the first of its kind. I saw just how much this opportunity meant for women to play rugby professionally.  

Womens’ participation was not socially accepted until recently in both nations, in fact it was illegal in Tonga until very recently. The fight has been hard, but these women are the pioneers representing the obstacles they have had to overcome, the untapped talent of the islands, and the creators of a future for themselves and the generations to come. Although cliché, it is so much more than a game, it is so much more than just rugby; it is ceiling-breaking, it is expectation-defying, it is progress and a long time coming. 

That is what Australia’s rugby diplomacy has sparked. That is why I believe they have the best tactic of any nation when it comes to soft diplomacy. Australia has put itself in a position that allows it to connect intrinsically with the Island nations of the Pacific, a shared love and passion for rugby that is embedded in Island identity. Their approach allows them to address the issues of gender inequality, often not recognised within the unique cultural traditions of the Pacific. They have acknowledged a need for change that has encouraged the women of Penina Pasifika and others to forge their own paths, because they are just as worthy. Australia has become a necessary ally and source of empowerment for all.

The Fijian Drua is another example, providing pathways for both men and women Fijian players to represent Fiji through a professional rugby team that has fought its way to the finals two years in a row, in effortless Fijian style. Instead of remaining on a governmental level, as arguably much of diplomacy is, Australia has brought themselves to the people, knocking on the door of Pasifika hearts, and has been welcomed with open arms. 

I have seen the positive impact of  such programmes first hand, having lived in the Nadrogan highlands, the home of rugby in Fiji (albeit a biassed opinion), where every Fijian Drua player photo was plastered across the walls of the village hall. When asked why they travelled into Sigatoka to print them out using money they humbly earned from selling in the markets, I was told across multiple generations that it’s a reminder of what we could be and what we can achieve. Australia’s movement to provide opportunities for the Pacific to showcase their talent has seen them  weaved into the fabric of people’s dreams within the Pacific. 

Having supported the launch of the Australia-Pacific Rugby Partnership II, I saw the Right Honourable Pat Conroy, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, speak on the benefits of this partnership, the communities built, and the bright future of further investment, from Papua New Guinea’s sevens programme to women’s rugby and management staff development. 

This is Australia’s unique selling point – there is no other country that has the capacity, ability nor desire to create such a diplomatic programme. This has opened the door to further hard diplomacy and soft diplomacy initiatives in supporting defence and law enforcement, climate and disaster resilience, and human security. Being the region’s largest development partner, Australia has committed to the shared goal of “lasting sovereignty, stability, security and prosperity of all Pacific countries and peoples”. In a way, the extent to which they have focussed on  rugby is selfless, something that the likes of China’s arguable neo-colonialism across underdeveloped nations cannot acknowledge, understand, nor contend with. Selflessness is interconnected with service, and service is upheld as one of the most important values in the cultures of the Pacific.  Australia has gained respect as a partner in many senses of the word through their service to the Pacific. 

Of course, there is the argument from a rugby perspective that this only provides further strength to  a struggling Australian Rugby Union and in a political sense to gain power. However, this is overshadowed by the strengthening of the women’s national team pool through an increased playing schedule. A shining example of this is the Oceania Women’s Rugby Championship seeing incredible results for the recipient nations of the APRPII, specifically the Fijiana XV. Furthermore, the emphasis of the partnership has evidenced fewer tangible benefits flowing back into Australia as a result of their programme. 

So, what does the future hold? Although other nations are attempting to follow the same path, nothing quite hits, passes, or tackles the same as Australia in the Pacific. Hitting the mark on celebrating, sharing, and engaging in Rugby Diplomacy with fellow Pacific Islands. Passing between stakeholders to make it a collaborative, relation-building opportunity for all parties involved; tackling the socio-economic issues faced by the Pacific, supporting opportunities not otherwise independently feasible, and being a reliable, constant development pillar of the Pacific. 

The future is bright, and Australia is going from strength to strength when it comes to building deeper connections at the heart of the unique Pacific cultures. There is much to look forward to, from a possible Papua New Guinean professional NRL team, to having a Super Rugby and Super Women's teams tour to Tonga this July. This tour will be the first time in 30 years a team has done so. Australia is igniting new beginnings, and it is only the beginning.

Image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)/Sarah Friend

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