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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 16:22 GMT
Letter: Australia's regional role
Saltpan
Water supplies are in crisis in parts of Australia
In a country besieged by drought, writer and broadcaster Sarah MacDonald considers Australia's environmental and energy policies and their impact on its Pacific island neighbours.

As negotiations to share oil wealth with East Timor stall, she asks whether Australia is perceived as the bully of the region.

For much of the last few weeks it has been pouring in Sydney and over much of the east coast of Australia.

But I'm not complaining. As a fairly typical Aussie, my childhood memories are forever splashed with the joy of water.

When I remember summer I smell wet grass, I feel the cooling spray of a backyard sprinkler and hear the squeals of my siblings as they try to empty our swimming pool with dive bombs.

When I reminisce about winter I see myself leaping into large puddles under heavy skies.

How things change in 35 years. My daughter is nearly two - she's never seen a sprinkler, rarely smelt wet grass, knows not to waste pool water and until now has only jumped in puddles a couple of times in her life.

She doesn't even own a raincoat. So for the last fortnight, she's been in a soggy seventh heaven.

Water crisis

Large tracts of southern and eastern Australia are in drought.

Not only are puddles rare and sprinklers banned but the water levels in Sydney's dams are at 20-year record lows, revealing cracked, dry earth and old farming fences that were flooded decades ago.

The dams for Melbourne, Canberra and south-east Queensland aren't faring much better.

Tuvalu fisherman mends his nets on the beach
Tuvalu locals fear the impact of rising seas on their low-lying nation
We're only allowed to hand-water our gardens on certain days and at certain times. New houses are being required to install water-saving devices like dual flush toilets or rainwater tanks, and a desalination plant is being planned for Perth and discussed for Sydney.

Valuable farming land is parched, wetlands that once teemed with birds are silent and in some parts of the country the number of people so depressed by the impact of drought and requiring counselling has jumped by 1,000%.

The Australian drought is mainly caused by a climate pattern called El Nino.

But it also seems to be the result of the greenhouse effect. This driest inhabited continent on Earth is getting drier and warmer.

And so are the seas that surround us.

Ten years ago I snorkelled the azure warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef swimming above dazzling coral coloured pink, blue, and red and following brightly patterned fish as they darted amidst the underwater wonderland.

Friends of mine who just visited the same spot were devastated to peer down upon dead, white graveyards where nothing moved.

Limited resources

In some ways we deserve it. A study just released by the Worldwide Fund for Nature shows per capita Aussies are the fourth-largest consumer of natural resources in the world.

A large reason for our heavy footprint on the Earth is our rapacious use of fossil fuels, the fuels that are thought to generate the greenhouse effect that's changing our weather.

Like our major ally the United States, we are a huge coal producer - and we use this cheap resource to provide most of our power.

So, again like the US, we've refused to sign the Kyoto protocol, which commits countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Great Barrier Reef
Global warming threatens the Great Barrier Reef
Now I'm not suggesting Australians are environmental vandals.

In some ways we highly value and respect our natural world - we love to camp and bush walk in our national parks and we pride ourselves on having clean beaches and relatively unpolluted skies.

But I would argue the results of the recent election campaign showed we cared more about money than nature - with most voters rejecting the greener policies of the Labour opposition and re-electing the conservative government.

I think our attitude to the environment is also influenced by our "don't fuss - she'll be right mate" attitude.

It's an attitude that can at times be charming but at other times infuriating.

Engagement

Three-quarters of Australians live in a thin curve on the outer rim of the country's east coast.

Squashed into a tiny sliver of beachside real estate we stand with our backs to the desert and our faces to the Pacific.

Yet, aside from tropical holidays, few of us really engage with the nations that dot this magnificent ocean.

We went from being respected as a rescuer to being described as a greedy bully
Perhaps that's because much of the news we hear is bad; tales of violence, corruption and looming environmental devastation.

For as we face thirst, some of our neighbours face deluge.

Melting ice caps are raising sea levels and threatening to sink several Pacific nation states such as Tuvalu, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati.

Because of these environmental problems, as well as a poverty of opportunity, many Pacific islanders are leaving their land.

Most move to New Zealand, which has far closer cultural links to the Pacific than Australia, and is far more generous with visas.

Asylum seekers

When Tuvalu asked us to consider helping with early plans to evacuate its entire nation, should it be flooded, Australia said no.

In fact, we've actually asked some nations of the Pacific to take refugees who are trying to claim asylum here.

Iraqis, Afghanis and Asians crossing hazardous seas in leaky boats are stopped before they reach our shores and held in purpose-built detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea while their refugee status is assessed.

Asylum seekers on Nauru
Australia has housed asylum seekers on Nauru since 2001
This has earned these countries much-needed cash, but it has made many Australians feel uncomfortable and it has raised many eyebrows in the region.

It's not surprising that Australia's attitude to global warming heats the blood of many of our neighbours, but most of them remain pragmatic in their dealings with our country.

Australia is powerful - as the biggest aid donor in the region we are not to be bullied. What's more it's not the Pacific style to create a fuss.

This has suited us well. They ask, we say no. Case closed.

But recently one of our other neighbours was not so easily dismissed.

East Timor is a country we helped towards independence, but the thanks and goodwill evaporated when negotiations over the exploration and development of oil fields between our countries soured.

Australia was attempting to get a grand share of the proceeds it once comfortably divided with Indonesia, but was refusing to acknowledge the role of the International Court in resolving the dispute.

Regional bully

We went from being respected as a rescuer to being described as a greedy bully.

But during the recent election campaign the issue so incensed one businessman he spent A$2m of his personal wealth advertising the dispute.

The ongoing dispute does nothing for our reputation in the region
Retailer Ian Melrose felt Australia was ripping off the small nation so he played hardball, launching an ad on national television.

The pictures showed two young East Timorese looking very sad and needy and the text accused our government of being unfair.

For a few weeks it looked like it had worked.

Last month the government announced a deal had been struck.

But this week the negotiations broke down again. Acrimoniously.

The Aussie government says it offered billions in extra revenue and East Timor has backtracked on its acceptance.

But the Timorese Prime Minister - Mari Alkatiri - seems to be suggesting Australia is either not listening or not understanding what's at stake.

He says while East Timor talks about participation in development, Australia only talks money.

It seems the East Timorese will continue to challenge the boundary between the two nations and push for the gas processing plant and pipeline to be on its soil rather than in the top end of Australia.

Resentment

The ongoing dispute does nothing for our reputation in the region.

The timing is significant. Australia is growing more sensitive to how it is seen in the Asia-Pacific.

That's because it's dramatically changing its engagement.

Prime Minister John Howard has signalled one of his big focuses in his fourth term in office will be in strengthening our ties in what he calls "our patch".

Map of East Timor and Australia
East Timor and Australia are still in dispute over their maritime border
In August he attended the Pacific Islands Forum, announcing a number of funding initiatives in good governance, better trade and disaster assistance.

While it has to be said a lot of the money and benefits will find their way back to Australia, the initiatives were warmly welcomed.

But our new level of engagement has been about more than money.

Recently we led an intervention force into the almost lawless Solomon Islands, providing two-thirds of the troops and police.

Initially the local government and other regional leaders grumbled about our role as a "big brother" but it has been a huge success.

More than 4,000 weapons have been surrendered and lives have dramatically changed.

Pacific Islands

A colleague of mine visited a few months ago and says she'll never forget wading through an isolated river to be welcomed on the other side by villagers beaming the largest smiles she has ever seen.

She was touched by the joy, respect and effusive thanks these people gave Australia for making their lives safer from what she called "hooligans and henchmen".

We've been lucky the force has been so successful because this sort of active security engagement is to become more common.

An Australian is heading up the police force on Nauru and in Fiji, where a police training centre is planned.

Most of us would prefer to see ourselves as an underdog rather than a ruler and few of us want to be painted as big brother
A new aid package costing A$1bn will go to our former colony Papua New Guinea, aimed squarely at boosting law and order.

Australians will soon be involved in day-to-day running of police, the courts, national finances and border security in the country.

Australia is not driven only by concern for the welfare of locals.

There's a fear that terrorist organisations will infiltrate our region via such insecure states using no-go areas to establish training camps for terrorists.

Security enforcer

Yet John Howard must tread carefully lest we be seen as a cowboy.

Last year our prime minister spent time at George Bush's ranch and then the good friends and allies shared a jocular short news conference.

The US president was asked if he saw Australia as a deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region - a loaded question picking up on comments Mr Howard made some years ago and most likely regretted.

Mount Isa, Australia
Australia is one of the world's major fossil fuel exporters
George Bush laughed and said "No, we see it as a sheriff" and all in attendance laughed again. Few in the region got the joke.

It also caused many Australians to cringe.

This is a former colony of convicts and we still have a little bit of a anti-authoritarian streak.

Most of us would prefer to see ourselves as an underdog rather than a ruler and few of us want to be painted as big brother.

Today, as the sun dries my sodden washing I can't help feel that this recent spring rain has sprinkled some seeds of hope.

As I pack my daughter's gum boots away I can only imagine the world she will one day jump into without me.

I hope she has puddles to splash in and fresh water to drink, I hope she sees the Pacific Island states before they disappear under the sea and I hope, for the sake of her generation, that we manage to negotiate a regional role for Australia that is both helpful and sensitive, conciliatory and effective.

Sarah McDonald is a broadcaster and journalist who began her career in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio Newsroom.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.



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