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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 275-278

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Book Review

Australia and the Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century

Australia and the Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century, by Roger C Thompson. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 1998 . ISBN 1-875606 -54 -8 , xi + 304 pages, map, notes, bibliography, index. Paper, A$50 .

It has been an interesting experience, reading Roger Thompson's Australia and the Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century interspersed with reports from Fiji of the attempt by George Speight and his henchmen to seize power in Fiji. At the time of writing, the situation remains unresolved--the hostages are still held in the parliamentary compound, Speight and the military leaders are both saying "Pick me" to the Great Council of Chiefs, pictures of downtown Suva look indistinguishable from those from Dili a few months ago, tourism is down, the sugar mills are silent, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara has withdrawn to Lakeba, the west of Viti Levu is threatening to secede, and the future of former cabinet ministers is as uncertain as that of the leaders of the (attempted) coup.

This juxtaposition has been a reminder that imperialism is broader [End Page 275] than colonialism, and that Australia's influence in the Pacific Islands ranged well beyond those areas for which it had formal responsibility. Fiji might have been a British colonial possession but it has been, as Thompson reminds us, "a virtual Australian economic colony" (1 ).

The effective cut-off date for this book is late 1997 , which excludes the Fiji constitution now under challenge. There is enough, however, to see how the hand of Australian business--most notably the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), but also the shipping, trading, and retailing interests of firms like Burns Philp, W R Carpenter, and Morris Hedstrom--had a decisive influence not only on Fiji's economic development but on the demographic, social, and political structures that represent the contested ground on which the current conflict is taking place. The power of CSR, not only in securing favorable commercial conditions for its sugar operations, but also its leverage on government and effective veto over the diversification of Fiji's agricultural economy, has been well documented before. Britain was concerned to protect indigenous Fijians and yet to have sufficient economic activity to ensure "development" while minimizing aid; there was a consequent reluctance to challenge CSR's economic dominance and the foundations of a society that balanced precariously on Ratu Sukuna's three-legged stool, for which indigenous Fijians provided land, Indo-Fijians provided labor, and Europeans provided capital and managerial expertise.

The current crisis has to be set against the land and labor policies that underpinned the interests of CSR and a colonial inheritance of politics predicated on the resulting plural society. Despite constant underlying tensions and occasional eruptions of conflict, the situation was managed by the colonial power as arbiter; however, postcolonial constitutions have foundered on the struggle between democracy and indigenous rights and the weight of individual ego and political ambition. In 2000 , as in 1987 , it would seem that Australia's diplomatic protests and economic sanctions are unlikely to endure beyond a mandatory period in the international sin-bin of Commonwealth and regional isolation. As this book shows, Australia's strategic and economic interests are so closely integrated into the economic and political fabric of the region that a coup is no more likely to have an enduring effect than the Rabuka-led coup of 1987 , or current secessionism and failures of governance in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Australia and the Pacific Islands is primarily a study of government policy and implementation, as well as of economic relationships, rather than the domestic histories of island states. It builds on Thompson's earlier Australian Imperialism in the Pacific. Despite its modest length for such a large subject, the author has resisted the temptation to write what might be a work of synthesis from the publications of others in favor of extensive original research of his own in widely scattered archives and libraries. Apart from separate chapters...