Island recruits a win-win solution to ADF shortfall
Tongan and Australian military cooperation.

Recruiting Pacific island nation personnel into Australia's military would build capability and cooperation. Image: Defence.

Written by

Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin

Generation Z, hooked to smartphones, isn’t signing up to serve in the Australian Defence Force. Defence Personnel Minister Matt Keogh recently pointed out that the ADF allows transfers for personnel from the British and US armed forces. Now the Albanese government is contemplating a bold move to extend this recruitment pathway to the Pacific. 

The option fits in well with the “Pacific family” idea: it’s all about defending our regional family. Pacific recruitment sits comfortably with the goal of security integration with Australia over time, at a pace and scale welcomed by Pacific Island countries. There would be benefits in strengthening regional relationships. Older generations of Australians and Pacific Islanders will recall the firming of personal relationships from the shared war experience.

If Australia were required under our security agreement with Papua New Guinea to respond to the recent civil disturbances in Port Moresby, then having Pacific Islanders in our ranks, with their diverse language and cultural skills, would make such assistance more acceptable to other island states. 

Indeed, there’s scope to create here a Defence-run Pacific response force, trained to work in the region on humanitarian and disaster relief and other nation-building tasks. It could focus on engineering, construction and clean-up type skills. 

Our island neighbours are already filling labour gaps here in areas such as aged care, nursing and agriculture. 

Including Pacific Islanders in the ADF wouldn’t be a one-sided affair. Many of the islands maintain relative population stability through migration to Australia and New Zealand. Diaspora remittances are key components of these economies.

Our Melanesian neighbours have a serious problem with a youth bulge and limited employment opportunities. Half their population is aged below 25. Recruitment into the ADF isn’t going to be a silver bullet. But it would help. Military service in the ADF would provide Pacific Islanders with skills that would be useful after their service. Our defence force conducts world-class training and skills in everything from engin­eering to trades and management. Returning veterans would bring these skills back to their homes. 

Naysayers would argue we could just recruit Pacific Islanders already here. But Keogh was referring to those who weren’t residents being permitted to join up. He wasn’t closing off the option for Pacific Islanders in Australia who weren’t yet citizens, who could be eligible for recruitment if there were a change of policy.

The strength of the chain of command is a critical consideration for any military force. Recruiting non-citizens might put this at risk if they had access to consular protection from their home country. But Britain has managed this challenge.

Successive Australian governments have maintained the view that all members of the ADF should be Australian citizens. But there’s no requirement in the Defence Act or our Citizenship Act that mandates this. Our defence organisation may raise an objection about education levels. Entry standards shouldn’t be compromised, so this isn’t necessarily a showstopper. But this is something that will happen only if the government mandates it.

There’s a legitimate concern providing a pathway for Pacific enlistment could promote a brain or labour drain of resources from the island states. But this isn’t because the emigration is for the ADF. It exists for any arrangement that provides for favourable entry for any purpose. This is a general problem for capacity-building in the region and for promoting the opportunities to enable individuals to find satisfying prospects for work at home. 

More difficult could be the problem of managing post-service entitlements, as Joanna Lumley’s long campaign for Gurkha entitlements demonstrated. Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr identified this as a critical concern for Palau’s ex-US service personnel when he was asked recently whether he’d support ADF recruiting in the Pacific. US Veterans Affairs can aid only retired personnel who are on US soil. Australia would have to address the same benefits delivery issues once Pacific Islanders returned home from ADF service. 

There’s little doubt there would be teething problems in recruiting Pacific Islanders into the ADF. But the potential regional interest in the career option of military service can be found in the freely associated states of Micronesia. Enlistments from them into the US military are among the highest per capita of the American states. One Fijian scholar who served in the British army recently observed: “If Australia wanted to recruit Fijians into the ADF tomorrow, it would have no problem raising a battalion in one day.”

Nauru’s sudden decision this week to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan is touted by China as a big win in the Pacific. Given China’s aim is to weaken Taiwan it’s difficult to understand why Nauru would allow itself to be used to deliver such a propaganda coup to Beijing. Nauru could not have been unaware how the timing of its announcement would put the region again on the geopolitical frontline. 

Suspicions of what China expects for its alleged $100m a year bribe for the switch are legitimate. Had Australia had a security treaty with Nauru like the one we recently signed with Tuvalu, security concerns might have loomed less large in initial reactions. Closer defence ties through access to Australian military service would allay such diplomatic shocks. Military service is a unique offer we can make to the Pacific that China can’t and won’t. A Pacific recruitment scheme would develop powerful people-to-people links with our fighting forces that would last a lifetime.

Richard Herr is former honorary director and adjunct professorial fellow, Centre for International and Regional Affairs, University of Fiji. Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow, Strategic Analysis Australia, and expert associate, National Security College. A version of this article appeared in The Australian.