THIS PICTURE must be one of the last of “Papa” Ron Crocombe, who died suddenly on Friday while on a shuttle taking him to Auckland International Airport on his return to the Cook Islands. Café Pacific’s David Robie had been with him just a couple of days earlier in Tonga for the induction ceremony of six international fellows (Ron and David included) at ‘Atenisi University.
One of the fathers of Pacific regionalism, Ron Crocombe (top: on far right, next to Tongan prime minister Dr Feteli Sevele), had been emeritus professor of Pacific studies at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji since his "retirement". After working in Papua New Guinea for seven years where he ran the New Guinea Research Unit, he became the founder of the Institute of the Pacific Studies at USP and was director for more than two decades. Sadly, the IPS and his legacy have virtually disappeared in restructuring at USP.
In his so-called retirement, Professor Crocombe, aged almost 80, was also a great achiever and continued to work tirelessly for the South Pacific region as an inspiration, critical thinker, adviser to governments and politicians, mentor to Pacific writers and researchers, and contributor to developing a strong regional civil society. While at ‘Atenisi, he spoke strongly of the achievements of founding Professor Futa Helu and 40 years of education at the university and institute. Among a collection of books he donated to the university was an original edition of Mariner’s 1817 classic Tonga Islands. (William Mariner was a teenager on board the English privateer Port Au Prince, captured by Tongan warriors in the Ha'apai island group. He was one of the few who survived and after living in Tonga for four years wrote a detailed account of his experiences).
Professor Crocombe was a frequent critic of Australian and New Zealand policies in the region and about hypocrisy over aid (and Fiji’s disproportionate influence on regionalism). For example, he made these comments about the Pacific Plan in one ABC Radio interview:
Australia and New Zealand have always – Australia particularly – always tried to kill any question of labour mobility. Australia says, “You must open up everything where Australia will benefit from – your markets, your investment, your everything else. But anything that you will benefit from ...” – and about the only thing [Pacific countries] will benefit from is some labour market access – “No, you can't have that.”In recent years, Professor Crocombe had worked towards benefits from greater cooperation with Asia, particularly China, in the region. He advocated greater awareness and preparation in Pacific countries for the “Asian century”. Among his recent works for the IPS were publication in 2007 of the 623-page tome about the “spectacular transition” underway in the Pacific detailing a half century of growing Asian involvement in the Pacific and declining Western influence. Entitled Asia in the Pacific Islands: Replacing the West, the latter book notes:
Asia is already more important than Western sources in some dimensions (eg. exports and investments) and the relative importance is increasing steadily. However, few in the Islands are preparing for the change. It has been clear for over 30 years that Pacific curricula need to emphasise Asia more, and that many more Island students, media and diplomats sent abroad for study should spend more time in Asia – especially its Pacific coast nations, which they will need to understand and deal with. One hopes too that more Asians will take a positive interest in the islands.Ron Crocombe is survived by his wife, Marjorie Tuainekore, four children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He will be sorely missed by academics, politicians, civil society advocates, writers, colleagues and friends throughout the region for his refreshing, insightful and uncompromisingly independent views. Café Pacific offers our condolences to Ron's family.
- A memorial service was held at the Pacific Islands Presbyterian Church in Newton, Auckland, on Monday afternoon.