AUSTRALIA’S PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, is heading off on a visit to the Pacific today.
It’ll be an interesting test for the new Parliamentary Secretary who was chair of the little-known Australia PNG Parliamentary Friendship Group and who, in his maiden speech to the House of Representatives in February 2008, spoke of his passion “to encourage across all Australia a much greater degree of engagement with PNG and of his wish that Australia would be PNG's “very best friend”.
Well, now Mr Marles has a glorious opportunity to show what friends are for. And there are many of us who hope he will be a best friend not just to PNG, but to the Papua New Guinean people.
To provide an indication of how Mr Marles has performed early in his stewardship of the portfolio, PNG Attitude takes extracts from a couple of recent media interviews.
INTERVIEW WITH RADIO AUSTRALIA’S NICOLE CHVASTEK
RICHARD MARLES: Well, it's really an introductory trip from my point of view to the region. I'm going to PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Noumea, Samoa, and then finishing in New Zealand. This is going to be a very important trip for me to get to know those leaders in the region.
But I really hope that it also demonstrates the commitment we have as a country to engaging with the Pacific, the importance that we place on the Pacific region; this is our neighbourhood and it always will be.
And I guess one of the other passions for me is about trying to raise the profile of the Pacific and our relationship with it within the Australian public debate. And I really hope that my trip does something to contribute to that.
NICOLE CHVASTEK: We spoke to Valerie Salama from the Business Against Corruption Alliance in Port Moresby this week and her complaint was that this is a resource-rich country which remains ravaged by poverty because of endemic political corruption. This is what she had to say.
[Excerpt from earlier interview]
VALERIE SALAMA: Policies are there, but, you know, it doesn't seem to happen. And well, whether it's a case of the funding being misappropriated — you know, I think it all goes back to corruption. It's like we have lots of very good laws here but they're not followed through, nothing happens.
So, I see — I live across the road from a very large settlement in Port Moresby and I see these people struggling. And, of course, they're — they turn to petty theft, holding up the PMVs as they go down the hill, simply because they don't have an option.
[End of excerpt]
CHVASTEK: Is this issue of political corruption in PNG, which she claims is sucking the country dry, is this something that you intend to address when you're there?
MARLES: PNG is, indeed, a resource-rich country, and PNG is also ravaged by poverty, that's true. And it's also true to say that getting governance right is critical to addressing the fundamental issues within PNG. So, no question about all of that.
Corruption is a long term problem within the developing world. We want to work with PNG, as close friends, to help them address the issues of corruption which face that country. It's, as I say, an issue which is not unique to Papua New Guinea. It exists throughout many parts of the developing world. And dealing with it is a long-term process.
But it's also true to say that, as I said at the start, you've got to get governance right. And unless governance is got right, issues such as extreme poverty are going to be difficult to address.
INTERVIEW WITH AUSTRALIA NETWORK’S LIZ BYRNE
LIZ BYRNE: PNG [has] a lot of corruption and misuse of funding. Will you be working on some kind of strategy to address that?
RICHARD MARLES: We will be working cooperatively with the PNG government to see what can be done in relation to governance issues. It is a matter of partnership between our two countries, a partnership we want to pursue with respect. But obviously it is a partnership which has both sides to it. And we'll be pursuing our interests in that.
BYRNE: Can you see yourself taking a hard line on these issues...
MARLES: It's probably a bit too early for me to make an assessment of that. One of the things I am very keen to try and do in relation to our bilateral relationship with PNG is raise the profile of it within Australia. It's certainly one of the key relationships we have globally. And I think it doesn't have the place in the domestic public debate that it perhaps should. And I think it's really important to raise the profile of PNG, the issues that PNG faces, and the joint challenges that we face together.
BYRNE: CARE Australia has recently done a microcosm study on poverty in PNG and they're saying that Australia’s aid program should be about poverty alleviation first. Do you have a view on that?
MARLES: They're issues we will work through. I think the issue of poverty that is being experienced by so many people, so close to Australia is something which needs to be put on the public agenda in, if I can say, a louder way.
In terms of the specific question about the role of AusAID in all of that, it's perhaps a bit, again, too early to me to venture an opinion in relation to that. The issues of poverty, health issues such as the prevalence of HIV infection - all of these are really important issues that I think need to be on the public agenda within our country and I think that's a very important part of being the best friends that we can possibly be.