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For our independence

The Secretary responds to our criticisms


ON MONDAY I took a call from the chief of staff to Richard Marles, Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs.

Chris Balaam advised me that the Parliamentary Secretary, having just read February’s PNG Attitude magazine, had been taken aback by the universally hostile reaction to his responses to some admittedly tough questions posed by readers.

Richard had agreed to address the questions, which canvassed a broad sweep of the PNG-Australia relationship: corruption, China, development aid, education … I thought it was a good interrogation.

Richard’s responses, though, had met with disdain. In the fashion of modern politics, the written words that he offered eschewed direct and meaningful commentary.

Instead we got bland. B-l-a-n-d. Which PNG Attitude later reckoned stood for ‘bureaucratic language and no disclosure’.

During a long discussion with Chris Balaam, I made the point that – while it would be nigh impossible to disclose with full frankness Australia’s innermost thoughts on PNG – it should be possible to address important issues in a more direct way than had been the case in Richard's articles.

I emphasised that the way the articles were framed was a faithful replication of the non-replies that many of our readers were used to receiving from politicians.  Question: Direct.  Answer: Obfuscatory.  Result:  Crabby voter.

And these people had told us (perhaps they do not tell the politicians or perhaps the polticians do not care) that they find these anodyne replies offensive and doing nothing but damage to the reputation of government.

I further mentioned to Chris that, during my discussions with Richard in Canberra late last year, he had expressed a strong wish for Australians generally to become more interested in PNG affairs.

For this to be the case, I said, the government would have to develop a more straightforward and open approach to addressing the complex issues that at present bedevil the bilateral relationship.

If this means taking some risks by using more direct language to address the tough issues, then it’s the price that has to be paid for greater transparency and better communication, not to mention accountability and credibility.

Otherwise it might be (and I have talked about this previously in PNG Attitude), that - if PNG blows up and the Australian media and political opposition do get seriously interested - there will be a lot of pressure on Australia's government to explain how things got so bad and why people hadn’t been told.

A failure to explain will lead to an electoral caning. It happens.

Julia Gillard doesn't need a meltdown on her own doorstep to further undermine her dubious reputation (to some extent self-generated) as a leader uninterested in foreign affairs. And PNG is a family affair.

Note for Julia:  Announcement of visit to PNG is overdue.

Echoing Trevor Freestone’s excellent observation, I further mentioned to Chris that we get a much more honest appraisal of PNG on the DFAT ‘Smart Traveller’ website than in any other official Australian pronouncements.

It needs to be said that Chris Balaam seemed not disagree with any of these reflections, merely asking whether the good news could also be told.

Well, I said, we do tell the good news when we have it, and we’re always happy for more.

Chris also asked would it be possible for Richard to write another article for PNG Attitude.  Of course.  Many articles, we hope.  After all, the Parliamentary Secretary writes exceedingly well. When it's him doing the writing.

To read Richard's prose, you can link to an article published in 'The Punch' earlier this week ('Some enchanted evening, we'll acknowledge the South Pacific'), written following a visit he recently made to the Northern Marianas (Chris went too!)



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Lydia Kailap

If nothing else, Australia could assist PNG with its media coverage. They make light of developmental difficulties and poverty, yet hammer poor old PNG on crime and safety for foreigners.

A cruise ship was diverted to Bali instead of Port Moresby and two other stops in PNG because of the recent carjacking of an AusAID worker and the rape of a volunteer last year.

In the last week alone, the news in Australia includes: an 80 year old woman abducted and raped; escaped murderer working for health department; Melbourne teen murdered by stalker in her lunch hour, and I could fill this whole page with other brutal crimes that occur every single day in Australia.

When is Australia going to have a good hard look at itself?

PNG is a bloody mess with graft and corruption, which is why there is so much crime. The people are screaming out for help but no-one is listening.

Henry Sims

Yep, shake the fruit tree and expect to get hit on the head by falling, over-ripe fruit.

PNG is family only to those who have lived there and means very little to others.

We would all hate to see PNG "blow up" as the consequence would having us fighting in the jungles and islands again, most likely against those we trained in arms, and against "family"!

My bet is that our politicians do not care for PNG other than it is a buffer best kept between us and uglier neighbours further to the West. Sori mi cry tumas

Peter Kranz

In my tenure at UPNG we hosted various events, exhibitions etc promoting PNG art, culture, history - and usually invited all the local great and good to the openings.

In the course of this I got to speak to and be invited to meet various diplomatic representatives from many countries, including New Zealand, Indonesia, France, the USA, Solomons, Japan, Taiwan and a few others.

But never once did I have any contact from the Australian High Commission, nor did they ever express any interest in our events.

I got to have a lengthy conversation with the Indonesian ambassador (a bit embarrassing given my humble status, but interesting nonetheless). Likewise the Japanese representative.

And the NZ diplomats were very polite and informative in asking my opinions about ways in which NZ could help educational development.
But nary a peep from the Ozzies.

Maybe I'm just being picky, but as an Australian I thought they could at least have taken a bit more interest.

Peter Kranz

Well said, Keith. One reason Kevin Rudd is held is high esteem in PNG is that this was the first country he visited when elected PM.

There's even a little 'Kevin Rudd' in the highlands named after him because of this.

An official visit by Julia would be a good first step in healing a damaged and neglected relationship. More important than a visit to NZ methinks (no offence to Kiwis).

In my experience Australia could learn a thing or two about NZ's approach to aid.

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