BY KEITH JACKSON
AUSTRALIA COULD NOT afford to let Papua New Guinea “go down the gurgler” a senior Australian foreign affairs official told his American counterpart soon after a crisis in the relationship in 2005.
A confidential diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Canberra including this blunt statement of Australian strategic interests has just been published on the Wikileaks website.
In May 2005 the Australian government withdrew Australian Federal Police forces deployed in PNG as the result of a PNG Supreme Court decision which overruled the legal immunity given to Australian police and bureaucrats under the Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP).
The Australian government said it would not return the police to PNG without assurances of legal immunity, which would have required the PNG government to enact legislation or change the constitution.
“According to Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officials, the PNG Supreme Court ruling basically meant that the AFP had no legal right to exercise police authority in PNG,” the leaked US cable said.
At the time, Australia had already deployed 154 of the 210 police under the proposed five-year, $1.1 billion plan. While then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated Australia remained committed to the program, it was never resumed.
In a section of the cable headed ‘A bad season for Australian-PNG ties’, it is stated that the court decision came “on the tail of other setbacks in the Australian-PNG bilateral relationship”, including a “diplomatic storm in March involving Australian Customs officers in Brisbane airport who infuriated PNG PM Michael Somare when they asked him to remove his shoes as part of a routine security inspection”.
The cable said “DFAT officials did not want to speculate about the long-term effects of the ruling, but Australian Defence officials were pessimistic about the survival of the ECP. Both departments, however, emphasised that the GOA [Australian government] has too much of a stake in PNG to let the ECP fail completely.
“First Assistant Secretary for the South Pacific David Ritchie told visiting [US East Asia Pacific] Assistant Secretary Hill on May 17 that Australia had no choice but to continue to engage with Port Moresby and could not let the country ‘go down the gurgler’ given PNG's proximity and 5.5 million population,” the cable said.
“The withdrawal of AFP forces from PNG marks a dramatic downturn in the bilateral relationship and is a potentially fatal setback for the ECP, especially if new legal assurances cannot be negotiated quickly.
“The GOA has stated their police will not return unless legal immunity is restored. The constitutional and legal changes required of the PNG government to achieve that end could take a year or more to come to fruition.
“If an agreement cannot be reached and the ECP erodes further, it could have far-ranging effects for Australia's other aid programs in the region, such as the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).
“Australian press speculation indicated that unsavory political elements in some Pacific nations, who are hampered by the accountability Australian aid mandates, might follow the lead of PNG and rebel in their own way against Australia's presence in their respective countries.”
That wasn’t a bad call. The subsequent development of the Melanesian Spearhead Group with its more robust diplomacy towards Australia and New Zealand, and Michael Somare’s ‘Look North Policy’, emerged soon after.
And it’s arguable that Australia has been on the back foot in its relations with PNG since.
As recently as July 2009, in another leaked cable on the PNG resources boom, the US embassy reported that Australian “concerns over institutional capacity and transparency are clearly coloring their views on how PNG should and will handle the revenue.
“PNG is Australia’s largest recipient of development assistance, and wasteful spending of windfall profits could undermine further support in Canberra for future increases in assistance.”
It is a given of current day Australia-PNG diplomacy that the former coloniser exhibits varying degrees of uncertainty about how to best manage the relationship. The Americans know this.