IT HAS BEEN DOWNHILL ALL THE WAY since Australia, under international anti-colonial pressure, granted independence to Papua New Guinea in September 1975.
The country’s plunging trajectory towards state failure will not be arrested by the eighth post-independence election now under way with the usual ethnic strife and electoral corruption.
PNG (population 7 million) is a tragedy. It is politically and administratively corrupt, incompetent, dysfunctional and violent. It rates a disgraceful 154th of the 182 countries on the Transparency International corruption perception index, ranking equally with the Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau.
It is arguably Australia’s most urgent national security challenge because of its strategic location, its administrative chaos, its substantial mineral wealth and its large population of vulnerable Australian expatriates.
Australia, which pours aid totalling nearly $500 million a year into PNG, has an abiding national interest in a stable, safe and friendly PNG, but Australian military leaders have detailed plans for evacuating up to 12,000 Australians living there.
This year has been especially tumultuous with rival administrations emerging under the leadership of Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill, both candidates in the current election. It has also had two police commissioners and two armed forces chiefs at the same time. Attempts have been made to intimidate the senior judiciary.
Australia has experienced PNG’s political delinquency before: In 2006 a PNG Defence Force aircraft secretly flew Julian Moti, wanted by Australia on child sex charges, to the Solomon Islands on orders from as yet officially unidentified high Defence Force or government officials. The dramatic Sandline affair in 1997 saw the PNG government import South African mercenaries to combat Bougainville insurrectionists.
So what might the Australian government do now to arrest the country’s descent into even graver chaos and criminality? First, Australian political leaders need to give more time and attention to PNG. It is not enough to engage vigorously with a country only when there a crisis.
Second, it should attach more good governance conditions to its aid. It might, for example, offer PNG more Australian civilian and military officials to assist in running struggling departments. The current contribution is helpful but limited.
Third, it might offer to expand project aid to PNG to further boost Australia’s reputation and to match efforts being made by China to gain a toehold in PNG by building roads and other infrastructure. (Budget aid is not an option in PNG because it is too easily stolen.)
Fourth (and far more difficult), it should consider whether an initiative based on the so-called RAMSI army and police initiative in the Solomon Islands might be developed to combat ethnic violence and improve the administration.
As PNG’s former colonial master, any such actions by Australia will be criticised by some PNG leaders as imperialist and neo-colonial. But Australia has no desire to take over PNG, and it is entitled to note that its loudest critics in PNG are those leaders who are trashing the country while they fill their pockets. Australia is entitled to protect its citizens, its security and commercial interests in PNG
Little effective nation-building has occurred in the past 37 years of PNG independence. Roads, bridges, health posts and schools have deteriorated. Far too many people live in filth and poverty and remain primarily loyal to their local tribal, language and ethnic groups. “Big man” politics prevail with support and votes purchased from leaders’ personal slush funds.
Unlike Fiji, PNG has not yet slipped over the edge into military dictatorship. But Australia can no longer take comfort in the hope it has some inbuilt sense of limits that ultimately checks the worst political and financial excesses perpetrated by leaders.
The current elections, with a week to run, are already creating civil disorder with Somare and O’Neill both standing for office and doubtless plotting to resume their battle for the prime ministership (if Sir Michael’s health holds out).
Some 46 so-called parties and 3435 candidates are contesting the 109 parliamentary seats. Already there has been violence, a kidnapping and thefts of ballot boxes. Whatever the declared outcome, PNG politicians will continue to engage in the thuggery that has been driving PNG towards a cliff since 1975.
The Australian government should act now before it goes over the edge.