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Envisaging the future of the Australia-PNG relationship

Jenny Hayward Jones, head of the Melanesia ProgramKEITH JACKSON

IN Sydney today, a Lowy Institute roundtable in Sydney is bringing together 26 Papua New Guineans and Australians to brainstorm the future of the PNG-Australia relationship.

The headline of the workshop is Papua New Guinea in 2015 – At a crossroads and beyond and two themes have been established to guide discussion: Challenges for the next generation and Fostering better relations in changing times.

I asked PNG Attitude readers for their thoughts on the broad topic and although at that stage I hadn't received detailed discussion points, readers were savvy enough to pitch comments at the target. (Contributors names are listed at the end of this article.)

I’ve organised this summary piece by distilling the essence of what readers said to incorporate the most thoughtful and insightful comments that seem to loom large in the PNG-Australia relationship over the next decade or so.

This article will be provided to the Lowy Institute which, as I understand it, will be preparing a paper on the ‘relationship beyond the crossroads’.

Education was a popular focus for readers, who noted there were some big hurdles to overcome including the lack of resources deployed to the education system at all levels, poor management skills in agencies and institutions and that most shocking of educational outcomes, the permanent transitional social and economic state of semi-educated school leavers.

Contributors thought Australia should loom large in the future of education in PNG: both by providing more teacher training and secondary education in Australia and offering many more Australian teachers to PNG under a secondment program.

Twinning, student exchanges and faculty exchanges were also recommended to assist bring PNG’s universities to some international quality benchmarks.

Given that education has such great inter-generational impact, it certainly needs to be elevated greatly on the planning agenda.

Entrepreneurship was seen as critical especially for the 85% of Papua New Guineans in the informal economy where the task of transitioning to greater efficiency and productive growth has hardly started. This will be achieved through upskilling and the providing greater access to financial advice, credit and micro-banking.

It was proposed that a Chamber of Informal Economy be established to give a voice to informal economy participants and to deal systematically with problems, issues and challenges affecting them.

When it comes to law and order it is impossible to go beyond the devastation inflicted by corruption, an issue on which the O’Neill government has very weak credentials indeed: dismantling the corruption-busting Task Force Sweep; failing to implement the long-promised independent corruption commission; and subverting the justice system to circumvent allegations of high level graft.

Given that the relations between nations know no particular morality, corruption is not an issue likely to torpedo the relationship with an Australia (that itself finds it inconvenient to establish a Federal ICAC), but it will contaminate, in one way or another, every other issue.

It was felt that, if serious about the fight against corruption in PNG, Australia should do more to prevent and expose money laundering through domestic financial institutions.

Food security is a global issue from which PNG, given appropriate investment and management, could benefit greatly especially in rural areas. But it needs much more emphasis on agriculture (“the way forward for PNG,” many agreed) as a means of employment and as an export earner and import replacer.

It was pointed out that farmers need skills, facilities and empowerment with an objective of developing the whole value chain to leverage current activity in agricultural research, development and extension.

Gender-based violence is a live issue into which external aid donors are putting considerable resources. It was proposed that there need to be better support networks for women suffering from domestic violence. But it is obvious that the roots of domestic violence lie in much more complex problems of social dislocation, the dissolution of traditional values and a lack of balanced economic participation.

Trade and investment. It was agreed that PNG should be a key business partner with Australia “but we (PNG) lack lots of capacity to implement our development objectives”. One imaginative proposal was to establish a fully Australian owned and operated Development Bank specialising in micro-loans for people who ordinarily would not be eligible, especially women. If successful, the bank could later be sold to a private operator or to the PNG government.

There is a section in the Lowy agenda entitled New Influences, not entirely clear what this refers to but let’s assume it alludes to matters of moment not otherwise included because of their recent emergence.

The controversial existence of the Manus asylum-seekers detention centre was certainly a prominent issue. It is a cause of concern to many Papua New Guineans not mainly because of concern for the inmates so much as anxiety about the possibility they may be resettled in PNG, which is ill equipped to employ and accommodate its own people in urban areas let alone immigrants.

The predicament of West Papuan nationhood and the mistreatment by Indonesia of the native Melanesians was also raised, along with what is seen as Australian “hypocrisy” and silence on what is seen as genocide. This is a substantial issue amongst educated Papua New Guineans and one on which Australia is judged harshly and the PNG government itself seen as being confused.

It was unavoidable that the issue of the difficulty of Papua New Guineans getting visas to visit Australia would escape attention and these have been grouped under people-to-people connections.

This is a burning issue, and one which offends many Papua New Guineans, and it shows no signs of diminishing in intensity, even after retaliatory action by the PNG government to make it more onerous for Australians to obtain visas for PNG – something of a self-defeating policy in a land which so desperately desires to build its tourism sector.

The overarching view is that a free flow of citizens between PNG, Australia - and New Zealand – would bring many benefits, political, relational and economic. “Politicians need to start exploring how to include PNG into the arrangements that exist between Australia and New Zealand,” a respondent advised – a view that was shared by many others.

“Quit patronising us; quit looking at us through the ‘cane hacker’ lens. Treat us as an independent country just like New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Indonesia,” said one Papua New Guinean; while another was more dismissive: “We should not worry about the patronising attitudes of some Australians - and our leaders should know how to handle those attitudes”.

While aid was seen as a mixed blessing, there was support for the continuation and the current direction of the aid program. There was general agreement that it should be aimed at rural areas, that it requires more effective coordination and that more should be directed through churches and NGOs.

Where consultants were brought in, they should be familiar with PNG and its people and willing to work in rural areas, perhaps attached to local level government institutions, schools and health centres.

As you might expect, there was a considerable shopping list of projects which would benefit from aid funding and expertise.

Contributors: Albert Schram; Bomai Witne; Brendan Duyvestyn; Busa Jeremiah Wenogo; Chris Overland; Jimmy Awagl; Keith Jackson; Mathias Kin; Michael Dom; Phil Fitzpatrick; Robin Lillicrap; Tanya Zeriga-Alone


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John Kaupa Kamasua

Keith - Excellent job in consolidating all the comments and feedback into this.

I had this in mind and I was going to mention the potential for rugby league to galvanise communities, and spread other messages against violence, team work and good governance.

My brief proposal is this: Australia through the NRL could consider recruiting and sending some of the older NRL players who are nearing retirement to come and play in the semi-professional PNG Digicel Cup.

Wahgi Tumbe, a team participating in the competition is said to have recruited Anthony Lafranchi as a player/assistant coach. Luke Bailey and Clinton Toopi who are both former Gold Coast Titan players assisting the team as well.

These players could do a number of things while playing in a particular team.

*Assist in coaching the team they are playing in, and provide leadership on and off the field for young players. Hopefully the player's NRL wealth of experiences can rub off onto these young players.

Their involvement should naturally lift the standards of the game in PNG.

*The players can also participate in community outreach work. Among other things the players will visit schools and talk to young people about the importance of team work,discipline and hard work, and respect for others.

They can also talk against domestic violence, violence against women and girls, and the bad effects of violence in general.

This can be truly a very effective people-to-people project that should have far greater impact than the one-off activity projects that tend to disappear once funding cease.

Chips Mackellar

There was no mention of "boomerang development," which can benefit both countries.

For example, if education is a problem, it is pointless trying to educate PNG kids in badly maintained school buildings, staffed by inadequately trained PNG teachers.

Far better to build Australian schools in PNG maintained by PNG artisans under Australian supervision with Australian teachers on secondment, training PNG teachers in situ.

This is the way it was done before Independence, and this system worked well then. Why not use this same system again now? This may be seen as patronising. But better to be patronised and well educated than not to be educated at all.

Barbara Short

Some good comments here.

At the moment Richard Maru and Potaisa Hombunaka are over in Israel trying to get some help for agricultural development in PNG. The Aussies let them down big-time. In fact I think the Aussies have let themselves down big-time when it comes to food. It is hard to buy Australian food these days. Coles is full of imported food!

The Aussies had plantations. The old Dep. of Ag. Stock and Fisheries helped the development of cash crops. But we did not do enough to turn subsistence vegetable and fruit farmers into commercial market gardeners nor did we set up all the marketing mechanisms that are needed.

There is not enough fresh vegetables and fruit for all the town people. They have to buy imported food at all the Chinese food shops.

There is far too much "talk-talk" and not enough "do-do".

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