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Australia abandons goal of good governance in PNG & Nauru

Peter O'Neill and Malcolm TurnbullEDITORIAL | The Age

AUSTRALIA has long sought to encourage transparent and efficient government in its South Pacific neighbourhood.

To speak of responsibility to the backyard implies a patronising attitude towards what are proudly independent and sovereign nations, but there is no doubting that Australia, as a significant power in the region, has a special obligation to promote ethical standards.

Yet Australia has, regrettably, deserted the goal of promoting good governance in two of its closest neighbours, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, at a cost to the local populations as well as Australia's international reputation.

Both nations are hosts to Australian-funded "regional processing centres" and are presently home to almost 1,500 asylum seekers and refugees. The Coalition and Labor are joined in the embrace of this so-called "Pacific solution", with the aim of preventing refugee boats arriving on Australia's shores.

Despite spending more than $1 billion in the past year on offshore processing, in addition to significant foreign aid, Australia's influence in Papua New Guinea and Nauru has actually diminished.

Australia has become so dependent on borrowing the sovereign jurisdiction of these two countries to escape its own responsibility towards asylum seekers that the government is now complicit in supporting anti-democratic practices.

Nauru has adopted an ever more draconian approach to local governance since Julia Gillard turned to it in 2012 with a request to host an asylum-seeker detention camp. The judiciary has been denuded, local media censored, access to the internet restricted (including a ban on Facebook), and foreign reporters effectively barred by the imposition of onerous visa fees.

Nauru is due for an election in 2016, yet there is little reason to be confident of a fair contest. Opposition MPs have been suspended from parliament for daring to criticise the government. One, Roland Kun, has been stripped of his passport and prevented from seeing his Australian partner and family for more than six months because of a criminal investigation that appears to be political payback.

Once, Nauru's dictatorial drift would have been met with alarm in Canberra. New Zealand has suspended its financial support for Nauru's judiciary as a signal of concern over the  government's interference in the courts. Australia has remained silent.

Nauru has just 10,000 people. Papua New Guinea, with almost 8million, presents a far greater challenge.

Its prime minister, Peter O'Neill, has a long history of reckless conduct, most recently with questions over his role in Port Moresby's acquisition of a $1.2 billion stake in the Australian-listed company Oil Search. Instead of explaining his actions, Mr O'Neill has responded with bluster, seeking to intimidate independent officials and traducing institutions.

He acted with similar disdain last year when a warrant was issued for his arrest over claims of corruption. Mr O'Neill certainly has no fear of pressure from Australia. Canberra's response to the political upheaval in PNG has been timid, fearful of putting at risk Mr O'Neill's support for the Manus Island detention centre.

PNG is expected to receive more than $550 million in aid from Australia this year, yet at the same time it is demanding Australia withdraw technical advisers from within the local bureaucracy, who would otherwise ensure the money is well spent. Australia cannot direct PNG policy but it is responsible for its own policies, and the logical consequences that flow from them.

Our government's desperation to stop asylum seekers has sown a further set of problems for which it is no less responsible.


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Trevor Shelley (Snr)

It's a bit rich to pile all of this at Australia's door. As one who has been on the ground in PNG since well before Indepence and has known many of the leaders, a lot with very dubious personal qualities and a lot without education or knowledge of anything other than their own clan they are a law unto themselves and voting is based on who presents the largest bribe. Perhaps the granting of Independence in its present form was the greatest mistake of all.

Michaela Banerji

This analysis, though excellent, is far too late. I was sacked by DIAC for tweeting as a private citizen on this very subject in 2013. Since the things have gone from bad to worse. There seems to be nothing that we can do to bring these people to the mainland.

Martyn Namorong

I think the issue now is how does Australia want to engage with PNG.

There's only so much Australia can do to assist.

In recent times attempts by Australia to improvement procurement of pharmaceuticals backfired and nothing was gained (in terms of governance) by Australia withdrawing assistance in that area.

I know that there are major changes happening by the middle of this year in relation to Australia's aid program and I guess the shift to focus on partnerships with the private sector is a way of dealing with the changes with dealing with the government.

There is one thing Australia can do positively in PNG and that is to increase assistance towards voter education to ensure that we have free and fair elections in 2017 and good leaders are elected.

In the end the problems in PNG run deep. There are so many social, cultural, religious, political and economic determinants of the way things turn out in PNG.

Paul Oates

Decision making at the highest level is now clearly 'egg bound'. The Australian government has dropped the ball and now embarrassingly has to stoop to pick it up.

The longer it procrastinates, the worse the situation will become.

Barbara Short

So, the method of "stopping the boats" was a wrong method. It went against the concept that we should help those who are in trouble.

We should have sorted out the economic refugees and sent them straight back home and taken the others into Australia.

The detention centres should have been closed down ages ago

If any of the refugees wanted to stay in PNG or Nauru and PNG or Nauru wanted them then that is OK.

The off-shore business has passed its "use-by" date. Long passed it!

The corruptness of the policy has jeopardized our ability to have the right to criticize the corruptness going on in PNG.

Yes, the Australian government must take responsibility for all these people in the detention centres and work out what has to be done with them now!

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