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Is Australian government money distorting scrutiny of PNG?

Wabag on fire (PNG News)KEITH JACKSON

ON Tuesday I had a vigorous exchange of views on Twitter with Dr David Ayres of Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute triggered by continuing debate on PNG's recent election and its often violent aftermath.

David - a straightforward man - let me know in no uncertain terms that he believed my (and others’) expressions of opinion about the chaotic election were over the top.

In fact, he referred to them as “hysteria” and said my own reaction was “punch drunk” – comments he subsequently deleted from Twitter late Tuesday night, as was his right.

During my own tweets that night, I had mentioned my discomfort with reports and articles on the PNG election that have been emerging from the professional commentariat in organisations like the Lowy Institute.

It seems to me these professedly independent think tanks have developed a habit of pulling their punches on the PNG and Australian governments when it might be considered deeper investigation and greater critical analysis would be more appropriate.

I've observed this for some time but, during and after the election, felt there was a failure of these commentators to go the full distance and identify the evident malfeasance, fraud and likely corruption within and surrounding the conduct of the election.

They wrote articles covering important topics relating to the poll but which failed to properly examine the role of the O’Neill government in a process which was chaotic, corrupted (for example, see Paul Flanagan here, Busa Wenogo here and Francis Nii here) and ultimately contributed to death and destruction on a wide scale.

Which leads me to the main point of this piece.

I had in PNG Attitude a couple of weeks ago already commented on the Australian government’s supine response to what had been in many ways a disastrous PNG election.

That piece followed a statement by Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop that the election had been a “success”.

Observing the think tanks' reactions to the election, I mused that, while not quite echoing the foreign minister’s extraordinary complacency, they nevertheless failed to describe the full scope of what had occurred and sheet home responsibility to where it belonged.

This soft treatment of the PNG government by these institutes, and their seeming reluctance to use their resources and position to inquire into the now deeply entrenched corruption at a high level of PNG public life, have become obvious.

Could it be, I conjecture, that this is because these bodies are sensitive to an Australian government that itself is not only nervous not to mention disingenuous in conducting its relationship with PNG but which demands that those it gives money to behave in the same way?

It seems that most if not all of these organisations receive Australian government money, directly or indirectly, and it further appears that – by their actions – they are beholden to the Australian government to the extent that the financial relationship is able skew or at least soften their views.

It can be argued that many of these think tanks have become little better than mouthpieces of Australia’s foreign policy in relation to PNG, a policy which seems acquiescent to PNG government excesses.

A case has been propounded for some time to address such conflicts of interest by detaching the funding process of think tanks from politicians and bureaucrats who use money power to pursue their own partisan objectives.

Proponents of an arm's length approach argue that core funding should be made available not directly but through instruments like the Think Tank Initiative, which you can read about here.

I certainly believe this is a proposition that needs pursuing.

In the meantime, many readers have already responded to Phil Fitzpatrick’s call to urge the ABC Four Corners program to take a close look at Australia’s government to government relationship with PNG.

Thanks to all of them and I encourage other readers who want to see things improved to do the same here:


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Quite so Keith.

Your comment reminds me of the various strained negotiations we had with the Australian High Commission about hosting the awards ceremony and workshops and supporting the printing of the anthologies after Ian Kemish left.

They were most put out that we wouldn't roll over and play ball.

Barbara Short

The previous Four Corners program on corruption in PNG - Preying on Paradise - can still be seen online. At least one result from that was the prosecution of Eremas Wartoto and the fact that he finally admitted his guilt and was imprisoned.

The letter concerning the Paraka corrupt payments has still not been dealt with. It will continue to hang over O'Neill's head like some great shadow of doom. I'm hoping it will one day prick his conscience and he will be man enough to let the courts deal with it.

Transparency International is still doing a great job. The social media are still working overtime to remind people of all the shady deals of the past. But there is only so much you can say without incriminating yourself when it comes to PNG.

I'm hoping the Court of Disputed Returns may end up exposing some of the things that went wrong with the election.

I really appreciate the way the Sepiks have welcomed me back as a fellow Sepik. Of course many of the people I interact with on Social Media were my students either at Brandi 1971-74 or at Keravat National High School 1975-1981.

I have been impressed with the way the elections were run in the East Sepik Province and feel there were no major worries there. The main problem was probably the fact that so many names were missing from the electoral roll.

Dulciana Somare conducted an excellent campaign and it was good to see her come fourth in the end. We are all hoping that our new Governor, Allan Bird, will be able to be a force for good in the parliament even though he is sitting on the Opposition benches. At least PNG now has a great Opposition.

Philip Fitzpatrick

It's a curious thing that groups that receive government funding tend to soften their comments about those governments.

We were always conflicted about the lack of support from either the PNG or Australian governments for the Crocodile Prize.

On the one hand we were angry that those governments seemed to have no interest in supporting PNG literature but on the other we were wary that such funding would influence the way we operated, especially the content we published.

I don't think government funding officially comes with strings attached but I'm sure everyone understands that such funding comes with an expectation of soft treatment.

In many cases I'm sure the recipient organisations make up their own minds to go soft of the government so as to maintain the funding source.

Accepting government funding is, therefore, akin to a deal with the devil.

I'm sure the same thing happens in private enterprise, particularly when they donate funds to political parties. They don't explicitly say it but they expect something for their money.

The government, when it funds an organisation, also expects something for its money.

Therefore, it is quite reasonable to be suspicious of any organisation that receives government funding.

The ABC (and 4 Corners) is a bit different because it has its independence guaranteed by law. It can therefore be much more thorough in its investigations and does not have to worry about being partisan.

You would be surprised at how much government funding comes with strings attached, often protected by confidentiality clauses in the contract. It takes resolute and skilled negotiating to have those strings loosened to a point where ethics are not compromised. Unfortunately this is rarely the case - KJ

Ed Brumby

Well said, Keith - as always.

William Dunlop

As a former Assistant Secretary (Finance & Budgets) in the Department of Works and Supply in Port Moresby, I have added my cent's worth request to the ABC's 4 Corners program for an investigation in a positive manner.

Unlike the fairly recent livestock fiasco between Australia and Indonesia, now subject to extensive litigation in the Supreme Court.

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