MELBOURNE - Over a number of years I’ve been reading contributions to PNG Attitude regarding Australian aid to Papua New Guinea and other Pacific/Indian Ocean nations.
Each of these articles has tended to look at specific issues associated with the provision and management of aid without looking at the total picture and realising there may be a bigger unstated driver.
To understand how Australia’s aid to PNG evolved, we need to take a brief trip back in history.
In the mid-1800s a number of European nations were exploring the Pacific and Indian Oceans with a view to colonising new lands or influencing native populations.
The Queensland colonial government sought Great Britain’s action to claim some Pacific islands as a British colony but this was refused on the basis of the cost to establish and run a new colony. Queensland then claimed the land anyway but Britain repudiated its action. However Queensland maintained a watch on Papua as an increasing number of traders, adventurers, prospectors and missionaries roamed the area.
All this changed in 1888 when German colonisers and traders claimed the northern part of the mainland and the islands in what was to become German New Guinea. Britain immediately reacted by requiring that an expedition set out to claim as a colony the southern part (later called Papua) that they renamed British New Guinea.
But this was only possible if the colonies of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria met the administrative and development costs which they agreed to do after lobbying by Queensland.
Until Australia became one country in 1901, this arrangement continued with the Queensland colonial government administering British New Guinea on behalf of the British. After Federation the British handed over practical control to the new Australian government in 1902 and this was ratified by the Papua Act of 1905.
In 1914 German New Guinea was occupied by Australia at Great Britain’s request and in its name. It was governed as a military administration and the costs absorbed into Australia’s military budget. In 1921, Australia was granted a League of Nations mandate over New Guinea and this remained until 1942 when the Japanese invaded, the civil administrations of both territories was suspended and a single military administration, ANGAU, was established.
This model continued after the war in the new civil administration until 1949, when it was ratified by the United Nations on behalf of the people of New Guinea.
So we get to the crux of this argument. Even though strategists had been warning the government and the public about a potential Japanese threat for many years, Australia was woefully underprepared for the Pacific war and deeply shocked when it arrived at our shores.
Fortunately, and with the help of the United States and Papua New Guineans, the Japanese were defeated in a number of land and sea battles and the threat to Australia was averted.
This left an indelible mark on Australia. In 1949, when Robert Menzies Liberal Party was elected to government, he immediately called for a complete review of Australia’s military forces and defence strategy.
Two issues were fundamental to this review, the developing Cold War against Communism and the continuing fear that Australia could be invaded.
The principle outcome of the review was the development of a strategy known as ‘Forward Defence’. The object of this was for Australian and Allied forces to meet any future threat to the Australian mainland as far from Australian soil as possible.
Intrinsic to this thinking was recognition of the part PNG played as a physical barrier capable of significantly slowing and hampering invading forces. Menzies proudly declared that no war would ever again be fought on Australian soil.
The Australian commitment to support the United Nations, Great Britain and the United States in the Korean War of the early 1950s was the first opportunity to implement the new strategy. The Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi (Confrontation) with Indonesia were further examples of Australian forces serving offshore, with the later Vietnam War a classic example of the strategy at work.
About the same time as the defence review there was a meeting of British Empire (later Commonwealth) heads out of which came the Colombo Plan. Deterrence of the spread of Communism was the aim and the strategic outcome was a scheme to contribute funds to a pool for Third World nations to make Communism a less attractive alternative.
Australia was a participant to this scheme as well as providing the administrative and development costs of the new joint Territory of Papua and New Guinea. There was a vague aim of eventual independence for PNG but no timetable was set.
Australia had a visible presence in PNG of the three arms of the Australian military (ADF). They participated in a range of activities from civic aid, emergency response and training the PNG Defence Force.
This meant that ADF troops were patrolling in rural areas which was giving them recognition among the village people and familiarisation with the terrain and climate.
When I was acting ADC Malalaua in 1974, out of the blue an SAS patrol walked into the station without prior notice. They were due to fly out the next day so I accommodated them around the station with the troop leader and 2IC at my house.
They had walked from Wau to ascertain whether or not the Wau-Bulldog Road could be made trafficable and reopened. I challenged this as I knew there had been a number of Army patrols undertaking the same task.
Finally, after a few beers, they admitted there were several simultaneous patrols occurring at different locations in PNG tasked with issues associated with events that could occur with forthcoming Independence.
In 1974 the Whitlam government centralised all overseas spending sources into a single agency known as the Australian Development Assistance Agency (ADAA). It was this agency that was responsible for the negotiations for my contract extension and continuation.
Just before independence the PNG economy consisted of one-third domestic, one-third Bougainville Copper and one- third Australian aid.
In the years since independence Australia’s contribution to the PNG economy has continued and the focus shifted from administration to programs and projects. The projected aid for 2018-19 is $A572 million or 1,380 million. It’s no longer one-third of the PNG economy but it is still a considerable sum.
Over the years numerous contributions and comments have been posted in PNG Attitude noting the apparent lack of fiscal responsibility, good governance and transparency with this money by both Australian and PNG governments.
Many of us, both in headquarters and the field, felt that there was indecent haste towards self-government and independence and that the systems to accommodate this radical shift had not been adequately established.
I’m sure I was not the only kiap to receive a written missive from the rural population, “Mipela no inap lukautim mipela” [‘we’re not ready to governourselves’].
So perhaps Australia conceded it had an historical and moral obligation to PNG that could be assuaged by cash. Or perhaps chief minister Michael Somare reminded the Australians, “You owe us.”
However, I believe there is a more compelling alternative for the huge level of aid to PNG. Australia developed its Forward Defence strategy influenced by the part that the PNG people, climate and terrain played in the defeat of the Japanese invasion.
The core part of this strategy is the ability of Australian forces to freely move and have legal access to lands where a foreign military threat may emerge, be met and vanquished.
But, if it doesn’t have direct legal access, it is relying on the PNG government of the day to accept that it has the financially-based moral obligation to allow Australian forces unfettered access and action to defeat a direct regional threat.
Whilst there is a cooperative partnership agreement between the two nations which includes defence cooperation, it does not state the nature, level or legalities by which the agreement will be invoked.
So my proposition is that the nature and level of Australian aid to PNG, coupled with the apparent lack of diligent scrutiny in Australia and PNG, is a deliberate ploy to create an implied obligation for the PNG government to allow unfettered access for Australian forces to meet foreign threats to Australia in PNG whenever they arise.
The fly in the ointment, of course, is China - that is exercising military and financial force in the Pacific and has the capacity to greatly outspend Australia. Therein lies the problem for Australia. It can no longer guarantee that any implied PNG obligation remains in place.
Given the apparent ease with which PNG politicians seem to accrue wealth, how will they line up if such a threat needs to be met? Are they being very cunning and exploiting their ability to play one side against the other?
While this may have huge financial benefits for individual politicians, at some point they may have to choose between Australia (and the US) and China.
That’s when the game will get particularly interesting.