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PNG growth is a key threat facing Australia says spy boss

Nick Warner - PNG is one of greatest future threats facing Australia


BRISBANE – One of Australia's leading intelligence bosses has told the ABC that Papua New Guinea represents one of the greatest threats facing his country.

Nick Warner, director of the Office of National Intelligence, listed PNG's rapid population growth as one of six principal security risks confronting Australia.

The other five threats Warner identified are territorial disputes over the China Sea between China and the US, right-wing and Islamist terrorism, technological change, North Korea's nuclear weapons and threats to 'rule-based order'.

Warner said PNG’s population is expected to increase to 20 million in 20 years and this rate of growth will threaten its natural resources including electricity and water supplies.

“Its issues and problems will impact more directly on Australia than they have at any time since independence in 1975,” Warner told the ABC.

He did not say why or how PNG’s population would directly impact Australia.

But there are clearly fears in Australia that a super-sized PNG could result in increased illegal immigration or that PNG could align with states that Australia feels are inimical to its interests.


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Luke Karepa

Very interesting piece.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm not sure that Australia knew that O'Neill was corrupt when they did the Manus deal Paul.

Your chronology of events is a bit out too.

If you remember it was common knowledge that Somare and his family, especially his son Arthur, were corrupt.

O'Neill was a largely unknown quantity and a lot of people were hopeful that he would put an end to the corruption. He made a big deal about that himself, promoting ideas like an anti-corruption agency.

On balance he seemed the better of the two options. Unfortunately he turned out ten times worse than Somare.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling he had popular support and was sitting in the prime minister's office.

The Governor General then called an election in 2012 to decide the issue and O’Neill won. Somare supported O'Neill as Prime Minister on 3 August 2012, thus the constitutional crisis came to an end.

The Manus asylum seeker deal was negotiated in July 2013 with the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, well after O’Neill had become PNG prime minister but not before his true character had become apparent.

The moral of the whole story is that doing deals with any PNG prime minister is never a good idea.

Paul Amatio

The comments above are full of insight and demonstrate a clear understanding and knowledge of PNG.I wish to point out one fact which has some bearing on this.

In late 2011 to early 2012, we had a constitutional crisis in PNG where Peter O'Neil and his supporters wrested political power from Sir Micheal Somare.

The PNG Supreme Court then ruled in favor of Somare. Despite this the Australian government went ahead and declared it's recognition of Peter O'Neil as the legitimate prime minister.

Since then the country has gone downhill. Foreign reserves were depleted within 6 months leading into the National Elections. Foreign debt has risen to well over acceptable and even legally mandated levels.

I am one who lays the blame for our current situation squarely on Australia's doorsteps. The then Australian government deliberately chose to ignore or step on its own clearly established principles to support a person who was known to be corrupt and clearly not a fit and proper person to hold the office of PM in PNG. It chose to ignore a legally correct ruling by the Supreme Court of PNG.

All this to suit its short term vision of establishing an asylum seekers center in Manus which the Somare Government was against.

A Fairsay

"Warner said PNG’s population is expected to increase to 20 million in 20 years and this rate of growth will threaten its natural resources including electricity and water supplies."

How would PNG threaten Australia? Chaos? Armed conflict? Boat arrivals?

The PNG population cannot flood into Australia. PNG cannot directly threaten Australian security.

Indonesia with the worlds largest Muslin population of about 225 million would be a much greater security threat for Australia & PNG if hardline Islamists take over Indonesia’s politics.

Islamist groups are playing an increasingly influential role in politics as can be seen by the jailing of former Jakarta governor Ahok a Chinese Christian who took over the governorship from Widodo when he was elected President in 2014.

Blasphemy laws & public demonstrations was effectively used against Ahok , in Sept 2016 Ahok merely suggested a verse of the Koran did not state that Muslims could not be led by a non-Muslim, this got him jailed for two years.

Just in the last year a woman was jailed for complaining the call to prayer from her local mosque was too loud; the daughter of the country's first president Sukarno was threatened with jail for allegedly insulting the Prophet in a poem (she delivered a grovelling apology); and a Christian student in Sumatra was jailed for a Facebook post that insulted the Prophet. These are just some examples.

At the same time, graves with Christian crosses on them were desecrated earlier this month in central Java and the local government in the town of Surakarta caved to public pressure to erase a mosaic (which was designed by a Muslim) that critics argued was shaped like a cross and therefore was offensive.

In Indonesia, Saudi money is traceable back to the 1980s. They made contributions to the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA). The institution, founded on Saudi money, is famously known for ultra-orthodox Islamic views.

For instance, male students are urged to grow their beard and wear ankle-length linen pants. Women are encouraged to wear a burqa. The students study philosophical thoughts of Imam Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, a founding father of Saudi Wahhabism.

LIPIA has strong links to Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. It’s strictly monitored by the Saudi embassy, essentially making it a branch of Saud Islamic University in Indonesia.

Khalid bin Muhammad Al-Deham, a Saudi national, leads the LIPIA management. There have been 11,535 alumni from 1982-2013. The number of graduates increases each year. In 2017 750 graduated.

The alumni include Liberal Islam Network (JIL) coordinator Ulil Abshar Abdalla, former house of representatives deputy speaker and Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) leader Anis Matta and former governor of West Java Ahmad Heryawan. Other notable alumni include Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Syihab, Aman Abdurrahman, the ideologue behind the 2016 Jakarta bombing that killed seven victims, and Jafar Umar Thalib, a founder of the militant and radical Islamic organisation Laskar Jihad.

Saudi Arabia also funds scholars from Indonesia to pursue Islamic studies at the Islamic University of Madinah. Among them are PKS politician Hidayat Nur Wahid, chair of the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwas of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (GNPF-MUI) Bahtiar Nasir, and Syafiq Riza Basalamah, a famous Islamic preacher on YouTube. Syafiq is also head of the Islamic University of Imam Syafi'i in Jember, which adapts its curriculum from the Islamic University of Medinah.”

References & Quotes

Robert Forster

Politicians and administrators must make sure their people are fed and content if they wish to maintain political stability.

Mass migrations and invasions are the result of many things and long established hunger, and its accompanying desperation, is one.

It is astonishing just how often modern governments ignore the inescapable political fact that people who are not well fed become restless.

There was a time this was well understood. Back in the 19th century British prime ministers invariably checked grain harvest prospects because they knew if London people, who could not grow their own food, became hungry their frustrations could quickly loosen their grip on power.

This rule has long been forgotten. British prime ministers are now among world leaders who have fallen into the trap of thinking daily deliveries arrive in supermarkets by magic and are not the result of a complex logistical triumph over supply chain vulnerability to a range of fundamental challenges including drought.

Papua New Guinea cannot escape the inevitability that if its government can’t encourage or organise the delivery of enough food for its urban populations in Moresby, Lae and Madang, and those in crowded rural regions where garden land is already scarce, the country will either disintegrate or erupt.

Proximity to Australia may help in the short term because it is a net exporter of grain and meat and some of this already moves through PNG’s ports.

But this lifeline cannot be guaranteed. China is already Australia’s biggest food buyer and its powerful land and population pressures will soon force it to buy much more from Australia (and other countries too) so the residue left over for PNG will inevitably shrink.

Nor will it be easy for PNG’s leaders and retail entrepreneurs to cast a wider purchasing net to make up this shortfall because world population is rising at the same time as less land is available for food as a result of relentless urbanisation then unexpected rainfall reduction and creeping aridity too.

This means heightened global competition for existing supplies will make it more difficult for PNG’s people to eat regularly unless the country grows more food itself.

Subsistence production will not be enough. Somewhere, and somehow, space will have to be made, and the skills acquired, to grow more food on an industrial scale.

Animal products like eggs, chicken, pork, milk and even beef will be easiest. Bulk starch will be a bigger problem. Can European potatoes be produced on tens of thousand of hectares of higher ground? Can these national efforts include sweet potato, rice and taro?

Will there be room for citrus fruits and temperate fruit like apples?

Will soil nurture based on relentlessly re-cycled plant and animal waste become common practice? Can land ownership become corporate?

PNG‘s population of eight million is already difficult to feed, Unless its government and private enterprise combine to find a way to feed more people from its own resources only strife and instability lie ahead.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Well said Paul - a very neat and timely summary of many points that have been made on this blog in the past.

Add to it Richard's points and you have a perfect storm.

Richard Barcahm

We are in a time where global risks are high. American world leadership has been rapidly dissipating under the current administration. Russia and China are hungry for more land and also for technological resources.

It is so sadly true that PNG has been in decline as a nation. The health, education and welfare of the people have almost ceased to be a driver of government decision making.

The PNG Lands Department is not trusted as an agency. Time and again, government decisions have sparked local activism as land holders resist corruption and theft.

The social fabric of PNG looks tatty, with rising violence and cultural dislocation. A resurgence of young people with roots in their culture is a sign of hope.

Paul Oates

Is PNG’s population really ‘an elephant in the room’ that everyone recognises but no one dares talk about?

In 2014 the then National Planning Minister Charles Abel was reported as saying: “Development is a process that starts with you and me, it starts with you and me even when we make decision in the bedroom as to how many children we will have.

"Do we have the ability to look after six or seven children or did we take personal responsibility for our children? Why make six or seven children when parents cannot look after them?”

Papua New Guinea's natural resources have supported a fairly static population for thousands of years. Sure warfare, disease and the occasional famine naturally helped keep the populations fairly stable however traditional birth control practices also helped.

The other reason preventing overpopulation was the type of traditional agriculture being coupled with a hunter/gatherer regime.

The traditional PNG culture that had evolved over thousands of years failed to deplete the available resources. It didn't encourage a large, unsustainable increase in the resident population as almost everyone had to be constantly involved with food production and collecting.

Since Independence in 1975, PNG’s population has more than doubled. With a natural increase reported to be at least 3%, PNG’s population is set to double again in less than 30 years.

Only a few years ago, research scientist Dr Sergie Bang of the National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) observed that social indicators for PNG did not look favourable, especially when malnutrition in children and deaths at birth for women were rampant.

PNG faces a huge challenge as its population growth is rising at 3 per cent every year and productivity in the agriculture sector was growing at only 1 per cent yearly.

Dr Bang maintained: "This is a serious problem. It means PNG is not growing enough food (domestically) to feed its growing population, Unless we lift agriculture production by 3 per cent or more, we will not be able to feed our population."

Statistically, over half of PNG’s population is under 25 years old. Traditional methods of population control in PNG have changed due to urban drift and the youth bulge that has developed in today’s population.

Young people no longer look to the village council of elders for advice and direction or adhere to previous cultural constraints. Social media and access to the electronic information have effectively replaced traditional village community culture.

In some traditional PNG cultures there was a taboo on intercourse during breast feeding that could last for at least three years after a child was born.

This custom helped space apart the ages of children and assisted the health of the mother as well as the child in allowing the mother time to recover from the effects of pregnancy and birth and to be able to give undivided attention to the young child.

The current youth bulge in PNG will have consequential impacts on the education system and facilities. The demand for more schools and extra teachers has increased with those attending school are reported to be critically short of books and educational facilities.

In countries like today’s Turkey, the country is also experiencing a youth bulge. In Turkey’s case, the pressure on educational facilities and staff have been met by dividing the available resources in half and all children only spending half the time at school. This short-term answer could have long term results on the standard of education however.

Young PNG adults are now starting to wonder why they have no access to traditionally inherited land to live on. Much of the available land is rapidly disappearing due to population pressures. Customary land ownership in PNG is a sacred right and has traditionally sustained PNG’s population.

Now the resources of that land still held under traditional custom are under threat from reported illegal logging and improperly controlled Special Agricultural Business Lease’s (SABL).

Pressures on available land are increasing with the continuous extension of broad scale plantations of crops like oil palm. The amount of arable land tied up in non-edible crops will only exacerbate future pressures on the land available for growing food to feed the increasing extra mouths.

The severest impact on PNG’s urban communities is yet to come. Fathers will not be able to pass on their current employment to more than one child without their extra children suffering a reduced amount of job opportunities.

Where will the second and third son now find employment when and if their father is able to retire and still support his family? Perhaps the inevitable rise in urban crime has not yet been fully felt or reported.

Nowhere more crucial to PNG is where this population impact will fall than in the densely populated PNG Highlands region. Currently the Highlands bloc has nearly half of the PNG population.

In developed countries where falling birth rates are becoming a concern, the reasons why young adults are either waiting to have a family or just not having children at all seems fairly well established.

The expense of providing for each child has become a crippling blow to many parents. The expectation of clothing, educating, feeding and caring for one child takes a huge part of any take home pay.

Perhaps this natural curb on population growth has yet to be felt by rural PNG families? Yet the cost of living in PNG towns and cities are just or more intimidating in PNG or more so.

The essence of the issue is one of culture. If large families are viewed as less desirable by the community, community pressures will start to exert themselves.

It is a well-known fact that in human history, excessive populations cause social problems and eventual hardships. When will PNG leaders accept some responsibility and start thinking about their nation’s future? When will PNG families start thinking about their children’s future?

Is it any wonder that one of PNG’s closest neighbours is starting to get very concerned?

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