SYDNEY – Fairfax Media has reported that important information about Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea will remain a secret, even though it is 20 years old and due to be released.
The National Archives of Australia usually releases secret cabinet documents two decades after they were created in Australia.
The Archives director David Fricker says this is an "essential function we perform for transparency and integrity of Australian government in this democracy of ours".
Well Mr Fricker needed to eat his words when it came to documents relating to the infamous Sandline Affair of 1997 which should have been released in Australia this week.
The Sandline Affair occurred when the Chan government of PNG sought to bring in mercenaries to fight against Bougainville irregular soldiers in the Bougainville civil war of 1989-1998.
The plan ended in a fiasco. The mercenaries never made it to Bougainville, their equipment – including two helicopters – was impounded, PNGDF commander Jerry Singirok was fired and Sir Julius Chan lost his prime ministership.
Australia’s role in the matter was murky then, and it remains so to this day.
So when an Australian Archives spokesman says, "If this information was disclosed, it could lessen the confidence of a foreign government in the Australian government, which could damage the international relations between the countries."
The foreign government is, of course, PNG.
We can gain some understanding of what the Australian government is hiding from public view by considering other related documents it is not releasing under the ’20 year rule’.
They include Australian Defence Force contingency planning for PNG and a review of Australia’s policy towards Papua New Guinea.
The Archives spokesman said Australia’s intelligence and security agencies, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence all agreed the documents should stay secret.
Back in 1997 Australian troops were ready to evacuate Australians living in PNG home if violence escalated.
As it happened, after all the excitement and turmoil of the Sandline affair, matters settled down in Bougainville and the civil war was effectively over by later in 1998.
But there are still secrets about that time so long ago that the Australian government does not want the PNG to see.
Let’s hope they are not being considered to be worth dusting off for some future intervention.