CANBERRA - Zoom was the venue as Australia and Papua New Guinea relaunched their bilateral relationship on Wednesday.
Prime ministers Scott Morrison and James Marape then released a statement outlining a new comprehensive strategic and economic partnership between the two countries. (Although Mr Morrison was the only one to grace the washed out cover photo.)
Joint statements between PNG and Australia are always composed after donning the rose-tinted spectacles and repetitiously proofread to remove the slightest possible blemish.
There is particular thoroughness when it comes to bilateral messaging between friendly nations and especially so when Scotty from Marketing is involved.
But in this case there was also more than the usual diplomatic doublespeak, which led this correspondent to direct a heavy-duty spotlight on the statement.
Under its searching glare the intellectual dishonesty underpinning the partnership was revealed.
It is only a few lines into the media statement that you realise that both prime ministers have decided to ignore recent history and whitewash current reality.
In the first pillar of the new partnership, ‘Strong Democracies for a Stable Future’, the prime ministers assure us about “our democratic institutions, which are free from coercion and interference, form the foundations of our security and stability”.
The phrase “free from coercion and interference” is the give-away. Given that this is implicit in talking about democratic institutions, why would it be singled out for special mention here?
Is it an issue so poignant that it must be denied without inducement (not to mention coercion and interference) in full daylight?
In this era of Covid-19, 2017 seems a long time ago, but PNG Attitude readers will remember PNG held a general election that year.
When the dust finally settled – and there was a lot of it – 111 members of parliament were elected (no women, you may recall) with Peter O’Neill comfortably resuming his role as prime minister.
The polling process was marred by irregularities, very many of them according to independent scrutiny, including bizarrely high voter turnouts in key constituencies.
Then finance minister James Marape was the first MP to declare victory – a significant political power moment in PNG.
But eyebrows were raised when it turned out that 145% more people had voted in his Tari electorate than were registered on the electoral roll.
Transparency International PNG strongly condemned the election’s lack of transparency and adherence to proper process, observing the “strong public perception that our democracy is being challenged by vested interests, acting with apparent impunity, and this appears to have heightened during the process of election.”
TIPNG’s election report, like that of the Australian National University, provides grim reading.
Tales of voter intimidation, vote rigging, corrupt polling officials and bribery on an industrial scale.
It was commented upon at the time that none of this seemed to worry Australia’s then foreign minister, Julie Bishop, who closed her eyes, buried her head in the sand and still managed to dispatch a congratulatory cable on a “successful” election.
Successful for some, you might say.
It was a different story in PNG’s autonomous region of Bougainville, which voted for independence in a referendum last year. The voting occurred peacefully, honestly and without major incident.
While 97.7% of voters selected independence, there is official opacity on how the result will be implemented. It’s a process that requires ratification by the PNG national parliament, which is not by any means guaranteed.
As Freedom House, an NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, has suggested democracy – including political rights and civil liberties – is not functioning well in PNG.
There are real challenges facing PNG – like democratic values, rigged elections, seemingly government-sanctioned deep rooted corruption – that the Australian government is apparently ready to ignore or forgive in order to maintain its strategic relationship with PNG.
This makes it impossible to find a pathway to improving PNG’s democracy and a gateway for Papua New Guineans to gain a fairer share of the wealth flowing from the country’s resource riches.
Australia is clearly not interested in creating a ‘Strong Democracy’ in PNG as it is a compliant neighbour. And whether this will lead to a ‘Stable Future’ must be a highly doubtful proposition.
So the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Economic Partnership’ falls at the first hurdle of maintaining democratic values.
What we’re going to get is not more than a continuation of the same uncomfortable and often compromised fumbling and a transactional not a truly strategic relationship between Australian politicians and PNG’s elite.
The first wanting a quiet life; the second the personal enrichment that flows from it.