TUMBY BAY - Towards the end of October I sent an email to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) asking whether it was possible to get some background on its Papua New Guinea Branch.
The request was mere curiosity on my part but I thought it might be a useful topic for a PNG Attitude article and in particularly its PNG readers.
DFAT is a large government department but its actual day to day functions are somewhat obscure, especially as they pertain to PNG.
This is what I wrote in the email:
“I was thinking about writing an article about the PNG Branch in DFAT but I haven’t been able to find any information about it online.
“We have a lot of PNG readers as well as interested Australian readers.
“I was wondering whether you could point me to a source where I might find such information.
“I’m mainly interested in the function of the branch and maybe some background on its staff.”
After a couple of weeks without a response I assumed my request had either been ignored or was still lurking at the bottom of someone’s in-tray.
This morning, however, I received a polite reply from the Assistant Secretary of the PNG branch, Bassim Blazey.
This is what he said:
“Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. As you might appreciate, there is quite a bit going on in Australia-PNG relations.
“I’m not sure there is all that much we can offer for your proposed item. The PNG branch, like any other bilateral desk, helps to coordinate various aspects of Australia’s relations with PNG (or whichever country is covered by the branch).
“We also provide advice to our ministers on the relationship. This includes political issues, for instance managing the annual cycle of meetings such as the Ministerial Forum; economic and trade engagement; and overseas development assistance.
“Obviously with a big Post, we do this in close consultation with the post, and on various issues other agencies may have the lead – for e.g., on defence cooperation or police cooperation.
“As for staff, the numbers fluctuate but has been around 20 in recent times. We’re all regular public servants – nothing particularly unusual about the mix of people - and I’m not sure any of us would want to have our backgrounds profiled in a public forum.”
While I appreciated this response I was somewhat disappointed that there was no information that could put a more human and friendlier face on the branch.
A couple of examples of some of their recent work, without any contentious details, would have been nice.
Essentially the response was a fairly typical bureaucratic one that seeks to avoid public exposure or scrutiny. Mr Blazey is obviously very skilled in this regard, which is not a criticism because he is simply doing his job.
I was struck by the size of the branch - and so were a couple of other people to whom I showed the email.
Not knowing what those 20 or so people are doing is slightly frustrating but, at the same time, such a large complement of staff might point to the fact that, despite some views to the contrary, the Australian relationship with PNG is important.
Mr Blazey’s email at least makes this reasonably clear: “As you might appreciate, there is quite a bit going on in Australia-PNG relations.”
I guess, given the current state of the political climate in PNG and Australia, that’s about all we are going to find out.
It seems that a scholarly dissertation on Australia’s relationship with PNG will not be forthcoming anytime soon.
But I guess we knew that anyway.