Junking our way to extinction
Zero for months; now PNG overwhelmed

Senate reveals Oz neglect of PNG Covid crisis

The Australian government got enormous media coverage for what was little more than this public relations exercise. Its real response to PNG's Covid crisis is woeful


NOOSA – Some of the most important windows into the operations of the federal government in Australia government are provided by Senate Estimates Committees.

The title may sound unexciting, but these committees – established to enable Senators twice a year to quiz government departments on how they are spending public money – provide a unique opportunity to allow Senators to determine how the government is operating.

The public servants being quizzed are expected to know their stuff and answer questions truthfully and these exchanges often provide rich pickings for the journalists observing proceedings in the committee room.

Yesterday ABC foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic (@stephendziedzic) was present when the estimates committee interrogated the Department of Foreign Affairs.

He real-time tweeted proceedings and in this piece I’ll quote his tweets relevant to Papua New Guinea and provide a commentary around them.

Dziedzic - @dfat estimates today so I'll be live tweeting. [DFAT] Secretary Frances Adamson has a brief opening statement. She says diplomats and officials have done "exceptional work" helping Australians overseas during the pandemic, often in difficult circumstances.

Eventually senators began to question the public servants on the Covid situation in Papua New Guinea. Janet Rice, a Greens senator from Victoria, opened the batting.

Dziedzic - Now the grim Covid-19 situation in PNG. Adamson confirms to Rice that Australian diplomats are pressing European countries to release 1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines for use in PNG - she [Adamson] says it's the Department's "top priority in Europe".

That sounds promising but Rice continues her questioning.

Dziedzic - Rice asks if Australia will release some of its domestically manufactured AZ vaccines to PNG if it's unable to secure further supplies from overseas. Adamson says that is "certainly something that is live, but (is) yet to be decided by Government".

Penny Wong
A frustrated Senator Penny Wong at yesterday's Senate Estimates Committee interrogation of the Department of Foreign Affairs

In other words, despite the continuing and severe Covid problem in PNG, the Australian government has no plan for what its response will be.

And I’m not just referring to philanthropy or good neighbourliness here. Yesterday we also learned that the coronavirus in PNG has mutated and given the world a new variant.

Health authorities believe it’s no more severe than Covid-19, but it reminds us that a virus out of control in PNG is a threat to Australia given the permeability of the border in the Torres Strait.

Next Senator Penny Wong (Labor, South Australia) joined the questioning.

Dziedzic - @SenatorWong asks how serious the situation is. Officials acknowledge there is widespread community transmission but say it's impossible to give any sort of precise figure. Wong gets a bit frustrated with all the generalities.

The ‘generalities’ of course signal how little planning has gone into developing an appropriate Australian response to the developments in PNG. The officials continue their explanation….

Dziedzic - Australia has already sent 8000 doses to PNG to vaccinate frontline health workers. But @SenatorWong asks how Australia landed on this figure.

Dziedzic - Officials don't give a clear answer on this. There are some 30,000 health + ancillary workers in PNG. Adamson stresses the 8,000 is only the first contribution from Australia but says the Govt is taking it step by step "supply has to fit what can be absorbed".

This statement is also a real giveaway – “what can be absorbed” leads us to another huge problem. This is the logistics of how a sufficient number of the PNG population can be vaccinated to mute the serious outbreak of the disease that, if left to ravage PNG, could bring the country to its knees.

Once again, we see that the Australian government has no plan. Sure, we are not PNG’s protectors, but there are many reasons – humanitarian and strategic – why Australia should be doing much more than it is to address its Covid crisis.

Dziedzic - Wong asks if Australia's aid partners/contractors in PNG will be covered by the first tranche of doses. Officials say no but then (frankly) become pretty evasive, saying it's still a matter for discussion with PNG Govt. Stress they'll be a priority in future vaccine roll-outs.

What future vaccine roll-outs? There is no plan.

Dziedzic - Adamson says the 8,000+ batch of doses was "a sensible figure to start with but by no means the last word." And Payne seems to confirm Cabinet ‘might’ decide to send domestically manufactured doses to PNG relatively soon-"that is something that must be on the table".

“A sensible figure to start with” said Adamson. But the officials had just admitted there are 30,000 health and “ancillary” workers in PNG. So where did that 8,000 figure come from? In what way was it “sensible”.

So now I’ll come a tweet of my own:

Jackson - Sickening report of Oz Senate committee yesterday reveals total lack of planning & compassion & strategic savvy by Oz government to assist #PNG government respond to urgent need for Covid vaccine & distribution.

Yep, that’s it.


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Bernard Corden

Most royal commissions or parliamentary inquiries are also constrained by extremely narrow terms of reference which prevent lifting any scabs or encroachment into politically sensitive minefields.

Lo and behold the incumbent government gets the report it wants and nothing changes.

Bernard Corden

If any of these flowerpots ever visited PNG it is extremely unlikely they would make it beyond the luxury of Bliss The Spa at the Airways Hotel in Port Moresby.

The venture would invariably include a brief excursion to an exclusive souvenir shop with a fit of prepubescent giggles whilst purchasing a selection of penis gourds and bilums, which will inevitably be claimed as expenses.

Any subsequent royal commission or parliamentary inquiry will be littered with woke rhetoric and merely establish where all the bodies are buried and estimate the magnitude of the risk.

The subsequent report will enable the incumbent government to protect its interests, secure the assets of party donors and socialise any loss.

I am off to bed with a copy of Friedrich Hayek's Road To Serfdom.

William Dunlop

Chris, I'd be thinking Bernard cut his wisdom tooth on Westminster Parliamentary Rhetoric; as
evolved over Centuries.
And as did I on the Storment one over the past Century.

Chris Overland

Bernard's reference to "a trio of vixens" is right up there with a famously noxious Parliamentary reference to three of my female colleagues as "the lesbian mafia".

We want to strip public debate of this deliberately insulting rhetoric in the hope of promoting civilised disagreement, although this seems a forlorn hope these days.

None of the verbal sniping going on serves to assist the people of PNG however gratifying we may find it.

William Dunlop

My dear Bernard, show ponies. Poor Andrew Peacock
demoted by you to being part of the common herd. Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha.

As for the lady in question, Catherine King, she tries.

As for the Spaghetti Irishman, Phil, you said it all.

Bernard Corden

Dear Keith, The only federal opposition member with any integrity is the member for Ballarat, Catherine King. The remaining show ponies I would not feed.

We don't need a third political party in Australia but desperately require a second one.

Bernard Corden

Jacqui Lambie may not be as articulate as that trio of vixens but she has far more integrity.

Though Jacqui never came clean, as she had promised to do by the end of 2020, on the secret deal underpinning why she voted with the government to stop medivacs of seriously ill refugees from Manus and Nauru - KJ

"Medical care is a fundamental human right, and today the government, along with Senator Jacqui Lambie, voted to remove that fundamental human right to people who are suffering," Senator Di Natale said.

"It is cruel, it's brutal, and it is a sign that this is a government that will do whatever it takes to keep this secretive and brutal regime under a shroud of secrecy."


Chips Mackellar

Then there is the "Canberra Bubble" to cloud the issue. Life within this cocoon bears little resemblance to the life we lead outside it.

Within this bubble, hours are long, work is stressful, and even when not in the parliamentary chamber there are reports to prepare, constituent matters to consider, long distant phone calls to endure, committees to attend, delegations to meet, reshuffles to ponder, staff matters to settle, party conflicts to avoid, and when there is any respite from all this, it is not with the wife who is back in the electorate, but with the loyal secretary who has been fobbing off nuisance calls all day and now also needs a drink.

So it is off to a quiet watering hole together, able to relax at last, but alas with a few too many drinks, then a confused end to the night in her bed by mistake, then a pesky early morning call from an annoying journo who wants to know what we are doing about the problem in PNG.

Ah yes. PNG. Which problem is that? But now we have a scandal to avoid, and life in the bubble continues unabated.

Dr John Christie

PNG is a sovereign nation and the Australian government can only act on the request and given criteria of the PNG government.

The issue of vaccine supply is a moot one as the world will soon be awash with such supply. The real issue now is how to deliver the vaccine into the arms of the citizens of PNG. No point in having a vaccine if it cannot be delivered effectively.

I would assume that the PNG National Department of Health, in conjunction with the Australian and WHO public health experts already on the ground in PNG, are formulating a practical plan for nationwide delivery - no doubt at the expense of Australia.

It will be an extremely difficult task given the issues involved - not the least of which is the security situation for those involved. Such a program of immunising virtually the whole population of PNG, twice, in a short period of time, has never been attempted before.

Philip Kai Morre

Australians are much concerned about our lives in PNG and support comes from government, NGOs, churches and individuals.

At the moment Caritas Australia is supporting Caritas PNG for printed publicity and awareness including posters. They have don't so much for us but we are taken it for granted and applying don't care attitude.

Our government is not addressing the Covid 19 pandemic seriously. Funds meant for Covid 19 care and treatment and recovery centres in other provinces including Simbu is just blown up within months.

Paul Oates

In answer to your question Phil, there are some well known factors affecting the selection of 'useful' candidates.

The first is that they should or hopefully have a clean record of doing nothing that the media can find to amplify and denigrate, embarrass and sensationalize to sell newspapers with.

Show me someone who has nothing to fear and I'll show you someone who has done nothing. Good news is no news as the Queen once said.

Secondly, in order to get pre-selected, a potential candidate must abide by Party rules and 'conform'. The effectively rules out anyone with any real get up and go since that might rub someone, anyone really, up the wrong way at some time.

Thirdly, as Lord Gort observed, 'Power corrupts'. I've seen the so called 'god complex' take over and reasonable people, once they get into potentially powerful positions, tend to become authoritarian very easily. It's a human trait.

The best way of preventing that is to have frequent elections and finite terms in parliament. Yet who could afford to give up a career and put it on hold while they take on a role that is often 24/7 in nature?

Once in a possibly powerful position of authority, there are so many rules and regulations about how to act and what is acceptable.

The trick is then to select a staff of people that can assist those elected in making sure they don't stumble and make mistakes.

But the problem there is that often, the elected person has no idea of who to select and chooses staff who will do what they want rather than give advice' without fear or favour'.

Finally there comes the influence factor of those who want to influence those who might get elected or who end up being elected. This essentially comes down to influencing those who have power to allocate funds and make decisions that conform to what those with money actually wants.

Political donations are the curse of politics and despite every effort to stamp them out, there will always be some who find a way to use their influence, usually funds, to lean on those they have given money to help with a campaign.

This easily extends into foreign powers that desire to disrupt or change a nation's political system to the external power's advantage.

In many ways, the current system could be contrasted with the Kiap system. Kiaps were appointed and could be sacked or moved at the drop of a hat. They were regularly moved around and therefore not allowed to build up any form of personal power base.

Appeals against Kiap decisions could be made and followed up and those appointed were responsible to a government minister who had to follow government decisions and go to a regular election by voters.

Every system of government has its disadvantages. Currently, the problem is that no one, no matter who they are, can be everything to everyone.

The Western world is in grave danger of imploding and the Eastern world is holding its breath in anticipation of taking advantage of that situation and getting ready to impose authoritarian rule, as they have within their 'current' borders. It's all happened before.

If only people in power would stop tripping over the trees and look at the forest they would see what is happening.

The so called western world is so incensed about their personal frustrations they can't see that solutions are not achieved by shouting at other people to do something but instead sitting down and working hard at finding answers.

Of course that takes time and effort and who is prepared to devote those responsibilities when there is only so much available to look after themselves?

Only a few dedicated individuals, who think and consider helping others at their own expense, will always try to make the world a better place.

Looking at what people have done in their lives so far is a far better method of selecting those who will do the best in politically powerful positions.

Chris Overland

There are two observations I wish to make about this matter.

The first is that the Australian government has yet to grasp the scale of the disaster unfolding in PNG and, consequently, has yet to realise that only a truly massive intervention by Australia (perhaps with the help of New Zealand) will ensure a timely and comprehensive implementation of a national vaccination program.

Second, it remains a mystery to me that the Federal Liberal and National parties seem to be infested with so many second rate people compared with their state and territory counterparts. The latter have effectively driven the national response to the pandemic, with the former really trailing along in their wake most of the time.

The Federal government's response to the pandemic has generally been effective but this seems largely due to the influence of key bureaucratic advisers and the assertive state Premiers more than any real insight on the part of the Federal politicians. The bureaucrats and Premiers have essentially forced the politicians to remove their ideological glasses and see the world as it really is, not as they imagine it to be.

Also, as soon as the Federal government resumed looking at the world through its ideological goggles, it began to immediately misread the situation and take unwise decisions, e.g the pathetic increase in the Jobseeker allowance which, very shortly, many Australians who have never previously been unemployed are about to endure when their Jobkeeper lifeline is terminated.

Unhappily, there seem to be no senior bureaucratic advisers who are well across PNG affairs which, many of us suspect, has been regarded as something of a backwater within DFAT, at least until recently. As a consequence, the Federal government is bereft of the logical, rational and insistent advice that only a direct and massive intervention in PNG is going to ensure that a national vaccination program will succeed.

This will be a costly and unhelpful diversion of course but the alternative is to allow the pandemic to rage unabated on our doorstep, not to mention the additional harm and grief it will cause in PNG.

Those of us who care about Papua New Guineans can only hope that the penny will eventually drop in the halls of power but I am not holding my breath.

Philip Fitzpatrick

As you say, this stuff is very interesting to watch.

A few words of advice to Anthony Albanese and Richard Marles. If they want to win the next federal election get out of the way and make room for Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Kristina Keneally and all the other talented women in the Labor Party.

Federal politics in Australia has finally washed up in the gutter with all the other useless debris polluting the country and its time for a new discourse.

Who better to provide it than those talented women and who better to prove that gender, race and sexual orientation no longer matter when it comes to running the country?

I’d offer the same advice to Scott Morrison but I can’t for the life of me identify anyone with the depth of talent in the Coalition that exists in the Labor Party. Why is that so?

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