NOOSA - The 28th Papua New Guinea–Australia Ministerial Forum on Thursday undertook a wide-ranging if shallow canter through the major issues facing both countries.
The agenda of the virtual conference, co-chaired by foreign ministers Soroi Marepo Eoe and Senator Marise Payne, covered Covid, defence cooperation, the PNG economy, business, agriculture and other aspects of what was flashily styled as a ”dynamic partnership”.
The agreed communiqué issued at the end by both parties made scant reference of the three Big C’s.
There was a mere hat tip to climate change, the Papua New Guineans unwilling to try their luck at something ambitious. (Their Pacific islands friends will be unimpressed.)
There was also a quick nod to corruption; nothing that would disturb.
And no mention of China; although its shadow was evident.
Nowhere was this shadow more discernible than in the discussion of border arrangements in the Torres Strait.
The ministers emphasised that there had to be "early consultation" on any development proposals in or near the Torres Strait Protected Zone “that could impact on the interests of either country”.
This was an indirect reference to Chinese interests which have been floating ideas about Daru ranging from the establishment of a fisheries operation to building a full-blown city, an unlikely concept that caused quite a stir at the time and caught Australian diplomats by surprise.
Which they hate.
And the ministers thought it was important to promote development in PNG’s Western Province and 13 Torres Strait ‘treaty villages’, whose people have traditional rights to enter Australian-controlled territory.
Over recent times, this historically neglected south-west corner of PNG has been the object of much more attention, not just because of China but because of Covid, and the ministers were pleased to note the strong vaccination rates in South Fly and the program’s mooted expansion.
But “the continued serious threat posed by Covid, particularly the Delta strain,” creeping over the border had been somewhat overtaken by the virus spraying out of control from a place far to the south, Sydney town, where its containment had been horribly mismanaged by the NSW Berejiklian government, not that this scored a mention in the communiqué.
Still the ministers looked forward to a happier time when a decision could be made to reopen the border in the Torres Strait and this would “be informed by expert health advice and in consultation with the local communities” with a related “exploration of vaccination certification arrangements to facilitate the movement of people”.
Far to the north, on Manus Island, another arena of China-inspired progress was reported upon with the reconstruction of Lombrum Naval Base and the handover of PNG's second Guardian-class patrol boat with a third to be completed in 2022.
One of the most tangibly effective areas of mutual engagement is the Defence Cooperation Program, which ministers acknowledged to be of enduring value in advancing PNG’s security and of achieving interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and the PNG Defence Force.
There’s a current project to restore the PNGDF's military aviation capability, which had been allowed to whither and be grounded, and this will represent both a major investment for the military and a major strategic asset for PNG security.
A little over a year ago, prime ministers James Marape and Scott Morrison signed the Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership (CSEP), billed in the communiqué as “a significant milestone in the bilateral relationship that provides a framework for our enduring and dynamic partnership”.
Well, 13 months later “senior officials” have managed to agree an action plan that “outlines priorities for implementation” over the next year. In case they have been holding their breath, it seems the Australia-PNG Business Council and the Business Council of PNG will be consulted on this.
The ministers discussed Australia’s continuing support to strengthen PNG's struggling economy. Covid deservedly got some blame for the situation and Peter O’Neill, undeservedly, didn’t.
In 2020, Australia provided a loan of US$400 million (K1.4 billion) on generous terms to support the PNG economy through a particularly bad patch and now PNG has advised it was pursuing further reforms with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.
Australia has also delivered more than $340 million (K880 million) in Covid-related assistance to PNG, including $52 million (K135 million) to bolster health and education services and $15 million (K40 million) for child nutrition, social protection and women's access to markets.
Australia is providing further funds in this Covid-wracked year to underwrite Air Niugini flights to Australia and is assisting with pre-departure Covid testing at Jackson's International Airport and travel-exemption arrangements for workers in PNG’s resources sector.
There was some brief but interesting information in the communiqué about Australia’s assistance to PNG's agriculture sector, especially support to the coffee and cocoa industries and in biosecurity support which it is claimed will make PNG a regional leader in animal diagnostic testing.
There was mention of “gender equality as a priority for both countries” and encouragement of what were termed “PNG’s efforts” to ensure greater participation by women in parliament and economy.
Ministers also “emphasised the need to continue prioritising efforts to combat gender-based violence, corruption and transnational crime”. There was a lack of detail there which seems to match the lack of action on the ground.
And climate change? “Ministers underscored their commitment to the Paris Agreement, to taking practical and ambitious action to reduce emissions in order to keep within reach of the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, and to reach net zero as soon as possible.” Now that’s what you’d call a firm, unambiguous target, and I loved the use of the word “ambitious”.
Participating Ministers (Papua New Guinea)
Ian Ling Stuckey, Minister for Treasury
Westly Nukundj, Minister for Immigration and Border Security
Renbo Paita, Minister for National Planning and Monitoring
Sir John Pundari, Minister for Finance
Wera Mori, Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change
Jelta Wong, Minister for Health and HIV/AIDS
Bryan Kramer, Minister for Justice
Participating Ministers (Australia)
Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Finance
Peter Dutton, Minister for Defence
Greg Hunt, Minister for Health and Aged Care
Karen Andrews, Minister for Home Affairs
Dan Tehan, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Senator Zed Seselja, Minister for International Development and the Pacific