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Australia's frail PNG-Pacific relationship

Cartoon by Hudson


NOOSA - This week, Australian citizens observe what seem to be the final paroxysms of the Morrison government as its lamentable record in office and surprisingly poor campaigning leave it in a shambles.

Nothing symbolises this more than the fallout from a series of appalling blunders concerning Solomon Islands, which from my perspective looks suspiciously like a friendly flag operation gone wrong.

Meanwhile, the Whitlam Institute within the University of Western Sydney has been taking a close look at another neighbour and, in doing so, has caught a glimpse of the wreckage of one of the finest relationships Australia ever had – at both a national and a personal level.

Morrison's Pacific jungle (Don Lindsay  The West Australian)
Morrison's Pacific jungle (Don Lindsay, The West Australian)

This is with Papua New Guinea – close neighbour, former colony, significant trading partner, strategic barrier and now remote from minds, concerns and a coherent foreign policy.

More about this in a moment.

But first let me direct you to the recent security agreement between Solomon Islands and China which has plunged the Morrison government into crisis over its perceived neglect – and even alienation – of what politicians patronisingly refer to as “our Pacific family”.

The Whitlam Institute states that this omnishambles highlighted “the need for deeper engagement and the importance of listening more and better to the diverse perspectives, priorities, and aspirations of Pacific Island communities”.

The crisis, occurring in the middle of the election campaign, was triggered by a claimed ‘leak’ of a draft treaty between China and the Solomons that ostensibly referred to a Chinese military base that would be established in the Solomons.

The draft treaty, since formalised by both nations, contained a security agreement which covered policing assistance and enabling Chinese naval ships to replenish in the Solomons. That is take on water, fuel and supplies, and perhaps even give some of the crew a dash of shore leave.

Dutton (Matt Golding)
Defence Minister Peter Dutton (Matt Golding)

A replenishing visit is about as far away from establishing a military base as the prospect of you swimming from Beijing to Honiara.

But ‘replenishment stopover’ is hardly a bone rattling news story. The Chinese constructing a ‘military base’ 1,500 km from Queensland is so much better.

It was noteworthy that Sky News in Australia leapt into the fray with a claim that Chinese ships and aircraft would arrive in Solomon Islands within four weeks.

The context drawn from this mysterious ‘leak’ was all military, threat and conflict on Australia’s doorstep.

That’s why this leak looks to me more like a friendly flag operation to give Scomo and Duts an opportunity to switch the eggbeater to ‘Chinese Threat’ and give khaki a bit of a leg up in the Australian election.

But it all went horribly wrong when the concept of ‘Australian Neglect took over the show.

The fickle finger of blame was pointed instead at Scomo and Duts constantly talking security but not taking steps to ensure it.

And so the story changed from ‘We Super Best On Security’ to ‘We Dunce On Region’.

An attempt to wedge Labor turned into a shot in the foot.

And so back to the Whitlam Institute’s research which has raised concerns about Australia’s relationships with Pacific Island nations and the changing strategic environment within the region.

Hessy Maya interviews a man in the Saruwaged Mountains  Morobe Province (Stanly Girip)
Hessy Maya interviews a Saruwaged Mountains man in   Morobe Province (Stanly Girip)

This research involved a wide cross-section of ordinary PNG citizens, including those living in remote areas.

The researchers from the PNG University of Technology (Unitech) in Lae, Divine Word University (DWU) in Madang and the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in Port Moresby asked hundreds of ordinary Papua New Guineans about PNG’s strengths and challenges, their hopes for the future, and what they think of the relationship between PNG and Australia.

“PNG is Australia’s closest neighbour, and the single largest recipient of Australian development assistance,” noted research coordinator, Dr Hannah Sarvasy.

“The two nations share a prehistory, and more recently, a colonial history.

“But despite this apparent closeness, few Australians today can say that they know how people in PNG feel about their own communities or about Australia.”

The research showed that Papua New Guineans are mostly positive about Australia, and there was wide praise of Australia’s financial support.

However, concerns were expressed about Australia’s lack of respect for PNG’s sovereignty and cultural norms.

And China was perceived as the country investing the most in infrastructure in PNG.

Dr Sarvasy said the report’s findings are particularly significant for policy makers and officials working in the region. I’ll say.

Australia’s close historical and cultural ties to PNG are just that, historical. We still treat Papua New Guineans who want to visit our country as potential absconders or worse.

Morrison's Pacific Step Up  Canberra Times  14 August 2019 (David Pope)
Morrison's Pacific Step Up (David Pope, Canberra Times,  14 August 2019)

And the government’s so-called ‘commitment to deepening engagement through the Pacific Step-up initiative’ is not worth the paper it’s written on. It remains as a commitment unrequited.

Australia is not trusted in the Pacific Islands for good reason.

Eric Sidoti, interim director of the Whitlam Institute, believes Australia can take heart from the report’s finding that respondents were largely positive about Australia, with an important qualification.

“It would be both foolish and a disservice to these neighbours of ours if we were not to properly listen to what they have to say and to deliberate on what it might mean for our official relationship, the aid we offer, the attitudes we bring to the table and the depth of our understanding,” he said.

If we don’t start listening to what Papua New Guineans are saying about our lack of respect for their country’s sovereignty and culture, we are fools.

As Dr Sarvasy says the research outcomes “amplified voices that are rarely heard in more official forums” and should have the effect of “building the capacity of Australian policymakers”.

Meanwhile, Australia continues to undermine its significant strategic relationship with PNG and the close interpersonal relationships that once were prominent, strong and influential are extinguishing one by one as old age, incapacity and death take their toll.

But then, the Australian government was never much interested in these voices anyway.


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Ed Brumby

I would suggest, Keith, that the Whitlam Institute is only half right. What we need is deeper engagement and more and better listening to the diverse perspectives, priorities, and aspirations of China - as well as our Pasifika neighbours.

I am truly horrified by the current sabre-rattling by Peter Dutton et al. Surely meaningful dialogue is preferable to war.

And what chance would we have against an adversary who outmans, outguns and out-submarines us?

Oh, hang on, I'm forgetting about our US friends.

Wait a minute: they haven't won a major military conflict since the Korean War (which ended in a stalemate in any case).

With friends like these......?

Stephen Fox

Hear hear. Australian governments have never really been interested in mutual dialogue with the pacific and PNG in particular.

In my observation, Australian interest in PNG is more often than not characterised by a generally patronising, negative and dismissive perspective and, at best, intermittent attention - despite the large 'aid' spend.

Yes, weak governance, a merry-go-round of ministers, weak institutions with leaders with mixed loyalties and capabilities, generally poor educational outcomes in-country and poor data in PNG makes it problematic to sustain effective partnerships.

But Australia is no paragon on these issues either. It sure would be a change for the better if there was, as a starting point in contacts at all levels, a true recognition of PNG sovereignty and a willingness to listen and learn.

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