How we got water to flow uphill in Panguna

Can onetime ‘greatest of friends’ restore relationship they both desperately need

(PNG Business News)
Papua New Guinea's prime minister James Marape greets his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese (PNG Business News)


NOOSA – It’s always good to see Rowan Callick’s byline in The Australian or anywhere else, and the other day it was a delight to read the commentary that followed.

Callick’s an excellent journalist - a former Australian Journalist of the Year with a couple of Walkley Awards and three books to his credit.

After six years in the United Kingdom learning the journalists’ trade, he spent 11 years from 1976 in Papua New Guinea as general manager and editor-in-chief of Word Publishing.

When he left PNG for Australia in 1987, his talents were quickly recognised by the Australian Financial Review and later The Australian, for which he spent six years in China.

His specialist knowledge of China and PNG is rare in Australian journalism. As was his award of the OBE in 2015 by the PNG government.

These days Callick is a Fellow of Griffith University’s Asia Institute, an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Institute for International Affairs and a member of a long list of associations with Asia-Pacific interests.

He’s written three books on China and, if he ever decides to add PNG to his output, I’m certain it would be a damn good read.

In last Saturday’s Australian, early in Callick’s piece on prime minister Anthony Albanese’s two day visit to PNG, he made the perceptive remark that “sadly [Australia and PNG] are no longer quite the ‘greatest of friends’, as Albanese claimed.”

The reason for this important notation will come as no surprise to PNG Attitude readers.

“PNG’s governments have serially disappointed their own citizens in helping deliver development” Callick wrote, and the kicker “Australians have mostly turned away.”

He rightly accused Canberra as paying “only sporadic attention” to PNG and condemned Australia’s aid programs as “too often ineffective.”

Such issues, which underpin why Australia and PNG are ‘no longer quite the greatest of friends’, are rarely dug out of the polities and bureaucracies of both countries to be aired in the bright light of public disclosure.

It has taken China’s adventurism in the Pacific Islands (and especially the Solomons-China defence agreement) to heighten US alarm and hurried commitment to raise its presence and profile in the region.

Inevitably, this drew an Australian response. It was a somewhat lazy and confused response which seemed to gather speed and focus only after some noisy indignation and shrieking from the Australian media.

And followed by a national election which brought a fortuitous change of government.

It seems that in Port Moresby the word ‘China’ did not pass the lips of Albanese or PNG prime minister James Marape in any public utterance but, wrote Callick, “it was surely at the centre of Albanese’s mind.”

The two-day whistle stop in Port Moresby, Callick wrote, certainly showed that the main focus of the two prime ministers was on a new bilateral security pact due for completion by mid-year.

“Despite the more equable tone in the China relationship since Labor was elected,” Callick wrote, “Canberra is rightly concerned and is appropriately seeking to rebuild formerly uniquely close ties with the PNG Defence Force.”

PNG Business News reported that Marape emphasised the importance of stronger economic ties to ensure a safer region.

"Our focus on ramping up trade, free flow of exports and people to Australia will be a main issue of discussion with the Australian leadership we are so privileged to have today,” it said.

“This is not just a social conversation, it is deep economic strategy of our nation.”

Apart from China’s expansion into the Pacific, another perhaps even more dangerous problem for both countries is the future of Bougainville, which Callick sees as “the big looming challenge for PNG’s security.”

He said that unless the PNG government has “learned lessons from the Bougainville civil war of 25 years ago [there could be] a return to that conflict, with almost 98% of Bougainvilleans voting four years ago for independence.”

A large part of the answer to many bilateral challenges, Carrick wrote, is “to cement the relationship…. to rebuild sustainably human connections.

“Achieving practical goals for PNG requires working with, but also well beyond, both governments.”

Readers may find that prescription to be either as light as air or as difficult as grasping a shadow.

But Callick has pointed to a deep flaw in the relationship that was not present at independence, when the bonds of professional and personal affiliation between Papua New Guineans and Australians were generally strong and harmonious.

Rowan Callick in China
Rowan Callick and Chinese guide in China

The ‘sporadic attention’ that Canberra had given to the nature, advantages and benefits of the relationship over the years had led them to wane and in many cases disappear.

It would greatly behove Australia’s politicians and diplomats to understand exactly what Callick meant when he shrewdly wrote that they need to “work with, and beyond, both governments.”

Albanese’s bold start in restoring PNG’s key old friendship’ by Rowan Callick, The Australian, 13 January 2023
Australia and Papua New Guinea look to boost two-way trade’, Jimbo Gulle (Managing Editor), PNG Business News, 17 January 2023


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