The 2014 Australia–PNG Ministerial Forum: announcables and unannouncables
18 Dec 2014|
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, other Australian government ministers and business leaders at the ministerial forum in Port Moresby.

A week after a serious military–police clash in Port Moresby went largely unreported in Australia, prompting some commentators to warn that PNG mightn’t always muddle-through potential crises, it’s reassuring that four of our high-profile ministers attended Monday’s annual bilateral talks. Government, at least, still takes the relationship seriously. But even the Forum struggled for column inches, coinciding as it did with the Sydney hostage drama and federal budget update. So it’s worth a quick look at its key outcomes as a snapshot of bright-spots and challenges in the partnership.

The headline announcement that 50 asylum-seekers on Manus have been categorised as genuine refugees could have come wrapped in Christmas paper. Port Moresby goes along with the line that it’s simply playing its part helping to counter a regional challenge, but sees its contribution to our tough border-protection stance as a big favour. Reading the fine print, the first 50 successful applicants for refugee status from the 1,044 detainees on Manus will have to move to a temporary facility until PNG finalises a resettlement policy allowing them to integrate into PNG. Still, progress is welcome, as PNG resents the reputational impact of hosting the centre, extra strain on its weak administrative capacity, and friction from our constant prodding to please hurry up.

Some critics of offshore processing may suggest the Forum’s muted language on corruption in general, and silence about the evaporation of Taskforce Sweep funding after it turned on its master, stem from our own difficult position on Manus. But for reasons I’ve set out elsewhere, I’d say it arises more from a calculation that megaphone diplomacy would be counter-productive. And even Sean Dorney—hardly a slouch on the Pacific or human rights—observes that, whatever you think about Manus, it has increased cooperation between the two countries.

Moreover, a desire to promote good governance lies at the heart of another of the Forum’s big deliverables: agreement to establish a School of Business and Public Policy to help rebuild an effective and ethical public sector. Although its aim to ‘transform PNG’s public service’ is ambitious given the scale of problems faced and resources available, this initiative fits Canberra’s strategic intent to focus on transformative projects: it makes sense to try to help Port Moresby get more out of its own spending as our aid sinks below 10% of PNG’s budget. The initiative also accords with encouraging data from a recent study suggesting that improved performance of PNG Government agencies to deliver development outcomes, though hardly inevitable, is far from impossible.

Australia’s offer to help PNG get ready for APEC 2018 can also be seen in a transformational light. Summit preparations will depend on putting the security, logistical and other practical arrangements in place so Port Moresby can meet its hosting responsibilities (no mean feat). But if we can also help PNG showcase a real take-off, lift its sights, and be taken seriously in the big league of Asia, chances are we’ll be able to rely on it playing a constructive leadership role in the South Pacific (as it has on West Papua, Fiji, and Solomon Islands) almost as a matter of course.

In the security sphere, the Forum announced a repositioning of our 73 AFP cops’ support for PNG police, to focus more on organisational capacity-building and training (broadly along the lines David Connery and I recommended in October) given their lack of legal protections and powers. Defence Ministers Johnston and Pok also held military talks. We’d hope they’re right behind Commander PNGDF’s ‘Companies of Excellence’ concept, given the role of new troops in the recent clash between PNGDF and police.

Following the Forum, Julie Bishop travelled to Bougainville, where next year’s Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) election, further debate about mining, and a referendum by 2020 loom. Major reinvestment in infrastructure is happening, WWII bomb-disposal efforts show the ABG can negotiate sensitive activities, efforts to extend radio-reach beyond 20% of Bougainvilleans are finally underway, and even the PNGDF and former-Bougainville Revolutionary Army have started reconciling. Yet communications between Port Moresby and the ABG, though apparently improved, remain unpredictable.

Bishop also visited Goroka, partly to follow-up a new plan to promote gender-equality in PNG—another crucial generational endeavour.

Earlier, Bishop had co-chaired a meeting of the Australia–PNG Business Council. Here, although there’s a buoyant outlook, with PNG set to achieve world-beating LNG-driven GDP growth, the economy remains fragile, the budget problematic, and the sovereign wealth fund a work-in-progress.

Of course, some of the same forces affect our own economy, with iron-ore and oil prices (which govern LNG revenue) nearly halved this year, prompting Monday’s savage cuts to our overseas aid. Port Moresby knows Bishop will try to insulate PNG, and that freezing aid spending in May was popular here. Nor should PNG necessarily be left untouched as other recipients reel. But there are smarter alternatives for helping balance the books than cutting aid to ‘fund critical national security to keep Australians safe’ where our humanitarian and strategic interests are so closely connected.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Australian High Commission in Papua New Guinea Facebook page