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Non-Solutions: Exporting Australia’s Market Ideology and Executive Style of Government to PNG?

Denis Bright invites discussion on Australia’s recent relationships with Papua New Guinea (PNG). Has Australia’s offer of special assistance to PNG in return for accepting asylum seekers on Manus Island added to political stability in PNG or is this just another saga in our neo-colonial relationship with adjacent neighbours from Timor Leste to Nauru?

What’s behind the Australian Government’s strategic and commercial interest in Papua New Guinea? Successive Australian governments since the mid-1980s have allowed development assistance to PNG to decline while our representatives sought a new place on the global political stage.

Australia’s renewed commercial and strategic interest in PNG

With the election of the Rudd-Gillard Governments (2007-13), there was a renewed interest in relations with PNG. This has continued since 2013.

Australia’s DFAT offers a positive interpretation of the importance of Australian Investment in the economy of PNG:

Australian investment in PNG is worth over A$20 billion. The resource sector has traditionally been a focus of this investment, particularly gold mining and oil and gas. Key ASX-listed companies in the mining and petroleum sector include Santos, Oil Search Ltd and Highlands Pacific Ltd. Opportunities continue to exist for Australian companies to supply PNG’s resource sector, particularly the PNG LNG Project. Other key investors in PNG include Australia-based companies Coca Cola Amatil, Campbell’s Australia Pty Ltd and Nestlé Australia.

From a distance, the economic growth data from PNG is impressive:




Even DFAT noted the limitations of macro-economic growth data:

PNG remains off track against all the Millennium Development Goals. Over 2 million Papua New Guineans (an estimated 40 per cent of the population) are poor and/or face hardship (2013 Pacific Regional MDG Tracking Report). With around 80 to 85 per cent of Papua New Guinean’s residing in traditional rural communities, the majority secure their livelihoods from subsistence gardens and small scale cash cropping.

Most of PNG’s most prized mineral exploration and gas extraction projects have left long-term environmental scars.

The Canadian owned Sinivet Mine in East New Britain, operating as the New Guinea Gold Corporation, was abandoned in July 2014. In the absence of adequate environmental bonds, the national and provincial governments in PNG are left to cope with the mess.

The combination of initially profitable commercial activity from the mining and gas sectors concealed the high levels of income inequality in PNG at levels comparable to the excesses of Mexico, Brazil and Kenya.

Belatedly, the O’Neill Government admitted that its revenue-raising measures from the resources boom were inadequate. Formation of a PNG Sovereign Wealth Fund (PNG SWF) in 2011 was implemented too late to offer a more even-handed approach to economic development.


Paul Flanagan, Development Blog 2016 Budget

Paul Flanagan, Development Blog 2016 Budget


The unresolved issue of Australian political influence in PNG

Australian political influence in PNG extends far beyond the irregular historical boundaries in the Torres Strait. Some outlying Queensland islands are indeed within sight of the PNG mainland.

Political instability and separatism have been used to justify a proactive role for successive Australian governments in the affairs of PNG since 1975. Establishment of the detention centre for asylum-seekers on Manus Island by Transfield Holdings, now renamed Broadspectrum, is just the latest episode in a long history of intervention.

The Manus Island facility was originally set up by the Howard government, but closed for nearly a decade before reopening in 2012 under the previous Labor government as it sought to deal with a growing influx of asylum seekers.

Broadspectrum currently has a 12-month extension to its $1.2 billion contract to run Australia’s detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, with the next five-year deal currently up for tender.

Business Insider Online 27 April 2016

With veteran Prime Minister Michael Somare in a Singapore Hospital for a heart operation in 2011, House Speaker Peter O’Neill mounted a successful parliamentary coup against the Acting Prime Minister Sam Abal. This time it was in the interests of the Australian Government to support the leadership changes in PNG.

After the PNG elections of 2012, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill presided over a potentially strong coalition government.

Both the governments of PNG and Australia supported a pro-development agenda which initially produced high rates of rates of economic growth during the resources boom from exports of LPG, gold, copper, silver, platinum and nickel.

The PNG Government became vulnerable to overtures from the successive Australian Governments to accept asylum-seekers on Manus Island and to offer settlement for a token number of refugees.

This is a gross imposition on PNG which has responsibility for the care and settlement of West Papuan refugees as explained by Research fellow Jenny Munro of ANU’s Development Policy Centre:

At Rainbow settlement in Port Moresby, 38 families of West Papuan heritage live in a drainage ditch approximately 100 metres wide by 200 metres long. To one side, the neighbours’ retaining wall contains pipes which direct runoff water and rain directly into the settlement. On the other side of the settlement is a construction site that doubles as a soccer field for Rainbow’s children. The houses are small structures built with a patchwork of materials that reveals the recent history of external engagement — tarps from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), plywood from a church fundraiser, plastic chairs from a West Papuan who lives outside the settlement. In the context of increasing efforts from Papua New Guinea (PNG) authorities to register West Papuan refugees and provide citizenship status, this post flags some of the relevant historical context and reflects on current challenges.

Accepting asylum seekers on terms defined by Australia has been a recipe for political instability despite the substantial majority attained by Peter O’Neill’s coalition government after the 2012 elections.

Rioting and looting have been reported in several parts of PNG since the unrest began, including in the PNG Highland cities of Goroka and Mt Hagen, and in Lae on the north coast.

The trouble broke out when police stopped the students from marching on the Parliament and began shooting into the crowd, according to students at the scene. (ABC News Online 10 June 2016).

As social tensions increased in PNG, even O’Neill Government wants to revisit agreements reached with Australia over asylum-seekers. This is necessary because of the ruling from the PNG Supreme Court on 26 April 2016 against the unconstitutional and illegal nature of the detention arrangements on Manus Island.

Political tensions over asylum seekers also extend to Australia with assessment of the cost of asylum seekers by the Audit Office amounting to $573,100 per year for each involuntary resident:

What if our government really wanted to save money? As well as going after $6.7 billion in its omnibus savings bill, it could go after the billions more it costs to run our immigration detention centres: $9.2 billion in the past three years, $3.9 billion to $5.5 billion in the next four, according to the most complete accounting yet of the costs normally hidden in inaccessible parts of the budget.

Professor Desmond Manderson of the ANU College of Law noted that the Turnbull Government had refused an offer from the New Zealand Government to take 150 asylum-seekers from Manus Island and Nauru:

According to our Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, Australia rejects this offer because it would encourage the people smugglers “to get back into business”.

But does Australia have a legal right to say no? Doesn’t the government insist over and over again including (with a straight face) before the High Court – that the detention facilities in these places are the responsibility of an independent sovereign country?

Blind-spots have emerged in Australia’s vital relationships with PNG. More dynamic leaders on both sides of the Torres Strait will ultimately be required to resolve these problems. Hopefully, the graduates and staff from the Development Policy Centre at ANU will be there to steer the solutions for PNG with its current population of over 7 million.

In raising the issue of Australia’s relations with PNG for discussion, this article acknowledges the outstanding contribution of the DEVPOLICYBLOG of the Development Policy Centre at ANU. This is a vital resource for a better understanding of under-reported Australian, Pacific and Global Developmental Issues.

denis-brightDenis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in developing pragmatic public policies for a contemporary social market that is highly compatible with current globalization trends.


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  1. mark delmege

    I suspect PNG has been heavily under Aussie influence since we took control of the country from the British and Germans.

  2. jim

    And if big business just paid their Fair share of tax there’d be no poverty in PNG.

  3. Harquebus

    Usually, Dennis doesn’t know what he is talking about and makes little sense. This time is different. It is good to see some improvement.

    Australia’s role in the annexation of West Papua by Indonesia is not something we can be proud of.
    Overall, good neighbors we are not.

    “On August 15, 1962, the ‘New York Agreement’ that would hand over control of West Papua to Indonesia was signed at the UN to the satisfaction of all concerned, except for the West Papuan people themselves who had no say in the matter.”

    “The media have barely touched on Australia’s “dark-side” involvements in West Papua. I wonder if the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”, dubbed so after the second world war, would have been so willing to help out Australian soldiers if they knew these blatant abuses of human rights were going to be ignored by the Australian Government and public?”,8105

    This is from my list of saved links. The other two are from search results.
    “Suddenly, at 17:30, four fully armed Indonesian soldiers drive into the village with loaded guns. They briefly interrogate a member of her family and then demand he leaves the scene. They then proceed towards Arlince’s house.
    Seeing the soldiers, Arlince tries to run away.
    The military fire 3 shots, she is hit in the neck and chest and dies.”

    A Victim of the Struggle in West New Guinea: No Justice for West Papuan Young Girl Killed by the Indonesian Military

  4. PNG Discussions

    The mainstream media does not give enough attention to the coverage of events in PNG and our adjacent neighbours. Mark is definitely right. Australian intelligence may have been involved in the transition from Somare to O’Neill in 2011-12. Tame regional reporting has created blind-spots in political analysis. The big clue is the extent of eves-dropping on Timor Leste: At least that is out in public.

  5. Pappinbarra Fox

    I was the Senior Legal Officer of the Milne Bay Provincial Government when John Howard seduced Sir Mekere Morouta with a measly $20m to abrogate the PNG Constitution. An advice I provided to the Provincial Government at the time, vindicated over a decade later by the recent PNG Court decision.
    I consider the politicisation of the Australian Public Service is in large part responsible for the failure in both countries to adhere to high ethical standards and objective advice provision. Australia is thus in no position to demand higher standards from our former colony when we accept lower standards for our own public service or manipulate them to provide supporting advice rather than independent and objective advice.

  6. townsvilleblog

    This is merely thrashing about by an incompetent government trying to unload their problems to another place. They are trying to con PNG which is in their nature. It would make more sense to encourage Combodia to take more than two solitary refugees for the $55 million that this LNP government has paid. Value for money, it seems does not apply to ‘our’ money.

  7. More PNG Disscussions

    Thanks Pappinbarra!

    Like the research students and staff at ANU’s Policy Development Centre, you are not afraid to speak out on ethical and legal issues relating to PNG and its acific neighbours which go largely unreported here. PNG needs leaders like Sir Mekere Morauta (PNG PM 1999-2002). He is now 70 years old and deserves a retirement. Even though his political party (PDM) has been fractured in the long traditions of PNG politics.

    What you say about the APS in Canberra applies to domestic policy issues as well.

    Australia is drifting to an executive style of représentative government which discourages debate in the name of dogmatically correct solutions.

    This Hansonite style has been around within Australian politics long before 1996 when Pauline came on the scene as the Member for Oxley. It is a throw-back to the populist style of leaders like Billy Hughes and his commitment to simple slogans. The old White Australia policy offered a convenient diversion from the developmental challenges of the post-War One Period until Billy Hughes was deposed within Conservative ranks.

    Like many contemporary leaders on both sides of Australian politics, Bill Hughes was over-committed to the British Empire which has now been replaced by loyalty to the US: Exporting commitment to markets and military ties with the US is still in vogue and affecting our relations with PNG, Timor Leste and other regional neighbours.

    What happens if we are now stuck with Donal Trump?

  8. PNG Topic

    Our foreign policies and developmental assistance programmes should have a focus on nearby neighbours from Timor to Nauru and the Solomons.Political independence must be respected and that has not been happening when policies and practices like offshore detention are being traded off for more development assistance.

  9. Catherine

    Thanks for bringing Papua New Guinea back into focus for discussion for otherwise poorly reported issues from our near neighbour.

  10. Lalnama

    Our nearest neighbour & a country we should continue to support through development and opportunities for investment & infrastructure.
    It is in our long term interest.
    Thanks for continuing to engage in the global & Australian conversation

  11. Theresa

    PNG is so close to Australia but is a country we hear little about! A very interesting article! Thanks for these insights.

  12. wam

    Wow Papinbarra your ‘consider…’ is a key to a political pandora’s box.
    From the removal of the base level clerks who used to monitor political spending claims to the ‘contract system’ which allow political appointment, sacking and political rorts like renewing contracts in the caretaker period that force incoming pollies to pay out or suffer.
    Sadly for this old commo. Sir Mekere Morauta should have been born in a free country, not be nearly 30 when the moresby mafia ‘nominally’ came to canberra and darwin.

  13. Peter J

    In a wider context, our government is now so enamoured with free market ideology that it is even starting to tell the US what to do…..

    Julie Bishop, two days ago…

    “Countries like Australia need to continue to press the case for liberalised trade and
    I believe the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a comprehensive high quality agreement that
    will be of benefit to the people of United States in appropriating more jobs and
    economic growth.”

    On the same day, back in Australia, the TPP consideration process here has been shifted to another Senate Committee, and given only limited time for further submissions.

  14. diannaart

    PNG have every right to be a tad nervous about any Australian overtures. Just think, East Timor; Timor Sea. I don’t trust the bastards and I am Australian.

  15. Defending Our Neighbours

    Thanks diannaart for your comments and your concerns for our northern neighbours.

    Australia likes to speak for the entire region and takes on a Big Sister role in the case of Julie Bishop.

    This is very insulting when the conversation extends to Border Protection and Refugee Conventions or even failure to discuss Intelligence Matters when Australia seems to have been caught out spying on the leaders of countries to our near north.

    Between her changes of fashionable garments, our Julie Bishop should note that Indonesia, PNG, East Timor and Vanuatu are all members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

    Australia has no right to speak for the region and to impose membership of the TPP which is controversial even in US Domestic Politics.

    What right do we have to tell other countries great and small how to define their external policies?

  16. diannaart

    Australian government thinks it is the USA in Asia/Pacific…. needs to dispense with that idea and form enduring relationships.

  17. diannaart

    Hmmmm, invaded already occupied land, based our claim upon spurious reasoning and think we can boss around neighbouring countries…

  18. paul

    Thanks for the article Denis!

    Some excellent points raised. You are right PNG needs to negotiate a better on behalf of its people (the majority of which are struggling) in relation to the permitting multinational mining corporations to continue to degrade its pristine landscape.

    Unfortunately, Governance structures in PNG are in need of great improvement.

    In terms of the Australian funded Asylum detention centres in PNG, no words can describe the inadequacies and short sightedness of this band aid solution. If the government is serious about cutting costs, these types of absolutely political solutions must be stopped. The government has duty to act in the best interests of Australia and it is not doing so.

    To refuse the offer from NZ to take 150 of these people and give them the opportunity for a better life whilst also saving Australia $75M annually is beyond belief.

    The Commonwealth Public Service has strict duties of due diligence in procurement and effective contract management but this has clearly not occurred in the management of the Broadspectrum contract – questions need to be answered.

  19. PNG Discussions

    The mainstream eye witness news services do not give enough attention to PNG: Great to see the issue back in focus here

  20. Maria

    Excellent article, I enjoyed learning more about our closest neighbour, that doesn’t often make the press. We should do more to assist PNG.

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