The National,Tuesday March 8th, 2016
LAE was given the Australian stamp of approval last week in Canberra when it was announced that Papua New Guinea’s southern neighbour and biggest aid donor will open a consulate in the Morobe capital.
That is a vote of confidence in a city that is undergoing a series of major changes in terms of infrastructural development that will further enhance its standing the industrial hub of the country.
This was among a range of commitments that both governments agreed to during the 24th Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum where PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill took the opportunity to meet with his Australian counter-part Malcolm Turnbull for the first time.
With topics such as work and holiday visa for the young men and women of both countries to travel for working holidays for up to 12 months, the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre for asylum seekers as well as issues on security, the visit is hopefully the continuance of the strengthening of the diplomatic, economic, historical and social ties that bind both nations together.
Australia’s setting up of a consulate in Lae is their first foray in this regard into PNG as the capital Port Moresby has always been the first point of call for in-coming and out-going Australian visitors and workers.
It is more than a goodwill gesture by Turnbull and the coalition government he leads. It is somewhat of a history-making move and will be noted as a turning point in relations between the two countries. Australia’s push to expand its diplomatic presence in this country outside the boundaries of the National Capital District is both a proactive move and one that is fraught with risk.
But the positives should out-weigh whatever negatives may hinder this course of action.
Several major projects including the Lae port and wharf redevelopment, the re-sealing of the city’s major roads and the planned construction of the Lae-to Nadzab four-lane highway point to Lae and indeed Morobe’s rising stature as PNG’s second major urban area.
With these projects having a collective price tag of close to a billion kina it is obvious that Lae’s importance to the prosperity of the country and the three regions – Momase, New Guinea Islands and the Highlands – which relay heavily on the goods and services that pass through its ports cannot be down played.
While Port Moresby remains the legislative and progressive capital of this country of 7.8 million people, Lae’s strategic importance in commerce and its accessibility makes it a crucial investment for O’Neill’s development programmes.
Having a consulate-general in Lae will benefit more Papua New Guineans as they will now no longer need to make the expensive trip by plane to Moresby for visa and other services offered by the Australian government.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, a women familiar with this country havinf made several visits both as a government representative and a member of the opposition, reinforced the idea that Lae, a once thriving town with strong prospects for growth in pre-Independence times was an integral part of Australia’s A$19 billion (K40b) investment in PNG.
Importantly, Australia’s consulate in Lae will help facilitate the delivery of the $554.5 million in aid and investment as well as offering consular services to the hundreds of Australian citizens that live and work in the Highlands, NGI and along the north coast.
With a number of major resource projects being developed in the regions around Lae it makes sense to have an Australian consular presence.
The only issue that O’Neill’s government must adequately manage and control is the growth of the Morobe capital which has seen uncontrolled influx of people from the Highlands and the Momase region over the years.
This has caused Lae to have problems with crime and ethnic clashes mostly between the landowners and settlers. The Lae police force’s struggles with containing the rising crime rates has been laid bare numerous times and hopefully the focus that the Australian government and PNG’s will set the wheels in motion for positive change for the city’s residents regardless of where they originate from.
It is ironic that the province that saw a great influx of Australian workers in the 1930s during the Wau/Bulolo gold rush and was then almost ignored for services and development after independence is getting the attention it deserves in keeping with its economic significance .