Downer: PNG’s woes do matter

Editorial, Normal

The National, Wednesday 01st Febuary 2012

PAPUA New Guinea’s political impasse should serve as a wake-up call for Canberra. For the past few months, Papua New Guinea has been engulfed by a political and constitutional crisis.
The country has, in effect, had two prime ministers … as you can imagine, that’s a very untidy situation.
All this goes back to March last year when Papua New Guinea’s long-serving prime minister Sir Michael Somare had heart surgery in Singapore. In June, his family announced that Sir Michael had retired.
However, there was legal uncertainty about how to replace him, uncertainty the parliament tried to resolve by electing finance minister Peter O’Neill as prime minister in August.
In the meantime, Sir Michael recovered and returned to PNG, claiming he was legally still prime minister. He went to court and on Dec 12, the Supreme Court ruled he indeed was.
So, parliament immediately passed retrospective legislation to overturn the Supreme Court decision. But despite the parliament overwhelmingly supporting O’Neill, the governor-general (Sir Michael Ogio) swore Sir Michael in as prime minister.
Parliament then sacked the governor-general and appointed Speaker Jeffery Nape in his place, and he then rescinded Sir Michael’s commission and swore in O’Neill as prime minister.
This seemed to be pretty much the end of it all until last week when a colonel walked into the office of the chief of the defence force and announced he was taking over the army and would restore Sir Michael as prime minister.
This horrifying action was quickly overcome as most of the army supported O’Neill.
I think I’ve got all that right. And it is a test of you to remember all that detail. You do not need to, of course; you just need to get a sense of what’s been going on in the nearest country to Australia.
When John Howard was prime minister, he used to say that his greatest foreign policy worry was that PNG would descend into political chaos.
Although I have known Sir Michael Somare for years, my more intense dealings with him started after he was re-elected prime minister in 2002.
In the wake of our intervention in the Solomon Islands in 2003, Howard and I decided we needed to make sure PNG did not go down the same path as the Solomons.
I told Sir Michael we wanted to help improve his police force and public service. There was too much corruption and the police were becoming dysfunctional.
Our proposed new assistance scheme was called the Enhanced Co-operation Programme. Let it be recorded Sir Michael resisted this new intervention. He thought it neo-colonial. I told him we were spending A$300 million of taxpayers’ money a year in PNG and we were not getting good value for money.
We were worried about where the country was heading. If we couldn’t get better value for money by implementing the EPG we would have to wind back our aid substantially.
He caved in. But he never forgave me and was overjoyed when the Howard government was defeated in 2007. Kevin Rudd, he figured, would have to be better for him than Howard and Downer.
Sad to say, but you learn early in life that doing the right thing does not always make you popular.
Since late 2007, PNG has not featured much in Australian foreign policy … we’ve lost focus on our own neighbourhood and now the most populous country in the Pacific has hit severe political turbulence. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing Australia can do to resolve the current crisis in PNG.
My guess is it will sort itself out and Sir Michael will permanently retire. And so he should. He has been in politics for way too long. He does not have anything left to contribute.
But the recent political turbulence in PNG should be a sharp wake-up call in Canberra.
We should have seen it coming and helped PNG avoid the crisis which has rocked it to its foundations.
PNG’s stability is important to Australia. What is more, the world expects Australia to look after its own neighbourhood. When I became the shadow minister for foreign affairs in early 1995, I made a trip to PNG, including to Bougainville. I’m glad I did.
As minister, it was a country which was at the centre of much of my work. We helped end the Bougainville crisis, we contributed to rebuilding PNG’s economy, we fought HIV/AIDS there and so the list goes on.
But one thing always struck me. The Australian media and even much of the public had, and still have, very little interest in PNG and the Pacific. That’s a pity.
So, here’s a real message for Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd: Look to our immediate neighbourhood, don’t just focus on the glamour issues on the other side of the world.