Time to cement PNG-Aust ties

Editorial, Normal

The National, Tuesday July 16th, 2013

 THERE is no better time than now for Papua New Guinea to make the greatest strides in its relationship with Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a man who has demonstrated with his feet, more than policy, just how much he values the relationship with PNG.

“I come here as a friend, a long-standing friend, (and) as someone who believes in Papua New Guinea’s future and someone who wants to be a partner with Papua New Guinea for the future,” he said on arrival in Port Moresby on Sunday.

Others have made similar remarks but Rudd sounds more genuine because he has twice shown that PNG is important to him – he made it the first country he visited when he first became prime minister.  This time around, he has made PNG the second country he has visited, after Indonesia.

One year after being elected prime minister in February 2008, Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal people for the Australian government policy some 50 years ago which forcefully removed their children from their parents and put them in foster care.

It was a bold move no other Australian leader dared take. Opinion is divided in Australia on whether he did right or wrong, but for those of us on this side of the Torres Strait who have also suffered much under the oppressive boot of our former coloniser, that one word, sorry, says much. 

It shows the true colour of a man who really wants to say sorry and let bygones be bygones.

Such a man would be a great ally as PNG pushes for Australian aid to be transformed into a new form of budget support to be jointly managed under a new arrangement.

PNG wants to have aid and all other bilateral agreements such as the Defence Force agreement to be housed under an umbr-ella economic cooperation treaty.

This umbrella would cover aid, development cooperation and trade and investment.

Sam Abal, the then foreign affairs, trade and immmigration minister,  told an Australian delegation in July 2010 in Alotau, Milne Bay: “Every country, including PNG, wants to be self-sustaining. All development resources available to us, including aid, must be used to move in that direction.”

“A good aid policy is one that renders itself obsolete at some time in the future.”

PNG has wasted enough time and many billions of aid dollars doing everything but rendering aid obsolete.

Australia offered PNG untied budget support aid in the first decade after independence until 1989 when Canberra insisted it become programme aid.

The move away from untied budgetary support to programme  aid was based on major reviews which found that aid was not producing tangible development in PNG.

The PNG stance today also stems from a recent independent review which reported that the “status quo was not an option”.

The position also stems from the realisation that the fiscal policy conditions and economic circumstances today are very different from the 1980s. 

Whereas aid constituted a large part of the budget in the ’70s and ’80s, it is only a small part of the budget now.

It is important also for PNG to press, while it has a friend in charge in Canberra, for Australian aid to be brought under PNG government priorities as spelled out in its Vision 2050 document and the 2030 development strategies.

Australian aid was the only major visible development package in the rural areas up to now. 

But today, a substantial part of the PNG budget is spent in the rural areas. 

There is no more reason for AusAID to operate in isolation out in the rural areas, almost as if it was a second development budget for the country.

Now would be a good time, when an old friend is in town, to get all of that sorted out.