Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Alexander Downer: PNG's woes matter to us


I was in New York to brief the United Nations Security Council last week when I saw the ugly scenes from Canberra of our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader being bundled out of a restaurant by security officers protecting them from protesters. This incident made news right around the world. It was embarrassing. All day people were asking me what was going on in Australia.
Imagine my horror when I subsequently discovered that there was a political motive behind the protest: To try to humiliate Tony Abbott! Talk about an own goal! A Labor staffer had to resign and the protesters were seen to be party to a political stunt. But, as I said to my interlocutors, this was just a passing incident which will be well forgotten in a few months.
Just to the north of Australia, something much more serious has been going on. For the last few months, Papua New Guinea has been engulfed by a political and constitutional crisis.
The country has, in effect, had two prime ministers and two governors general. 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 Somare had retired. However, there was legal uncertainty about how to replace him, uncertainty the parliament tried to resolve by electing the Finance Minister, Peter O'Neill, as Prime Minister in August.
In the meantime, Somare recovered and returned to PNG claiming he was legally still PM. He went to court and in early December the Supreme Court ruled he indeed was. So the Parliament immediately passed retrospective legislation to overturn the Supreme Court decision. But despite the Parliament overwhelmingly supporting O'Neill, the Governor General swore Somare in as Prime Minister.
The Parliament then sacked the Governor General and appointed the Speaker in his place, and he then rescinded Somare's commission and swore in O'Neill as PM.
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 Somare 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's a test of you to remember all that detail. You don't 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 of Australia he used to say that his greatest foreign policy worry was that PNG would descend into political chaos. After all, its neighbour the Solomon Islands did, Vanuatu has come perilously close at times and Fiji is run by a dictator who came to power through a coup.
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 didn't 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 Program. Let it be recorded Somare resisted this new intervention. He thought it neo-colonial. I told him we were spending $300 million of taxpayers' money a year in PNG and we weren't 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 doesn't always make you popular.
Since late 2007, PNG hasn't featured much in Australian foreign policy. Sure, Australia has set up a committee to get rid of nuclear weapons (it didn't work) and sent aid to help the Arab spring. But 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's nothing Australia can do to resolve the current crisis in PNG.
My guess is it will sort itself out and Somare will permanently retire. And so he should. He's been in politics for way too long. He doesn't 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 here 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.

* Alexander Downer was Foreign Affairs Minister in the Howard Government from 1996 to 2007.

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