February 04, 2012
THE tragedy of the Papua New Guinea ferry disaster, with the loss of more than 100 lives, has brought home the closeness to Australia of its neighbours.
Like New Zealanders, with whom we mourned after the Christchurch earthquake, Papuans are part of the South Pacific family.
Given the recent leadership instability in PNG namely Michael Somare's flouting of the supremacy of parliament, which duly elected Peter O'Neill as his successor as Prime Minister it is unfortunate that Australia's relationship with PNG has been allowed to fade, reflecting a disengagement that began with independence in 1975.
The relationship has not been helped by a self-lacerating sense of embarrassment over Australia's colonial era in PNG, about which fewer and fewer Australians now know anything.
Leadership is needed to reinvigorate this relationship a need underlined not just by the ferry sinking, but by the political crisis.
Such leadership must start from the top.
Kevin Rudd is an impressive, erudite and well-connected figure in world diplomacy.
The Foreign Minister cuts a familiar figure at the UN, in Brussels and other distant places. And it's important that Australia is well-represented when and where the big decisions are made. Getting relationships right in the neighbourhood is also a core task for an effective foreign minister.
And there are no short cuts.
Gestures of familiarity at international gabfests are no substitute for putting the time in to visit regularly, to get to know and to be known.
Chest jabbing and megaphone diplomacy do not work. Nor does strident interventionism, especially in a former colony where sensitivities naturally run strong.
Yet that is no excuse for standing aside, or for focusing instead on secondary goals such as securing a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.
This weekend, Mr Rudd is in Munich for a security conference.
Naturally, diplomats and diplomatic ministers can always claim that they are working away "behind the scenes", subtly, of course, the odd whisper here or raised eyebrow there conveying apparently important messages.
When a neighbour such as PNG suffers the anguish it has in recent months, our Foreign Minister should have been on the front foot in a bipartisan way offering solutions, seeking to broker deals, being visible, leveraging off his familiarity.
Mr Rudd, however, was missing in action, engaged elsewhere