Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 02:31 | SYDNEY
Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 02:31 | SYDNEY

Australia MIA in PNG


Jenny Hayward-Jones


2 February 2012 11:04

Like Alexander Downer, I think the Australian Government should pay more attention to the political crisis in Papua New Guinea. I've been uncertain about what Canberra can practically do, but here's a suggestion: it's time for Australia to play its strongest card.

So far, we have played a weak hand. While the Foreign Minister was in Europe and Africa last week and the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs (the only Australian Member of Parliament with personal connections in PNG) was busy advancing Australia's relations in the Caribbean, the response to the political crisis in our nearest neighbour was left to the Acting Foreign Minister. Martin Ferguson was unfortunately not only confused about the first name of the Prime Minister the Australian Government supports but also the constitutionality of O'Neill's position.

Prime Minister Gillard made a short statement as the military mutiny unfolded on 26 January, appealing for the situation to be resolved peacefully. But it appears she left the conveying of this message to her very able High Commissioner rather than telephoning her counterpart in PNG herself. Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had the most to say, making a decent audition for a future gig as foreign minister.

The Australian Government has an important asset up its sleeve in PNG which is appears not to be using – the personal agency of Foreign Minister Rudd. On becoming prime minister in 2007, Rudd worked hard to restore friendly relations with PNG and created a personal connection with Prime Minister Somare. He has also met and presumably developed relationships with Peter O'Neill's Cabinet. He is the best placed Australian Cabinet minister to influence the players in PNG.

A visit by Rudd to PNG to meet with O'Neill and Somare and encourage them both to reach an amicable agreement (which may mean a concession from Somare and a gesture from O'Neill which restores respect for the courts and constitution) for the good of the country is worth considering. 

What's the worst that could happen? If there's no outcome, Australia would appear impotent and be accused of interfering (though that is hardly a new occurrence in the Pacific – look at Fiji). But it could work and at the very least would send a signal to the people of PNG that Australia cares deeply about their future. It would also tell the world that Australia is serious about its middle-power credentials and values stability in its neighbourhood — worthwhile signals, given Australia's aspirations for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

It may be easier to exercise creative foreign policy in countries and regions where Australia bears little responsibility but Canberra needs to bring that same creativity to its own neighbourhood if is to convince the world it is a serious middle power.

The Australian Government pragmatically and correctly opted to stay out of the heady days of the constitutional crisis in December. But the enduring nature of the crisis and the damage being done to PNG's international standing in the lead-up to important general elections mean it is time for a rethink in Canberra.

Image courtesy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.