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PNG reaches out to ‘best friend’ in region, Australia

  • Rowan Callick, Asia-pacific Editor
  • From:The Australian
  • September 16, 2013 12:00AM

IT’S Independence Day in Papua New Guinea – very different from the independence days of most former colonies, whose colonisers were mostly far away.

Australia and PNG are permanently linked, not only through their shared history but through their proximity, and thus their present and future.

And PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill will today urge the next generation of Australians to rediscover his country, despite its problems. The attack on the trek in Morobe province last week was a terrible event – infinitely more terrible, of course, for the two Papua New Guinean guides who were killed, and for their families, than for the Australian trekkers, who escaped with lacerations and bruises.
To their considerable credit, the trekkers have focused strongly on the murders, and on the far more serious injuries suffered by half a dozen other PNG guides, rather than on their own grave peril.
They spoke at the weekend of raising money to aid the guides’ medical treatment.
The event, and the contrasting responses to it, have been educative.
One of the comments posted beneath an account of the Black Cat attack said how “scary” it was that such a “primitive” place as PNG was so close to Australia.
There are of course “primitive” Australians as well as “primitive” Papua New Guineans, as the family of murdered Irishwoman Jill Meagher would grimly attest.
Papua New Guineans themselves have expressed their especial horror about the killings on the Black Cat track.
This especially tough trail crosses a remote section of Morobe, the same province where the publisher and writer Peter Ryan was wonderfully assisted by local people as he operated behind enemy lines as a youthful coast watcher – about which he wrote his World War II classic Fear Drive My Feet.
Most Australians still know little about the people who are their closest neighbours, but the intensity of the coverage of the “harrowing jungle terror” indicates a degree of closeness.
The asylum-seeker deal carved out between Kevin Rudd and O’Neill – which for a few days disoriented the Coalition and appeared to present Labor with a slim chance of success at the election – also points to a relationship that matters.
For all its developmental failures, with succeeding governments bitterly disappointing their own people, PNG remains a working democracy, and retains a largely independent judiciary and free media. The comparisons on all three counts with Fiji – once the model of good governance in the Pacific – are telling.
PNG is in its sixth successive year of economic growth at around or above 6 per cent.
Former businessman O’Neill – who is in a stronger political position than any leader since independence, and who is something of a student of Australian politics too – will ultimately be assessed by whether he can steer PNG’s growing revenues, especially from gas exports, towards better schools, healthcare and roads, and can help create the jobs still lacking for young people.
By mid-century, PNG will have a bigger population than Australia, whose aid is valuable but no longer invaluable.
O’Neill’s message to Australia should be viewed in this context: “It is timely for us to consider how we can freshen up our relationship with our best friend.”
He said the Abbott government had a policy commitment that provided an excellent way to add dimensions to the people-to-people relationship – the “visionary” New Colombo Plan “under which Australian students will be given government scholarships to study at universities in the Asia Pacific region.”
He said he would ask the Abbott government to include PNG in the program. “We will also discuss with the new government arrangements to allow more Papua New Guineans to study in Australia in a similar way, and we would consider funding ourselves this aspect of the program.”
He noted the policy included internships with business and NGOs, and said: “I believe our major businesses and industries would be keen to participate in the program.”
This new policy, he said, had been developed by incoming foreign minister, Julie Bishop, “who as shadow minister visited PNG a number of times and has taken a special interest in PNG-Australia relations.”
Building such people-to-people relationships is also a key element of the biannual “mateship treks” through which Liberal and Labor politicians Scott Morrison and Jason Clare have brought young people from their constituencies into the region – including, earlier this year, trekking the Black Cat track.
It is timely for the new government to consider establishing a council to foster such people-to-people relations.
The price of failure on this front is an ignorance that feeds fear, and a failure to seize opportunities in a fast growing economy – failures already manifest in Australia’s relationship with Indonesia.