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The Australian government is riding roughshod over Papua New Guinea

By Tim O'Connor - posted Monday, 13 October 2003

September 11 changed the world! It's a statement that has become part of our lexicon, and while certainly a catalyst for immense change in international relations, there is certainly an argument that what has engendered a much greater impact on international relations is the US reaction to those tragic events. Where previously the UN talked of peacekeeping and the Cold War melted away to a period of relative international calm, now the "War on Terror" has lead to pre-emptive strikes and "winning the peace", "failed states" and the "new interventionism" meanwhile, we in Australia cower behind our fridge magnets between holidays on the Central coast.

Howard's infamous "Deputy Sheriff" to the United States admission, although played down by the likes of Gerard Henderson, is symbolic of the current perception of Australia in the region. The pre-emptive strike policy embodied by the Australian government decision to intervene in the Solomons and the current state of flux in PNG are direct consequences of this new policy paradigm.

Considering the upheaval that has been created in Afghanistan and the restructure of Iraq, much international debate has rightly ensued as to weather this policy line has actually made the world a safer place. UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan was quoted on 23 September as suggesting pre-emptive strikes are leading to a world where nations attack one another "with or without justification".


In light of this, little informed debate has ensued in Australia with regard to the bodies that are actually writing and enacting these policy shifts and what are the likely impacts upon the countries that lie in our direct neighbourhood and their perceptions of Australia.

Professor Vijay Naidu noted at the recent ACFOA conference, Shifting Tides in Pacific Policy, that the Solomons intervention, although welcomed, is seen by people from the Pacific as more to do with an "Australian sense of insecurity than a genuine desire to lift the Solomons out of the quagmire it had gotten into". Naidu went on to point out that the Australian government has provided $600,000 to the Fijian Military forces to update its equipment. While this would be strategically beneficial to Australia, considering the history of the Fijian military in state insurrection, Naidu suggests "the arming and training of indigenous Fijian military reflects a lack of any real concern for the security and citizenship rights of all Fijians." The ramifications of our actions are not well understood by Australians and our policy makers.

Papua New Guinea for instance, provides a prime case study. Although our closest neighbour, PNG is a mystery to most Australians. A country of more than 5 million people it remains one of the most culturally and biologically diverse regions on the planet. In Papua New Guinea for instance there are at least 800 different languages: not dialects but individual languages. Eminent ecologist Jared Diamond notes that 10,000 years ago PNG was one of the most agriculturally developed countries in the world. Additionally PNG is home to more than 16,000 flowering plant species, 2,000 species of ferns and at least 300,000 insect species. Yet notwithstanding PNG's obvious cultural and biological wealth and its despite its enormous mineral and environmental assets, it is regarded by many in Australia as an "undeveloped" country. All we hear in Australia in regard to PNG is the Raskols, the headhunters, violence on the streets in Port Moresby and corruption.

As a result of this one-sided debate, on the 18th September Foreign Minister Downer announced that Australia would send 200 Australian police to reform the PNG police force. Australian Strategic Policy Institute Director, Hugh White went further in the Sydney Morning Herald on 23 September, suggesting Australia should also take charge of the judiciary and the prison system as Australia was dissatisfied with the PNG government misusing Australian aid money. What both these reactions have in common is a gross misunderstanding of the state of PNG, the myriad differences in PNG life and particularly in reference to White, a complete misunderstanding of how the aid budget is disseminated.

First, Australian government aid money, distributed by the government department AusAID is primarily program and project based. The vast majority of Australian aid money, since the mutual decision to cease budgetary support in the late 80s, has, according to the Australian government, gone solely to mutually agreed AusAID programs and not as White suggests, to be "used" by the PNG government. This shows a significant degree of naivety about the way our aid program is delivered.

What this new policy also pre-supposes is that the situation in PNG has actually deteriorated. No so, according to retiring head of the Pacific Islands Forum, Noel Levi, who suggested on Radio Australia on 23 September that the lawlessness of Port Moresby was comparable to that of big Australian cities. Levi went on to say "The law and order situation was worse a few years ago, but PNG has worked its way through it".


The recent Senate report A Pacific Engaged, suggested there were problems in the police force but that they were more to do with a lack of resources and that their recommendation of providing surplus equipment from Australian forces, although somewhat bizarre, reflected this. Similarly, AusAID director Bruce Davies suggested in the Australian Financial Review on 5 September 2003 that life expectancy had improved, infant mortality had declined and adult literacy had improved also in PNG. This is certainly difficult to reconcile with the notions of a "failed state".

While there is little doubt that there are law-and-order issues in PNG, these are largely confined to a small number of regions including Port Moresby. The majority of the country and its people reside in relative peace. It is important also to realise that a law-and-order problem does not necessarily reflect an issue of policing. There are real tensions in PNG that are caused by the majority of the population remaining in the informal economy and the lack of employment and opportunity that prohibits their entry into the formal economy.

Retired Police Commissioner Sam Inguba told the Australian media last year that more than 70 per cent of the inmates at Port Moresby's main prison are from Goilala. The province of Goilala, north-west of Moresby, has "been listed in several studies funded by AusAID that show Goilala as one the most undeveloped areas of the country". Despite this AusAID and the other development organisations have put very few resources into this area.

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About the Author

Tim O’Connor works at AID/WATCH an independent watchdog monitoring the community impacts of Australia’s aid and trade polices.

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Australian Council for Overseas Aid
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