|Pacific Media Watch|
'PNG tries to put the boot in'
Title -- 4724 AUSTRALIA: Comment: 'PNG tries to put the boot in'
Date -- 9 May 2005
Byline -- None
Origin -- Pacific Media Watch
Source -- The Sydney Morning Herald 9/5/05
Copyright - SMH
Status -- Unabridged
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PNG TRIES TO PUT THE BOOT IN
SYDNEY (SMH Online/Pacific Media Watch): There's trouble at the front-line of Australian foreign policy.
It began in March with a diplomatic scuffle over a pair of shoes; those removed from the feet of Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Michael Somare, on the orders of security officers at Brisbane Airport. Sir Michael was outraged that Australia could treat a Pacific island leader, in transit to New Zealand, with such "apparent contempt and disdain".
Suddenly, Australia's $800 million rescue package for PNG was suspended, pending an official apology.
None has been forthcoming. Canberra has, instead, assured Port Moresby that security checks are a universal requirement from which no VIP is exempt. The problem is that some groups in PNG are enthusiastically sharing Sir Michael's injured pride. A meeting of PNG police officers this week demanded the immediate departure of some 150 Australian police officers deployed to assist law enforcement under the rescue package, Australia's largest aid program. The PNG police complained the Australians are "just driving around all day", telling them what to do. A constitutional challenge is also under way which seeks to force out the Australian police by quashing their immunity to prosecution under PNG law. These tensions are not unexpected, but they highlight the unpredictable emotional terrain of Australia's new Pacific policy.
Australia's recent foreign policy shift ties Pacific aid to outcomes. In PNG, this goes as far as putting Australian officials into key positions in the PNG police and economic ministries to ensure Australian money is properly managed. The return of Australian officials to PNG is highly sensitive; Australia was the colonial administrator until 1975 and, arguably, did a poor job preparing PNG for independence. Post-colonial resentment still simmers and Canberra has, until now, been reluctant to lecture.
But there is another side to the story: Australia has invested more than $50 billion in aid since 1975 yet, according to new World Bank figures, Papua New Guinea is the only nation in the Asia-Pacific region which is getting poorer. Since 1990, the poverty rate has increased from 64 to 70 per cent, the delivery of even basic services has faltered, HIV infection rates are soaring, and large areas have fallen under the control of armed gangs.
Sir Michael is a proud nationalist. He has recently sought to reduce PNG's dependence on Australian aid by courting China, Malaysia and Indonesia. The risk, though, is that Asian governments may be more interested in access to PNG's timber, fisheries and minerals than reforms which would improve the lives of ordinary citizens. PNG is resource-rich and should not be poor; it is corruption and incompetence which are eroding living standards. The "good governance" conditions attached to Australian aid are rightly non-negotiable. Diplomatic protocol at Brisbane Airport appears to have been lacking. But that should be a minor irritant, not a bilateral crisis. There is far too much at stake. If the stand-off is allowed to drag on, the only losers will be the long-suffering, ordinary people of PNG.
PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).
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