Papua New Guinea has been the beneficiary of an awful lot of love from Australia of late.
Our nearest neighbor has been treated to visits from the Governor-General, new Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Matt Thistlethwaite, Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and this week Queensland Premier Campbell Newman.
This much attention lavished on one country in such a short space of time suggests a crisis in the relationship, but these visits were more about a belated recognition of PNG's growing economic importance to Australia.
Julia Gillard's first visit to PNG as Prime Minister put some substance around her promised new chapter in the bilateral relationship between Australia and PNG. It may not have been particularly startling, but was vital nonetheless.
There is plenty of substance at the official level and in the business relationship to keep the momentum up in this new chapter. But if Papua New Guinea is as important to us as the Prime Minister has declared, it deserves the same kind of political attention as our other first order bilateral relationships. We can't afford to wait another five years for the Australian Prime Minister to drive some high level attention to the relationship. There are a number of opportunities that can be seized by both sides to ensure momentum is not lost.
The Queensland Government has stepped up immediately.
Queensland is the state that does the most business with Papua New Guinea and is at the pointy end of Australian interactions with PNG's health crisis. Campbell Newman's visit, with its focus on business, health and police cooperation will probably have more immediate practical impact for Papua New Guineans than the agreements signed by the two Prime Ministers. The memorandum signed between Premier Newman and PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill calls for face-to-face meetings between PNG and Queensland every six months, something that Prime Minister Gillard could not promise.
Newman's commitments on behalf of Queensland are a good thing because they serve to further broaden and deepen the relationship. They should be seen as an integral part of the bilateral relationship, even if not driven by Canberra.
To her great credit, Prime Minister Gillard seized the opportunity in Port Moresby to champion the rights of women in Papua New Guinea, raising it during her state dinner speech and announcing a PNG Women in Business initiative. As I've argued previously in these pages, the first female Australian Prime Minister has responsibility to advocate for PNG's women, who endure appalling levels of domestic violence.
Australian women are themselves standing in solidarity with PNG women, holding events to coincide with protests by women in Papua New Guinea itself. Encouraging more Australian women politicians on both sides of politics to provide personal support, with the assistance of the aid program, to their counterparts in the PNG parliament and to aspiring women politicians could be beneficial. More regular opportunities such as these meetings of women parliamentarians would help.
Papua New Guinea also has a responsibility to build momentum in the relationship. Prime Minister O'Neill is a frequent visitor to Australia and has demonstrated he knows us well and feels comfortable being frank with the Australian Government. He needs to maintain the high level attention he's captured from Canberra by staying in regular touch with the Australian prime minister and senior ministers. O'Neill's own children study in Australia, part of the next generation of PNG's friends of Australia, and representing the Prime Minister's personal stake in the bilateral relationship.
PNG's investments in Australia total $1.8 billion, which interestingly far exceeds the amount of annual Australian aid given to PNG ($463 million). Australia is also the most popular destination for PNG students completing their tertiary studies abroad, with 1268 students from PNG studying in Australia, mostly at post-graduate level, in 2012. Leveraging these elements of the bilateral relationship will help the PNG Government strengthen its influence in Australia.
Investing in this new stage of the relationship with Australia will help PNG establish itself as a modern and reputable partner and increase opportunities for PNG to broaden its bilateral relationships with other countries.
Photo by Flickr user UN Women Asia & the Pacific.