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The PNG Solution

22 Jul 2013 09:21

Retired Brigadier Gary Hogan has been Australia’s Defence Attaché in both Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Indonesia.

In March 1964, the 'Year of Living Dangerously', Indonesian President Sukarno, speaking at a public rally, told the US ambassador in attendance to 'go to hell with your aid!'

Aid programs with Indonesia, even ones as massive as ours, at over half a billion dollars annually, have never been an effective means to garner support from, exercise influence over, or curry favour with its leaders. If there are Australians who presume otherwise, tell 'em they're dreaming.

In sharp contrast, last week's announcement of the 'Papua New Guinea Solution' to illegal boat arrivals by Prime Minister Rudd was a direct offshoot of the tens of billions of aid dollars Australia has poured into that country since its independence in 1975. A cargo cult mentality is alive and well in PNG and this afforded the necessary levers for the Australian prime minister to pull so deftly in his game-changing policy statement, which will almost certainly stem boat arrivals in the near term, until people smugglers and Australian activists are able to find paths around the absolutist decree that even legitimate asylum-seekers will now not find sanctuary in Australia.

Only the passage of time will tell whether the policy is a masterstroke or too cute by half. With an Australian election due very soon, it is at least a short-term masterstroke. For it will take at least that long for the wheels to fall off and the gloss to fade from the toughest statement yet of Australian resolve to foil the peddlers of hope and merchants of death operating between Java and Christmas Island. [fold]

At a press conference on the eve of his visit to Jakarta earlier this month, Prime Minister Rudd was careful to hose down hopes of any breakthrough agreement with Indonesia on the ongoing people-smuggling cancer, which threatened to infect our healthy bilateral relationship. Mr Rudd said he anticipated little real progress and was keeping his expectations modest. He was not disappointed.

The joint announcement by Prime Minister Rudd and President Yudhoyono of a regional conference on people-smuggling was about as underwhelming a response to a clear and present humanitarian disaster as one could imagine — like holding a seminar on vulcanology during the Mount Merapi disaster of 2010 or convening a climate change symposium in the middle of the 2011 Queensland floods.

What's more, the Bali Process already provides a forum for relevant nations to discuss solutions to, among other things, the illegal movement of people around our region. It is still unclear if and how the conference announced by the two leaders will complement, differ from or build on the Bali Process. It is likely the principal outcome of this newest mechanism for discussing people-smuggling will be the recognition that a mechanism already exists for discussing people-smuggling.

The more recent move by Indonesia to withhold visa-on-arrival privileges from Iranian tourists is a welcome development, and a sign that Jakarta recognises the sensitivity of the boats issue in Australia. Politically, it is also relatively low-cost for the Indonesian Government. The overwhelming majority of Indonesia's Muslims profess the Sunni tradition. Getting tough with a few Iranian Shi'ites will lose no votes, nor incur the ire of Indonesia's influential religiously-affiliated political movements.

And Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's recent announcement that Jakarta was prepared to discuss 'turning back the boats' with the Australian Opposition is further indication that Indonesia understands fully the volatility of the asylum-seeker issue across the breadth of our political spectrum, especially in an election year.

Meanwhile, there is a real possibility that the people-smuggling trade through the Indonesian archipelago is about to run afoul of a perfect storm. After last week, potential customers will likely remain in their current way stations, deferring passage until the effectiveness of the PNG Solution' can be properly gauged. By the time chinks in the armour can be assessed over the next few months, the monsoon season will be approaching, with only the most desperate and foolhardy hazarding the lethal storms in seas south of Java.

Along with public notice of Australia's hardline new policy, the harsh reality of monsoonal dangers should be broadcast in the Government's media campaign in countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Australia seeks to stop boats. Indonesia offers to hold discussions. PNG offers to hold people. The two responses are telling reminders of the diverse dynamics across our immediate neighbourhood and revealing case studies in the use of aid to achieve our regional diplomatic objectives.

The formula is relatively simple: PNG is small and we are large. It is unlikely Prime Minister Peter O'Neill would ever tell Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to 'go to hell with your aid!', though much has yet to play out in PNG. By contrast, we are small and Indonesia is large. Neither boats nor aid should ever distract our government from the main game with Jakarta: securing preferential access for Australian goods, services and companies into the 50 million-strong consumerist middle class on our doorstep.

Paul Keating used to say Indonesia was the country Australians fly over on their way to Europe*. Nowadays, Indonesia is the country Australian businesses look beyond as they eye markets in China and India. At some stage, this needs to stop.

The Kevin Rudd approach to discouraging and diverting overloaded boats sailing to Christmas Island, even if only a politically inspired quick fix, incorporates the best of all outcomes. Australia gets a considerable return on its aid investment in PNG. People-smugglers face a sharp downturn in profits and need to consider a radically new business model. Indonesia continues its masterful inactivity and convenes a regional forum, appearing concerned and involved. Australia maintains its primary focus on market access and commercial ties with Indonesia, unencumbered by sidebar issues. Fewer asylum-seekers drown.

The art of the possible doesn't get much better than that.

* Correction, 10.40am: the quote 'Asia is the place you fly over on your way to Europe' is often attributed to Keating, though we can find no reliable sources to suggest he ever said it. (Ed.) UPDATE FROM A READER.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

COMMENTS

22 Jul 2013 15:10

Dr Khalid Koser is a Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow and Deputy Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

Prime Minister Rudd's new asylum policy is likely to work.

First, he has filled a dangerous political void. Even Mr Abbott appears grudgingly to condone the policy. The Labor Party can still be attacked for its poor record on boats (as the party that let them back in) but this is a far less potent criticism than being a party without a coherent stand on the issue. If the Labor Party loses the next election, I don't think it will be the boats that bring it down any longer, as many have been predicting.

Second, I think the policy is likely significantly to reduce the number of boats departing for Australia. It is punitive enough to make anyone think twice: no-one arriving by boat in Australia without a visa will ever settle there. It will undermine the smuggling business in all but a few cases where smugglers are unscrupulous (and short-sighted) enough to take their payment up front and dispatch their clients without regard – and these smugglers won't be in business for long.

The policy is also clear, which should make it easy to communicate. No ifs or buts, no quotas, no time limits. There is no way you will settle in Australia, period.

I hesitate to suggest that the policy will stop the boats, and if I were advising Mr Rudd I would urge him to manage public expectations. Even if the policy is strong and coherent, it will take time to achieve an impact. There will be migrants in Indonesia who have already made a payment for the onward trip and I doubt smugglers will be handing out refunds. However clear the policy, experience shows that many would-be migrants simply don't trust information disseminated by governments, so some may continue to try their luck. And there will be some who are simply so desperate that no fate could be worse than the one they are trying escape.

Nevertheless, from a political and policy perspective, Mr Rudd has done things right. But has he done the right thing? I don't think so. [fold]

Although Australian politicians lost their perspective on boats a long time ago, and Australia has a peculiar characteristic of resisting comparisons with the rest of the world, it is worth reiterating that Australia hosts a tiny proportion of the global refugee population. Even the rapidly rising number of boat arrivals is small in comparison to irregular migration in many other parts of the world. The new policy is way out of proportion.

This wouldn't matter so much were its potential consequences not so serious.

First, the policy reveals an astonishing disregard for Australia's neighbourhood. Indonesia has become the front line of a war on asylum and Papua New Guinea a dumping ground for unwanted asylum seekers and refugees. To try to dress this up as capacity-building (more training for Indonesian officials so they can screen Iranian visa applications; more infrastructure on Manus Island) strikes me as disingenuous. Europe has done much the same in making Greece and other southern European countries the outer wall of 'Fortress Europe'. Resentment there against the European Union is growing, and violence against the migrants trapped there is rising fast. The EU might have been better advised to focus on Greece's economy than its borders.

Second, the self-centeredness of the policy is bound to raise eyebrows in destination countries for asylum seekers who may otherwise have headed for Australia.

As I suggested on The Interpreter in May, there is every reason to expect more people to leave Afghanistan during the transition in 2014, and more Afghans in Iran and Pakistan to try to move outwards rather than stay or risk going home. If they can't go to Australia they'll go somewhere else. So, over to you, Turkey. I hope you can find space among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians you have accommodated over the last few months. But don't worry, you'll be invited to Mr Rudd's international conference on burden-sharing and Australia may resettle another 7000 refugees at some point in the future.

Finally, I suspect this policy will do lasting harm to Australia's hard-earned reputation as a constructive multilateralist, just as the Pacific Solution did. Then, Australia went from champion to pariah in the eyes of many in the international community. Some might ask 'who cares?', but it is this reputation that has allowed Australia to punch above its weight in the international arena for so long.

No, Mr Rudd has not done the right thing, and he knows it.

Photo by Flickr user HerrWick.

COMMENTS

23 Jul 2013 09:37

Martyn Namorong is a multi-award winning writer, blogger and television presenter.

In March 2008, Kevin Rudd made his first official visit to Papua New Guinea to build ties, the first such visit by an Australian prime minister in 11 years. Out of that visit was forged a special affinity and respect Papua New Guineans had for Kevin Rudd, perhaps best illustrated by the naming of a baby from the highlands after the Australian prime minister.

Papua New Guinean relationships are best defined by the cultural narrative of tribalism. By his special consideration of PNG in 2008, Rudd had made himself a member of the tribe.

It is therefore unsurprising that Rudd's extraordinary request for Papua New Guinea to resettle refugees was accepted easily by men who had grown up in that tribal context. It is not unusual for the tribe in Papua New Guinea to protect and assist a tribesman even though such decisions could have negative consequences. And Kevin Rudd is no ordinary member of the tribe, he is a Big Man – the Prime Minister of Australia.

This may be an oversimplification of the decision-making process, but when one looks at how this decision was made, one finds similarities in PNG culture. To begin with, there was no consultation or public debate in PNG prior to the announcement. PNG's big men, along with Rudd, made an announcement that shocked everyone. This is typical of how big men sitting in a tribal house make decisions that affect the lives of everyone else. [fold]

In essence, Kevin Rudd was party to a decision-making process was undemocratic and detrimental to the development of democratic institutions and processes in Papua New Guinea. It is not known if the Department of Justice and Attorney General were involved in advising the Government of PNG. It seems to have been a rushed decision that has not been well thought through.

In Papua New Guinea, tribal violence arises when a stupid decision is made to protect a trouble maker at the expense of the tribe. Papua New Guinea now has to deal with the negative consequences of this decision just so that Kevin Rudd's dog whistle politics about stopping the boat people wins him the next election. PNG may help solve Rudd's election woes, but it has created problems for itself.

In 2012 Papua New Guinea was ranked 156 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index. The capital, Port Moresby, has been ranked the second most unliveable city on earth just ahead of Dhaka. The country has a high population growth rate, government services and infrastructure are crumbling, 80% of the country lives in rural areas and youth unemployment is high.

Perhaps these are the negative facts about Papua New Guinea that Kevin Rudd hopes will deter boat people from travelling to Australia. As criminologist Kristian Lasslett wrote, this may also indicate a lot about how Rudd and politicians in Canberra view PNG:

...not as a country rich in culture, biodiversity and history, but as a hostile, primitive backwater populated by mean, uneducated people – just the sort of thing that will 'turn back the boats.'

If this is indeed true, it confirms the view amongst some Papua New Guineans that Australia is the racist bully In the Pacific and reaffirms my view that Australia is not a good friend to Papua New Guinea. It is hardly surprising therefore that there is much opposition throughout Papua New Guinea towards Australia's plans to dump its refugee problems on PNG soil.

Photo by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer.

COMMENTS

24 Jul 2013 10:24

Deni ToKunai is a political commentator who writes PNG's leading political blog, The Garamut.

In the public commotion and media frenzy of Kevin Rudd's announcement that a new arrangement will see Australian asylum seekers resettled in PNG, one key point has gone largely unnoticed: it was his counterpart Peter O'Neill who approached Kevin Rudd with the deal.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. It is clear that when Rudd and company briefly visited PNG on 14-15 July, the issue of asylum seekers was on the bilateral agenda, albeit not advertised as prominently or publicly as concerns such as the PNG LNG project or the state of PNG's hospitals.

It is also clear that Rudd left PNG without a final deal on the asylum seeker front, and it was only on 19 July, four days after his departure and coincidently also the last day of what had been two continuous weeks of parliamentary debate in the Haus Tambaran (parliament has been adjourned till September), that O'Neill flew to Brisbane to sign the new regional resettlement arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The machinations of the discussion surrounding the new asylum seeker arrangement is there for all to see: a proposal was put forth by Rudd and it needed time to be discussed by O'Neill with his coalition partners as dictated by the Alotau Accord, the post-election coalition agreement. Based on the 'spirit of reconciliation, trust and unity', the Alotau Accord requires the prime minister at all times to consult with other leaders of the coalition on major policy changes that may impact the unity and integrity of the government.

The matter was discussed in the PNG cabinet and an agreement was reached by 17 July which formed the basis of a radical counter-proposal. It was then submitted to Canberra where it was consequently accepted by Rudd.

Prime Minister O'Neill has made it no secret since his election in 2012 that he wanted to see a total re-alignment of the Australia's half-a billion dollar a year aid program to support his government's priorities. His demands had continuously been stalled by AusAID officials and Australian diplomats based in Waigani who were advising then Australian PM Gillard.

But with the consent of a reawakened Australian prime minister, O'Neill finally got what he wanted, describing the deal as something 'every (PNG) prime minister in the past has wanted to achieve'. [fold]

Notwithstanding what O'Neill and his cabinet may think of the arrangement, there are significant legal, political and social hurdles to overcome.

Despite the Australian political rhetoric, not all is well with this arrangement under current PNG law. The most significant threat comes from Section 42 of the PNG constitution which states that all persons – Papua New Guineans and foreigners (which includes asylum seekers) – have personal liberties. Furthermore, the constitution dictates that the personal liberties of foreigners can only be restricted or restrained by the government if they enter the country illegally.

The crux of this legal issue is that Australia's asylum seekers transplanted to PNG have not consented to entering PNG, and therefore have not broken any PNG laws allowing for their detention and the restriction of their personal liberties. It's a valid argument, and Leader of the Opposition Belden Namah had lodged an initial Supreme Court Summons arguing this point. It was thrown out due to a technicality, but Namah has since announced that he will lodge it again next week – this time correctly.

If Namah's challenge succeeds, as it should, we will see swift movement from O'Neill and his unprecedented majority in parliament to immediately amend Section 42 of the constitution to address the loophole. What complicates the outcome of this challenge now is whether Rudd's strategic media campaign, which proactively informs maritime asylum seekers of their final destination, can be interpreted by the courts as being equivalent to consent. It's another brilliant touch by Rudd.

Politically, O'Neill will face reluctance from affected MPs – limited for now to Manus' two MPs – who will justifiably feel isolated from discussions between Waigani and Canberra. Neither have been genuinely consulted or informed of relevant details, but they will kowtow the arrangement as both are in government.

The only exception will be if new permanent asylum centres are needed to address capacity issues. Processing and resettlement will be the stumbling block here: rural solutions would need the consent of complicated customary landowner groups; and urban solutions would need to take into account urban growth, constituent perceptions, and the questionable nature of many state-owned land titles, some of which already house significant settlements of Papua New Guineans.

Socially, this will become a nightmare for PNG and Australia, in more ways than one. The predominant view in PNG is that Australia is conveniently shirking its responsibilities under international law at the expense of PNG and its people, all in the name of domestic Australian politics. That is a view which is difficult to argue against.

Many Papua New Guineans cannot comprehend why people seeking refuge in Australia are being dumped in PNG. It's breeding a boiling resentment against Australia and the Australian people never before seen by this generation.

This is compounded by the way that Australia's debate about PNG has developed into PNG bashing based on ignorance and false or incomplete information. It has only demonstrated how little Australians know of and understand their closest neighbour. Although the relationship may be strong at the political and institutional level, there is a glaringly obvious void in people-to-people relationships. This needs to be fixed, and quick.

If Section 42 is indeed amended by O'Neill, there will be the added perspective that PNG is bending over backwards to accept Australia's asylum seekers at the expense of our Mama Lo – the Constitution.

Australia is losing considerable relationship capital with the people of PNG over this arrangement. Australia may gain from it in the short term, but the long-term ramifications have not been thoroughly explored. Chinese diplomats can surely see the potential in this scenario to win the hearts and minds of Papua New Guineans away from Australia. Based on what's currently happening, it won't take much.

COMMENTS

24 Jul 2013 13:50

From his essay in The Monthly, Faith in Politics:

The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. That is why the government's proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches.

The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. That is why the government's proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches.
The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. That is why the government's proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches.

COMMENTS

24 Jul 2013 15:40

Martyn Namorong is a multi-award winning writer, blogger and television presenter. His initial reaction to the PNG-Australia asylum seeker agreement appeared on The Interpreter yesterday.

From online postings to offline activism, a new generation of protest-hardened Papua New Guineans is making its voice known to the powers that be.

Yesterday, as the Prime Minister was recording an interview on national television regarding the asylum seeker deal, only a stone's throw away at Jack Pidik Park in the nation's capital, Port Moresby, a gathering of around 50 hard-line activists was taking place.

Protest banner against asylum seeker deal. Taken yesterday at Jack Pidik Park, Port Moresby, on the author's mobile phone.

It wasn't so much a protest as a meeting about a bigger nationwide protest not just against the asylum seeker deal but also other issues such as the unpopular constitutional amendments on votes of no-confidence. If the protest meeting is any measure of the growing public outcry against the asylum seeker deal, one can only imagine the outrage of many Papua New Guineans when thousands of asylum seekers turn up at their doorstep.

As Papua New Guineans ponder the implications of the asylum seeker deal, it seems Prime Minister O'Neill hadn't much of a clue about what he signed up for. This has angered pundits, many of whom are unhappy with his blind acceptance of the deal. [fold]

With uncertainty over the financial arrangements for resettlement of asylum seekers, concerns are now being raised as to whether this is tied to the handover of Australia's $503 million aid budget to Papua New Guinea. The Government of Papua New Guinea does not have the capacity to resettle thousands of refugees in the country. The state owns only 2% of the land so resettlement on land is not viable, given local sensitivities. The country does not have a state-run social welfare system and health, education and infrastructure are crumbling.

Thrown into this mix is the fact that the economy of Papua New Guinea is at a trough. The slump in prices of its mineral exports has meant a 53% drop in mining taxes. This means the current budgeted deficit of K2.6 billion is expected to double to K6 billion. O'Neill is desperate to plug the budget black hole and Rudd has thrown him a lifeline by handing over all AusAID funds to PNG's notoriously corrupt public servants and politicians.

In any event, should the refugees be resettled in Papua New Guinea, jobs may be difficult to come by given the economic downturn.

If comments on social media are any indication, many Papua New Guineans do not want the asylum seekers resettled in their home province or region. An exception is the host province of Manus, where landowners have supported the deal in the hope of reaping financial rewards. Some pundits have suggested that O'Neill resettle them in his home electorate of Ialibu-Pangia.

It is unclear how Papua New Guineans will react to any preferential treatment given to asylum seekers, given the daily struggle of existence in PNG. But given the recent anti-Chinese sentiments expressed by those who feel disenfranchised by their government, it is only a matter of time before such sentiments are expressed against the asylum seekers.

Many educated Papua New Guineans are wary of both the short-term and long-term repercussions of Rudd's PNG Solution. They only have to look at the difficulties experienced by Fiji in dealing with the legacy of colonisation. Kevin Rudd's neo-colonial plan may help solve his election woes but the PNG Solution is being viewed as a PNG Problem in the land of the unexpected.

COMMENTS

26 Jul 2013 12:11

In the current climate of electoral desperation in Australia, it is difficult to get a true picture of the reality of Australia's aid program in PNG because it's so misunderstood even when the spotlight isn't shining on it. Very few people actually understand that there is a genuine effort on the part of Australian aid officials to respond to PNG's development priorities, priorities that are agreed to by both governments. That's what the PNG-Australia Development Partnership signed in 2008 is all about. And that's what its predecessors, the Development Cooperation Treaties, were all about.

PNG governments have traditionally not liked the confines of the treaties and partnership because they attempt to hold PNG to its word about what it will achieve in meeting the development objectives for the country. It would be easier for them if Australia either (a) handed over the money or (b) simply built things. But experience in PNG shows that the medium- to long-term development objectives like better health for all and good education aren't met that way.

A sober assessment of what this latest asylum seeker initiative means for the aid program has been done by Stephen Howes on the Development Policy Centre's blog.

What Howes describes is the reality: there's a core aid program, which keeps on keeping on trying to support PNG's own development priorities. And then from time to time, like now, along comes a big political train which says 'we want to do this, find the money and do it now'.

So the program gets shuffled around a bit to find the money to do what the train requires BUT (and this is important) at the same time, there is an effort to maintain some sort of development integrity so that the shared long-term development objectives can still be met. It's not perfect or even excellent but the sad reality is that without AusAID working with parts of the PNG Government and across the country, particularly in health and education, the situation for the ordinary Papua New Guinean would be worse.

Photo of the PNG parliament by Picasa user Pat Morin.

COMMENTS

26 Jul 2013 16:29

Danielle Romanes is a research assistant in the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program.

So are we. Over the last week The Interpreter has hosted a raft of posts on the so-called PNG Solution, with opinions from observers in all corners. Here's a selection from The Interpreter and other places.

The emerging consensus is that Kevin Rudd's change of heart on the ethics of banishing all asylum seekers to Manus Island is not so much a solution as a wriggling can of worms that promises to create far more problems than it solves. What's more, the policy involves severe reputational risk for Australia and Rudd himself.

Opening the Interpreter debate, former defence attaché to PNG Gary Hogan wrote that the PNG Solution was a powerful demonstration of the way Australia's aid largesse allows it to pull political strings in PNG to an extent enjoyed in no other recipient country. But the deal actually represents a considerable win for PNG's leadership too, as prominent PNG political commentator Deni To Kunai has pointed out.

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has put the total realignment of Australian aid at the forefront of bilateral dealings since he rose to power in 2011, and now claims to have pulled off a feat that every preceding prime minister has sought but not achieved. How much change in aid delivery this actually portends is questionable, but as Jenny Hayward-Jones wrote, if the arrangement does work as a deterrent, O'Neill will have secured a chunk of additional aid and more leverage with the Australian Government, and will not have to do much in return. [fold]

As for the plan's feasibility, Dr Khalid Khoser wrote that the plan is likely to work as a deterrent, though it won't do so immediately, nor entirely. The PNG Solution is brutal but elegant, in the sense that its message is clear, easily communicated, and unequivocally punitive enough to make prospective asylum seekers seriously question making the trip. But at what cost? Khoser warns the PNG Solution threatens Australia's hard-earned reputation as a constructive multilateralist, which until now has allowed it to punch well above its weight in international affairs.

The PNG Solution has its defenders. Stephen Jones MP said in The Guardian that 'Many have characterised this shift as political morality being mugged by populist political expedience. They are wrong. This is genuine ethical dilemma being mugged by practical experience.' And Greg Sheridan wrote that 'PNG is a peaceful democracy and a signatory of the convention. The idea that it is an unfit place for refugees and failed asylum-seekers is absurd.'

Other commentators have focused on the on-ground realities that will complicate (to put it mildly) the PNG Solution's roll-out. The lack of specificity on costings and logistics from both governments is worrying, and few see much credibility in the claim that refugees can be resettled in PNG, given the scarcity of jobs, public services and housing, the legal impediments, the complicated nature of land tenure, the well-documented institutional weaknesses and the inadequacies in PNG's existing refugee processing infrastructure. Recent legislative overhauls mean that the political instability which has characterised PNG in the past is unlikely to threaten the PNG Solution.

Perhaps Rudd hopes that logistical problems never need come into the matter if the deterrent is publicised loudly and scarily enough to stop people from coming in the first place. In this respect the Australian media has done much of Rudd's work for him. Few will have come away from this week with a favourable image of PNG. Such capitalising on misinformation and ignorance about PNG in Australia is an unsavoury stroke of genius that will undermine PNG's efforts to improve its reputation as a tourist and investment destination, and will lower the tone of bilateral relations.

What does this entail for Rudd's standing in PNG? Rudd's historic visit to the country in 2008 followed swift upon his (first) rise to the prime ministership and made good on an election promise to heal relations that had fractured under his predecessor. Rudd touched down in Port Moresby and was greeted as a rock star. Flags were waved. His name was called. Babies were named in his honour.

Rudd's enthusiasm for PNG flickered and waned in the following years, but his popularity there never did. As PNG commentator Martyn Namorong wrote, Papua New Guinean relationships are best defined by the cultural narrative of tribalism, and in 2008 Rudd made himself a member of the tribe. Until last week this was seen as a positive, but the decision-making processes behind the PNG Solution reflect many of the most corrosive elements of Big Men politics (the lack of consultation and public debate not least) that Rudd and O'Neill have taken on board, to the detriment of PNG's democracy and governance. Many Papua New Guineans are deeply unhappy with Rudd and their leadership, and will be making their voices heard in the weeks to come.

COMMENTS

29 Jul 2013 09:11

Dr Philippa Brant is a Lowy Institute Research Associate.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has made no secret of his desire for a realignment of Australian aid. In his address to the Lowy Institute last November he called for a greater focus on infrastructure development. O'Neill is claiming the new asylum-seeker aid deal as a win in that regard.

Reading Stephen Howes' post on the DevPolicy blog on the aid implications of the 'PNG Solution', I was struck by how the new aid announcements could easily be mistaken for 'China Aid' rather than AusAID. Australia has pledged to assist with the new courthouse in Port Moresby, construction of a hospital in Lae and construction of the Ramu-Madang highway.

China is well known for its funding of government buildings and roads around the Pacific, though it has been rightly criticised for not considering maintenance provisions.

The Moresby courthouse project could offer an opportunity here: under the recent Australia-China Development Cooperation MoU, there could be scope to bring China in as an observer right from the beginning. This wouldn't be a joint project (like the trilateral arrangement in the Cook Islands) but a more informal arrangement whereby Chinese embassy staff could be involved in planning discussions.

This does of course depend on the desires of the PNG Government and the willingness of both AusAID and Chinese officials. But with an increasing number of China-funded infrastructure projects on the cards (through the multi-billion kina China EXIM loan) and the apparent 'realignment' of Australian aid towards PNG's 'high impact' priorities, this could sow the seeds for greater cooperation and perhaps a jointly funded project in the future.

It is in the interests of the people of PNG that their development partners are working together to help them achieve sustainable development outcomes.

COMMENTS

30 Jul 2013 12:23

There must be days when the Chief of the Defence Force and Secretary of Defence pine for the creation of an Australian Coast Guard, just so they can prise the Australian Defence Force away from the toxic debate on Australia's asylum seeker policy. Labor's PNG solution will rely on the ADF to expand refugee operations on Manus Island and will tie up the Navy's only operational amphibious ship for some time. The Coalition's plan, Operation Sovereign Borders, will see one of the ADF's six already busy three-star officers lead a distinctly military-themed policy response.

But for all the centrality of the ADF in this debate, we know little about the operational details of the military's role in border protection, known as Operation Resolute. In defence budgets and white papers of the past decade there's only scant reference to the military's contribution to interdicting asylum seekers who come by boat. Over the past five years the government has supplemented the defence budget by approximately $10 million per year to cover the additional costs incurred from running Operation Resolute. In 2011 parliament asked Defence to estimate the full cost of Operation Resolute and was told: 'Defence does not estimate the full cost of operations as this would not enhance budget processes'.

So in the absence of official figures, in this post I present my best estimate of the true cost of the military dimension of Australia's asylum seeker policy.

I've costed Op Resolute based on the force structure and operational tempo outlined in the ADF Force Posture Review. This data shows that for the year starting October 2010, Defence assigned the following military assets to Op Resolute: [fold]

  • 3 x RAAF AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft (2520 hours).
  • 7 x Navy Armidale Patrol boats (2707 days).
  • 3 x Army Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSU; 208 patrol days).
  • Navy Landing Craft Heavy (61 days).
  • Navy Landing Craft Medium (106 days).
  • RAAF C-130 Hercules (two sorties).
  • RAN Transit Security Element (36 personnel for 244 days).
  • Embarked communications specialists (272 days).

From other information presented to parliament we know that half the current patrol boat force (Armidale class patrol boat pictured above) is permanently assigned to Op Resolute and an additional two boats can be called on for surge tasking. A major fleet unit (normally one of the five operational ANZAC frigates) is constantly assigned as back-up for more complicated transit tasks. And in 2011, the Navy's Leeuwin class hydrographic ships spent 80.5% of their 317 days at sea on Op Resolute tasking. I've taken cost data for naval vessels from this information provided by Defence, and operating costs for RAAF assets are derived from ASPI's Cost of Defence figures.

We know that the 78 Defence staff at HQ Northcom spend an average of 67.5% of their time on Operation Resolute, and 20 Defence staff seconded to Border Protection Command work on Op Resolute full time. I've assumed each RFSU patrol day involves six patrolling personnel and five supporting HQ personnel and that each embarked communications team has five personnel. I haven't accounted for personnel working on Op Resolute issues elsewhere – for example in DIO, Defence Legal, or HQJOC. I haven't accounted for one-off deployments such as the deployment of the RAAF's Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron to activate the airbase at RAAF Learmonth in December 2008, or for domestic travel positioning defence staff for their Op Resolute deployments.

That last cost could be substantial. RAAF personnel assigned to support Op Resolute conduct two-week deployments to RAAF Darwin and RAAF Learmonth from their home base in South Australia. In 2012, there were more than 2000 (presumably commercial) flight movements for RAAF personnel assigned to Op Resolute (see the lift-out in the RAAF News of 17th September 2012). In many cases these personnel are accommodated in Darwin hotels during their deployments.

So what does Operation Resolute actually cost Defence? My estimate, based on putting together this tricky data, is that it's at least $262 million per year. Given Customs is budgeting $342 million for its own civil maritime surveillance and response operations this year, my estimate is likely to be conservative. But it is clear that Defence is absorbing at least a quarter of a billion dollars annually to run Operation Resolute.

You could argue that Defence assets would be conducting border protection tasking anyway, regardless of Australia's policy approach to stopping the boats. But every frigate loitering off Christmas Island is one not conducting counter-piracy patrolling in the Indian Ocean or regional engagement visits in South East Asia.

Operation Resolute has been running for seven years. It is a major military campaign, yet because of its extreme political sensitivity it has never been assessed as a military campaign. There are more detailed questions to be answered about what running this operation has truly cost the Australian Defence Force.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

COMMENTS

31 Jul 2013 14:33

On our Facebook page, Sam Oldfield responds to James Brown's piece calculating the cost of Defence's asylum seeker operations, known as Op Resolute. Sam Oldfield begins by quoting James Brown:

'You could argue that Defence assets would be conducting border protection tasking anyway'. I think this should be argued, I think this is why the ADF doesn't like to cost operations in a vacuum, this is money that would be largely spent anyway so the question that needs to be asked is: 'Would the benefits of what the Navy is NOT doing outweigh the benefits of Operation Resolute?'

COMMENTS