The ABC’s flagship current affairs program, Four Corners, last night investigated corruption in Papua New Guinea. In Preying on Paradise, journalist Marian Wilkinson looked at the extent of corruption in our nearest neighbour.

This kind of report is long overdue in Papua New Guinea. A focus from serious investigative journalists on the cancer of government corruption could help galvanise action. It is particularly important at a time when the PNG Government has just nationalised the PNG Sustainable Development Fund and the Ok Tedi mine, raising questions about the use of the mine’s revenue.

Four Corners' report did not break any news for Papua New Guineans, who are well acquainted with the sensational tales of corruption that have emerged in the last few years. But it painted a very sorry picture of the scale of corrupt practices in Papua New Guinea and gaps in accountability for those responsible.

The program suggested that Australia was reluctant to help PNG authorities deal with the problem. Sam Koim, the chair of the PNG Government’s Task Force Sweep, claimed Australia was a safe harbour for the proceeds of crime from Papua New Guinea. Koim had previously raised serious concerns about Australian being the 'Cayman Islands' for Papua New Guineans looking to hide their ill-gotten gains during a speech at a conference in Sydney last year.

But are suggestions of Australian complacency about corruption in PNG fair?

The Australian Federal Police has deployed two senior AFP officers to the PNG Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate this year. The Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department is working with AUSTRAC to investigate specific allegations about PNG corruption. The Australian Government is working with the PNG Proceeds of Crime Unit in the Public Prosecutor’s Office to assist it to pursue the proceeds of corruption and with the Department of Justice and Attorney General to review the PNG Proceeds of Crime Act.

The perception created by Four Corners’ interviews with Sam Koim and PNG Transparency International Chairman Lawrence Stephens, however, is that Australian authorities are complacent about corruption and uninterested in helping PNG authorities address it. And no Australian officials were available to rebut these claims. They declined to be interviewed on camera by Four Corners but AUSTRAC, the Australian Federal Police and the Attorney General’s Department prepared a joint statement in response to questions, posted on the ABC website.

Four Corners is beamed into Papua New Guinea at the same time it is broadcast in Australia. The majority of PNG viewers are unlikely to follow up by reading supplementary documents on the website. Leaving viewers with the strong impression that Australian authorities are lax about addressing money laundering or other expenditure of the proceeds of crime in Australia not only hurts Australia’s reputation, it diverts attention from the real issue – the criminal activity that has taken place in PNG.

Even if Australian authorities are able to prevent all attempts to invest or launder the proceeds of crime in Australia, the Papua New Guineans responsible for these crimes will simply find other destinations for their funds. Australian actions will not, ultimately, serve to deter individuals from being corrupt. At best, they might succeed in reducing the options available to criminals.

Reviving the decades-old tradition of blaming Australia for PNG’s ills is all too easy when Australian authorities do not speak up.

The Four Corners program suggested the Australian Government would be reluctant to be critical of PNG politicians, given it is dependent on Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s help to solve the asylum seeker problem through the Manus processing centre.  This is very likely to be true of ministers such as Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison, who need a good relationship with O’Neill and his ministers. But it should not preclude Australian officials from talking about Australian policy, particularly when Australian assistance in this field is provided at the request of the PNG Government.

The Australian Attorney-General’s Department should address the criticism up front. Departmental Secretary Roger Wilkins and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus should plan a joint visit to Papua New Guinea in the next couple of months. There is enough other bilateral business with Papua New Guinea for them to justify a visit. While they are in Port Moresby, they should hold a joint press conference with Sam Koim and the PNG Police Commissioner, appear on PNG’s EMTV, national radio and engage in social media discussions alongside their PNG counterparts.

They should explain Australia’s anti-money-laundering framework and due diligence requirements, detail the kind of assistance provided to PNG and the scale of joint activities. They should also outline the kind of evidence required before Australian authorities can act on allegations of money laundering or other use of the proceeds of crime in Australia.

They cannot of course comment on individual cases to feed a hungry media. But a concerted public outreach effort would show support for the PNG Government’s anti-corruption efforts and help Papua New Guineans understand how they can hold their corrupt politicians and officials to account for their attempts to hide the proceeds of crime in Australia. It is unlikely Prime Minister O'Neill would object, and it would not do the new Australian Government any harm either.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.