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PNG Prime Minister's breakthrough visit

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19 October 2011 14:42

The visit of new Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill to Canberra last week represented something of a breakthrough in bilateral relations. O'Neill brought nine cabinet ministers with him, who met with Australian counterparts in the 20th bilateral Ministerial Forum (pictured).

Importantly, Prime Minister Gillard took the opportunity of her welcome speech to recognise the role of women in leadership and support efforts in PNG to reserve seats in parliament for women. 

Despite past differences of opinion and a staunchly independent approach to politics, Papua New Guinea's population does take notice of what happens in Australia. Australian news dominates the PNG media and Australian television stations are available to most who have access to television. With its first female prime minister and first female governor-general, Australia has a unique opportunity to influence a change in attitudes towards women in PNG politics.

Unlike his famous predecessor, Sir Michael Somare, O'Neill was remarkably frank in his comments about PNG's development progress. He was also open about PNG's poor corruption record. O'Neill's comments to the media that there would be 'no protection of anybody – members of parliament or ministers' suggested the government would pursue politicians for corruption, another departure from his predecessor.

Australia's Opposition also recognised the importance of the relationship with PNG. Foreign Affairs and Trade Spokesperson Julie Bishop had led the way with this speech to the Lowy Institute in June. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's participation in the lunch the government hosted for Prime Minister O'Neill on the same day the Carbon Tax legislation was passed in the House of Representatives reflected a welcome bipartisan commitment to good relations with Australia's nearest neighbour.

The occasion of the Ministerial Forum allowed both governments to announce the long-awaited results of the review of the PNG university system led by Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Professor Ross Garnaut. Both governments committed to funding the reforms proposed by the review. The PNG Government has also committed to providing free education to all students up to year 10 by next year, following similar initiatives for primary school in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. If realised, this promises to make a big contribution to improving PNG's poor education outcomes of recent years.

The introduction of a Work and Holiday visa arrangement is probably not as exciting as it sounds. This type of arrangement is typically a political tool, offered to add breadth to a bilateral relationship but with only limited benefits for the young people of either country. Unlike the more liberal Working Holiday Visa available to young people from a number of European and North Asian countries, the Work and Holiday visa has a quota of only 100 in PNG's case and requires applicants to have the support of their government, putting the onus on students to convince their government they are worthy of inclusion in the program. 

Our nearest neighbour deserves visa arrangements a little more generous than this, and than the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme (which has so far not seen large numbers of Papua New Guineans participate). But it is nevertheless a good start to encouraging closer people-to-people relations.

As a sign that the official relationship is evolving beyond aid, both countries agreed to sign an Economic Cooperation Treaty. Australia committed to further assistance for the establishment of PNG's sovereign wealth fund. The much more significant role played by business in the Ministerial Forum and during O'Neill's visit is a further indication that Canberra acknowledges relations with Australia's 15th largest trading partner should be about more than aid. The establishment of a committee of senior government officials and business leaders is also a positive move.

O'Neill may only be Prime Minister until national elections are held in mid-2012, so he has little time to prosecute the reforms he promises before being subjected to the infamous uncertainty of PNG elections. But on initial impressions, he and his government appear to be serious about changing PNG and deserve the serious attention they are attracting from Canberra.

Photo courtesy of foreignminister.gov.au.

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