Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, gave an address at the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday. The Prime Minister's address was a great opportunity to spur more awareness of Papua New Guinea, but the Prime Minister did not fully embrace it. 

Prime Minister O'Neill's speech was clearly designed to promote a positive image of Papua New Guinea to a wider Australian audience, and reassure the audience at home, on the assumption there would be a television audience watching on ABCNews24 (also broadcast in PNG). But the ABC was covering Cardinal Pell's testimony from Rome and the Prime Minister was instead preaching to an expert audience, composed almost entirely of friends of Papua New Guinea including Australian business people with interests in the country, past and present Australian Government who have worked on PNG, academics and graduate students as well as his own cabinet colleagues.

O'Neill was frank about some of the more sensitive issues within the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship, which was encouraging for those us trying to help improve awareness of Papua New Guinea in Australia. But the audience in the Press Club and were probably hoping for greater candour about the economic and social challenges facing the country.

The Prime Minister said he did not want to 'sugar-coat' the challenges posed by Papua New Guinea's budget crisis, but went on to do exactly that. He declared his Government was managing debt repayments, and in cutting spending had been careful to avoid having an impact on the delivery of essential services. But reports out of Papua New Guinea suggest otherwise. In discussing climate change, he referred to the devastating drought his country had faced over the last year and was pleased that his Government had been able to manage the response without seeking international help. Evidence on the ground, however, has shown that assistance is not reaching communities who need it most and many people have died from the impact (in an interview after his address O'Neill rejected reports of drought-related deaths).

O'Neill was less than convincing in answering questions about his Government's response to appalling levels of violence against women. He called violence unacceptable, but by attributing family and sexual violence to 'tribal issues' and saying he was surprised his Government's own Lukautim Pikinini (Child Welfare) Act had yet to be certified and implemented, we were left with the impression that reducing violence was less than a top priority for him. 

On the corruption allegations and outstanding arrest warrant against him, the Prime Minister argued that he had been targeted because he was doing his job, and claimed he had no knowledge of the letter approving fraudulent payments to Paraka Lawyers that is allegedly signed by him. He also said it was unlikely Papua New Guinean politicians and business people were transferring the proceeds of corruption to accounts in Australia, saying these people were not wealthy and there were rigorous rules in place preventing money laundering. However, Papua New Guinea is still on the Financial Action Task Force's gray list of countries with deficient anti-money laundering frameworks. 

O'Neill was generally upbeat about Australia-Papua New Guinea relations, paying particular attention to the value of people-to-people relations. But on sensitive issues such as asylum seekers and aid advisers, he didn't do the Australian Government any favours. Unusually, he also expressed concerns about Australian market access for Papua New Guinea goods.

He labelled asylum seekers as a 'problem' his Government and the current Australian Government had 'inherited' from their predecessors. The establishment of the Manus detention centre was agreed between the Howard and Somare Governments. The current arrangement, however, is very much the responsibility of Prime Minister O'Neill, who negotiated a significant additional package of aid and attained remarkable leverage out of the deal. His argument that Papua New Guinea could not afford to resettle refugees and wanted the eventual closure of the Manus detention centre is not surprising, but will challenge the Australian Government's ongoing management of asylum seeker policy.

The Prime Minister said that he valued Australian aid but was sceptical about the outcomes of the aid program. He was keen to see closer alignment of aid with his Government's priorities and wanted fewer advisers (a new aid partnership between Australia and PNG is soon to be signed). But after announcing last year that he would ban foreign advisers, he told the Press Club audience that he wanted them to work for the PNG Government rather than foreign governments and 'no-one had been kicked out'. A small number of advisers have not returned to their posts as of January 2016.

Sean Dorney has made an excellent case in The Embarrassed Colonialist that Australians need to start learning more about Papua New Guinea. Prime Minister O'Neill's Government could do much more to capitalise on the goodwill (77% of Australians told the 2015 Lowy Institute Poll that Australia has a moral obligation to help PNG) that exists within Australia by being more open about the nature and scale of the challenges the country faces.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Commonwealth.