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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 17:23 | SYDNEY

Resetting our relationship with PNG

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COMMENTS

2 August 2011 11:25

It is not often we hear Papua New Guinea described in public by a federal politician as a top foreign policy priority and a country with which Australia has a joint destiny. Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop did just that in an excellent speech to the Lowy Institute's Distinguished Speaker Series last week.

Following the retirement of Duncan Kerr at the 2010 elections, there are no longer any Australian federal members of parliament who have spent any length of time in Papua New Guinea, and the issues facing our nearest neighbour rarely make news in Australia. So it was great to see Ms Bishop address the Lowy Institute about Papua New Guinea. For an Australian politician relatively new to the complexities of Melanesia, Ms Bishop demonstrated a good grasp of the big challenges facing PNG and the main tenets of the bilateral relationship.

A few highlights for me were:

  • Ms Bishop's determination that the bilateral relationship should be based on an economic and strategic partnership rather than aid donor and recipient.
  • Her suggestion that the private sector and non-government organisations can play a bigger role in development in cooperation with government.
  • Her belief in building new generations of networks between Australia and PNG in government, business and the community.
  • Her ideas for leveraging PNG's love of the Australian Rugby League for diplomatic outcomes.
  • Most importantly, her commitment that PNG must be one of Australia's top foreign policy priorities.

While PNG is Australia's second largest aid recipient, it is also our 15th largest trading partnerTotal aid funding to Papua New Guinea in 2011-12 will be $482.3 million – a figure dwarfed by just over $5 billion of bilateral merchandise trade. Aid and development will be a part of the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea for many years but it doesn't have to be the driver of a closer relationship.

Papua New Guinea faces a period of massive investment in its resources and a time of great political transition over the next year. Australia needs to focus on strengthening its links with PNG to ensure that the partnership so long valued by Papua New Guineans is sustained by the next generation. Australians will never know as much about Papua New Guinea as Papua New Guineans know about Australia but investing in some more knowledge about and contacts with our nearest neighbour can only be positive.

Focusing on PNG as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is not an obvious vote winner for an Australian Opposition but it is a very important relationship that successive Australian governments have not always managed well at the political level. All credit to Julie Bishop for making PNG one of her top priorities.

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