As a long-time advocate for paying attention to Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea, I have to cheer Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's decision to visit Port Moresby so soon after taking office again.
The Prime Minister's visit came just two months after his predecessor's first visit to PNG, which seems a little odd given there were five years between Rudd's first visit in 2008 and Prime Minister Gillard's visit, but there is nevertheless much value in the timing. Building personal relationships at the political level is critical to maintaining good relations with PNG. For Rudd to prioritise this visit sends an important signal to PNG and helps him to build his own relationship with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.
The optics of a prime ministerial visit are important but so is the substance. With a demanding political class in PNG wanting more from Australia than continued commitment to the aid program and banter about rugby league, the Prime Minister needed a serious agenda. So with just a few days for public servants to prepare some new announceables, what were the results? Well, not so much that was startlingly different to what was announced during Prime Minister Gillard's visit but some progress on existing items of cooperation.
Prime Minister Rudd announced that 50 Australian police officers would be in 'visible policing roles' Papua New Guinea by the end of the year, following Gillard's announcement on policing assistance. In a win for Papua New Guineans lobbying for simplified entry to Australia, the Prime Minister also announced that Papua New Guinean passport holders would be able to access priority immigration processing lanes in Brisbane and Cairns airports. Assistance for some infrastructure projects would also be brought forward. The construction of a permanent asylum seeker processing centre will go ahead on Manus and there was talk about a new centre close to Port Moresby's airport.
My friend and prominent PNG blogger Deni ToKunai (otherwise known as @Tavurvur) noted on Twitter that it was not very often Australia was indebted to PNG but thanks to Manus, Peter O'Neill had Australia's political leadership on its knees. Stephen Howes from the ANU had a similar view, expressing concern that the importance of the Manus Island asylum processing centre to the Australian Government reduced its ability to talk frankly to PNG about difficult issues such as the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund.
Like Stephen, I think it is unfortunate that the asylum seeker issue crowds out other more important issues for Papua New Guinea and it is even more unfortunate that Australia has provoked this diversion.
But on the positive side, Peter O'Neill has recognised the value in cooperating with Australia on a regional solution to the asylum seeker policy conundrum and is cleverly managing this as part of the relationship. He has probably leveraged his support on this issue for progress in other areas. For its part, Australia is engaging with Papua New Guinea on this issue as a regional partner rather than an aid client, which is a good thing.
Papua New Guinea is of course not the only country where the asylum seeker issue risks overshadowing the bilateral relationship. Indonesia is another. As with Indonesia, the real bilateral relationship with PNG is multi-faceted, under-reported and probably under-valued by the Australian public.
In his Port Moresby press conference, Prime Minister Rudd said Australians have a soft spot for PNG, mainly because of the significance of the Kokoda Track, which 3000 Australians trekked every year. That may be true but there's a much more important contemporary reason that PNG is important to Australia. PNG is our 14th largest trading partner. According to DFAT statistics, two-way merchandise trade with PNG is more valuable (at $6.3 billion) than our two-way trade with large and sophisticated economies like Italy, France and Canada. The stock of Australian investment in PNG is valued at $18.6 billion, just $1 billion short of the value of Australian investment in China. Australia is PNG's largest trading partner by a considerable margin, out-performing China's trade with PNG by a factor of at least five.
In a conference I attended in New Zealand a few weeks ago, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Papua New Guinea should not really be considered a Pacific Island country any longer as it had more in common with South East Asian tiger economies than with the smaller Pacific Islands. PNG has to overcome considerable challenges before it can achieve the kind of development gains made by the most successful East Asian economies but for economic reasons alone it deserves the high level attention it is now getting from Australia. And it is our economic relationship which should permit the kind of frank discussions on development that are needed now.
Photo by Flickr user Hitchster.