Tuesday 22 Jan 2019 | 13:44 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Jan 2019 | 13:44 | SYDNEY

Tony Abbott in PNG: Knowns and unknowns



25 March 2014 18:19

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott went to Papua New Guinea last week and stayed for three days. He met with his counterpart, Peter O'Neill, with members of the PNG business community and with emerging leaders, among others. Speeches were made and conversations were held. So, now that the echoes of the farewell gun salute have died away: what do we know and what do we know we don't know?

We know economic engagement was at the forefront of the exercise, not least because the prime minister was accompanied by a sizeable business delegation, some of whom were visiting PNG for the first time. The business theme was further borne out by the signing of an economic treaty. Many, including the Australia-PNG Business Council, have welcomed this move. This treaty is meant to prove that Australia-PNG relations are maturing, moving beyond aid dependency to partnership.

It was also announced that the country's leaders will now have an annual meeting, with the venue to rotate between Port Moresby and Canberra. This will be music to the ears of those who have advocated for a much closer personal relationship between the prime ministers.

As is usual, we won't know the full text of the treaty prior to its ratification by both parliaments. However, we do know that it has private sector development as its 'cornerstone' and envisages easier processes for business:

Each party shall, subject to its laws and regulations, accord nationals of the other party fair and transparent treatment with respect to matters in connection with their business, immigration and professional activities.

But we don't know whether this commitment, bolstered by assurances from Mr Abbott, will be sufficient to assuage the ongoing concerns of PNG citizens regarding the difficulties they have obtaining visas to visit Australia.

Recent comments on PNG social media indicate that it takes up to two weeks to process a visa request for a Papua New Guinean visiting Brisbane from Port Moresby, whereas Australians going in the opposite direction have reported that their applications are approved in half that time.

We know that Tony Abbott was at pains to reinforce the message that Australia places a very high value on the relationship with PNG. Much mention has been made of his comments that this visit should be seen as a 'family reunion'. Elsewhere, there was reference to PNG's significance as a 'global player', with particular reference to its contribution to dealing with the 'regional' problem of asylum seekers.

On this issue, there are way more questions than answers. PM O'Neill has given assurances that processing will be concluded and resettlement commenced as early as June, although legislation to allow for this has yet to be enacted. We have been told that processing has been underway for some time and that some cases have reached the 'draft decision' stage. However, we don't know how that processing has been conducted, including what provisions have been made for an appeals procedure.

We know that PNG has confirmed its commitment to resettle some of the asylum seekers now detained on Manus island if and when they are determined to be genuine refugees. PM O'Neill has advised that there are communities within his country which have indicated that they are willing and able to accommodate such people, but he has yet to advise which communities, and on what basis such accommodation might be effected.

We also know that both O'Neill and Abbott believe other Pacific countries should do their 'share' in resettling refugees. The Australian Government has indicated that it is in discussions with likely candidates but has not revealed who they are. Previously, both Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have declined invitations to that particular party.

We know that both O'Neill and Abbott believe the majority of asylum seekers currently detained are economic migrants and will be repatriated. We do not know what the basis for this belief is. And we know that the government of PNG has moved to put a stop to an inquiry into the Manus island processing centre by Justice David Cannings, but it is unclear to what extent the Australian Government may have influenced that decision.

There is no doubt this visit was significant. We can expect its ramifications to be many and varied. We can hope, as the various new initiatives are realised, that they will be positive for the relationship between Australia, PNG and the wider region.

Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office.

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