The best role for Australia in PNG

The best role for Australia in PNG

The AFR View

The AFR View

Anthony Albanese’s visit has locked in a crucial relationship. But there are things Australia could beyond being a donor.

Anthony Albanese says that “it is an extraordinary honour for Australia” that he has become the first foreign head of government to address Papua New Guinea’s parliament in 48 years of independence. PNG is our nearest neighbour, a nation of 9.4 million people – on some estimates it could be much larger – combining extraordinary terrain, resources wealth, and a fragile economy.

For Australia, it’s a country much too big to fail. Australia is not just being gracious in supporting its neighbour. The history of World War II, as Mr Albanese noted, shows that any threat to PNG’s integrity is a threat to Australia too.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese becomes the first foreign head of government to address PNG’s parliament.  

Canberra was stunned last year by China’s security deal with Solomon Islands, and an Australia-PNG security agreement is the centrepiece of Mr Albanese’s visit, with military training assistance to build upon the joint Manus island naval base deal of 2018 which includes the US. The irony is that PNG governments have been keen on a defence deal since independence in 1975, but Australia demurred in the past because of sensitivities over the Indonesian border, now no longer a flashpoint.

China is not an overt security issue in PNG. But the security agreement locks in a relationship to which Australia has committed a great deal in the past, and ensures fewer surprises in a western Pacific region now heavily contested with Beijing.

PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape secured government last year after a bitter six-week election campaign marred once again by violence and voting fraud, providing the window for Australia to sign the security deal. Experts say that more Australian help with basic governance such as up-to-date electoral rolls would not go amiss, along with help for the criminal justice system to ensure that investigations and prosecutions are safely carried out.

Australia is PNG’s largest aid donor and has supported its budget with $1 billion in low interest loans since 2019, helping to pull the country’s health system from the brink of catastrophe at the height of the global pandemic. A refusal would, of course, have been an invitation to China – though in reality PNG needs all the health help it can get from any source. But the $22 billion PNG LNG project drove a brief economic growth surge after 2016, and more gas developments worth $30 billion are about to start. Government ministers told Fortescue’s Andrew Forrest last month that regulations could be designed around a contract if he wanted to bring one of his hydrogen ventures there.

PNG still badly lacks infrastructure like power and roads. Perhaps Australia’s greatest role now, say experts on the region, could be as convener to the large flows of aid that come from the US, Japan, the EU, New Zealand and other donors. More co-ordination of aid would see it better applied in getting really big projects done.

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