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The Australia - Papua New Guinea relationship … time to lift our game

By Jeffrey Wall - posted Thursday, 8 July 1999


The decision by the Skate Government to establish diplomatic links with Taiwan may have been leaked to the Australian media by Foreign Affairs Officials, but in truth Australia has once again been caught "with its pants down" in regard to political developments in our closest neighbour.

The move by Bill Skate to embrace Taiwan has been coming for at least 18 months, yet Canberra seems to have been forced into a panic action in a desperate, and unsuccessful, attempt to stop PNG becoming the most influential country in our regions to "sign up" with Taiwan.

Not surprisingly, Port Moresby has reacted somewhat strongly to the "leak" and Australia’s concerns about a move which will unquestionably cause instability in our region.

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I say "not surprisingly" because our views are simply not respected in Port Moresby in the way they used to be, or ought to be.

The high-water marks in our relations with our former colony were the immediate years after Independence - when Michael Somare was Prime Minister of PNG, and Andrew Peacock was Australia’s Foreign Minister - and the early 1990’s when Sir Rabbie Namaliu was PNG Prime Minister, and Bob Hawke and subsequently Paul Keating, were in office in Australia.

Both periods have a number of similarities, the most outstanding of all being the close, but robust, personal relationships between a number of leaders, and the quality of our diplomatic representation in Port Moresby.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the current state of relations is to record the fact that the most respected Australian politician in PNG today is not John Howard, not Alexander Downer, not Kim Beazley, but Tim Fischer.

Politics in Papua New Guinea is always robust, ever changing, but it is also based on personalities, and on the personal views and strengths of its leaders, and its alternate leaders.

Papua New Guinea’s leaders, and alternate leaders, are "big men" when they enter the regional and world stages.

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They also expect to be treated as equals by their Australian counterparts, and reject "lectures" from Canberra on what PNG regards as internal issues.

The response to the Taiwan recognition decision, in which even Bill Skate’s strongest opponents have told Australia to "butt out", reflects the reality of our relationship with PNG today.

Our influence is diminished, and that is to at least some degree Australia’s fault, the fault of the second term Keating Government, and the Howard Government.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Wall OBE is a Brisbane Political Consultant and has served as Advisor to the PNG Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu – Prime Minister 1988-1992 and Speaker 1994-1997.

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