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Australia must take the threat to the Manus Island naval base project seriously

By Jeffrey Wall - posted Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Australian government must take very seriously the threat to the Manus Island joint naval base project outlined recently by a senior minister in Papua New Guinea's government.

The fact that the man concerned - Foreign Minister Patrick Pruaitch - has since been suspended from office does not in any way lessen the urgency the Australian government must give to ensuring the signature project under its 'Pacific step-up' proceeds.

The redevelopment proposal was in many ways an unusual one when it was announced by the Australian and PNG governments almost two years ago. It was clearly put together in haste following credible evidence that the People's Republic of China had its eyes on the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island.


The announcement was really a reflection of the complex relationship the then PNG prime minister, Peter O'Neill, had with Australia.

Even though PNG's relationship with China grew stronger during his eight years in office, O'Neill skilfully maintained excellent relations with successive Australian governments from both sides of politics.

In 2013, he signed an agreement with Kevin Rudd's Labour government to enable asylum seekers arriving off Australia by boat to be housed at a detention centre Australia rapidly constructed on Manus Island. Even though the agreement was criticised by the Coalition, within days of Tony Abbott becoming prime minister in the same year, O'Neill negotiated its continuation and expansion.

Pruaitch's announcement last week of a review of the Manus redevelopment agreement was clearly in response to local political and social media pressure to, at the very least, seek a restructuring of the deal, if not its cancellation.

That is what the governor of Manus province, Charlie Benjamin, and some local leaders have been seeking since the project was first announced. And it's what influential non-government organisations and social media writers have been demanding.

The suspension of Pruaitch is unrelated to his announcement of a review of the base arrangement. The PNG Ombudsman Commission has been pursuing him for serious leadership code breaches for the best part of a decade. His suspension from office became automatic once the chief justice appointed a leadership tribunal to hear the allegations against him.


But the Australian government would be unwise, even foolish, to assume that, with Pruaitch stood aside from ministerial duties for what is likely to be an extended period, pressure to review the Manus agreement will diminish.

It will not. The former minister's robust assertion that the deal is unfair to PNG and especially the people and businesses on Manus Island is headline news. It will embolden Benjamin, other MPs and social media commentators to demand not just a review, but termination of the project.

National elections are now less than two years away in PNG, and it will be easy to make the base a campaign issue on Manus and beyond.

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This article was first published in The Strategist.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Wall CSM CBE 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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