Of the 30 or more contributions I have written for On Line Opinion this year I regard this as the most "consequential" when it comes to the future growth and stability of our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, and the special relationship with PNG that is so vital to the Australian National Strategic Interest.
In no way do I diminish the importance of my many suggestions as to how to try and minimise the Peoples' Republic of China influence across key sectors of Papua New Guinea, or my contributions on the need to strengthen democracy, the role of the churches, or address the appalling state of the health sector.
But I believe the greatest challenge now is to look seriously and constructively at how the real decline in the living standards of, and opportunities for, the majority of the eight plus million men, women and children of Papua New Guinea, can be reversed with a pro-active Australian approach.
On any number of occasions I have suggested that we must go "big and bold" when it comes to not just address the PRC challenge in PNG and the South Pacific, but also how we can substantially enhance our standing among our closest neighbours, and especially our former colony, Papua New Guinea.
That is why I was last week so critical of the Australia Infrastructure Financing for the Pacific (AIFFP) scheme introduced by the federal government late in 2018. It is just not big, or bold! And the way it is structured it never can be.
One of the flaws in our policy approach to Papua New Guinea in particular is the belief that funding "infrastructure" counters the PRC influence and strengthens ours.
The way the PRC has structured its infrastructure financing arrangements under the Belt and Road program – loans, not grants, and loans tied totally to work being undertaken by PRC contractors – makes it very difficult for Australia, or the United States, or Japan, to match the program. We can offer millions via a mix of grants and loans – China can offer billion via loans alone.
I believe as strongly as ever that we must urgently restructure our existing $600 million a year "development assistance" program to focus on the upgrading of vital health services principally via the Angau Hospital in Lae, a focus on improving basic services on the island of Daru, the closest PNG community to Australia, and assisting with the vital 2022 PNG National Elections.
But our number one priority in Papua New Guinea must focus on the eight million men, women and children who today are really being adversely impacted by wholly inadequate basic health services, troubles in the schools and tertiary education sectors, AND the really run down state of the agricultural sector – especially agriculture for export.
Of these areas the one I believe we now have a unique opportunity to really make an impact in is the agricultural export sector. When I first went to work in PNG in 1978, agricultural production and exports were the backbone of the economy, providing about fifty per cent of export income. Today it is barely half that.
While the mining, oil and gas sectors have grown significantly, agriculture has gone backwards, and it has gone backwards in an alarming way.
Without covering all the agricultural export sectors, the one that directly impacts on most people, coffee, and the one which has achieved greatest recent success, palm oil, illustrate just how dire the position is and the impact that is having on REAL living standards.
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