I have always believed the most enduring feature of our relationship with Papua New Guinea is the wide-ranging people-to-people engagement which covers so many facets of life – business, investment, employment and training education, sport, tourism and travel, culture, historic family links, wartime connections, Christian links. Added to these is our former role administering Papua New Guinea until it peacefully gained independence in 1975.
Until the onset of the Covid pandemic there were at least one or two daily air services between Port Moresby and Brisbane, as well as regular services to Sydney. Today, travel is restricted, with few Papua New Guineans eligible to travel to Australia. There is no tourism, and business links are more online than in person. As Australia slowly opens up to international travel, the sad reality is that any return to "normality", or close to it, when it comes to Papua New Guinea's engagement with Australia – and especially its people-to-people links – is unlikely for many months, if not twelve months or even more.
The latest official vaccination "statistics" for Papua New Guinea are truly depressing. As of last week just 259,000 people had received one vaccination, while just 186,000 were fully vaccinated. It has been reliably reported that a substantial proportion of the fully vaccinated are Australians and other non-citizens, especially Chinese and Indians. I would estimate that the "eligible population" when it comes to vaccines to be around six million. On that basis, less than 2 per cent of the adult population is fully vaccinated! And the vaccination rate is growing at a snail's pace.
There are many reasons our closest neighbour has one of the world's lowest vaccination rates. They include a "failed" health system that has produced low vaccination rates generally, even for babies and young children, with the result that the people have no confidence in even basic health care. To that you have to add a vigorous social media campaign pushing "anti-vaccination" messages across Papua New Guinea. And then add weak and inadequate political leadership. As well, every time the Prime Minister and senior Ministers "urge" people to get vaccinated, they add a rider: vaccination is NOT compulsory. This is not compelling communication. More recently, an ugly development has highlighted the enormity of the challenge when it comes to managing the pandemic, including encouraging vaccinations, in Papua New Guinea. In a significant number of incidents, vaccination teams have been assaulted and abused when they are staffing vaccination stations in urban and rural areas alike.
So to vaccination "hesitancy" you have to add vaccine "hostility". What an absolute debacle!
There has been some criticism of Australia's response to the pandemic in both in PNG and elsewhere in the South Pacific from sections of the Non-Government Organisation (NGO) community. I believe that is unfair. Australia has provided all the vaccines PNG authorities have requested. We have also supplied oxygen, ventilators, specialist medical teams. And cash! No country, or international agency, has done anywhere close to as much as Australia.
Not only are vaccination rates low, but worrying Covid case and death rates are increasingly being reported in Papua New Guinea. The "official" PNG case and death rates reported in Australia are wildly inaccurate. Apart from lagging in their release timing, case and death numbers are massively underreported, something even government officials concede.
For the Australian government, I believe this tragic and worsening position presents major challenges.
One is to determine what Australia is able to do in order to help struggling PNG health officials, the World Health Organisation and other agencies lift vaccination rates and to treat the growing number of patients, especially in rural and remote areas where health services are virtually non-existent.
Hint: the answer is not to send cash! Elections will be held in PNG in mid-2022 and campaigning is full-on already. There is no guarantee cash will be used for the right purposes in the prevailing political environment, sad though that is. Instead, Australia should link up with Australian and PNG Christian churches and provide direct funding and resources – not just to address the pandemic, but also to fund other serious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, polio and HIV. PNG's churches provide health services to half the population, so directly supporting them will have a significant impact.
When it comes to the "failed" national health system I have in earlier contributions offered a range of suggestions that would address the "core" of the failure – corruption, misuse, under-funding and incompetence. Frankly, time is running out to make a significant impact on the overall system without radical reform at national and provincial levels alike. But I am also concerned about the declining state of the "people-to-people" relationship that, in Papua New Guinea's current isolation, deteriorates almost daily. After years of lobbying by Australian business, especially the Australia-PNG Business Council, Papua New Guinea was to be more fully included in the Pacific worker scheme vital to the Australian agricultural sector. That change is now on hold because of the low vaccination rate and the high Covid-19 rate across Papua New Guinea. One hopes a special campaign to vaccinate and test potential PNG workers might be introduced so Papua New Guineans can participate in a scheme that offers significant economic and social benefits.
Another area impacted by the pandemic is high school and tertiary education. Prior to the pandemic well over 1,200 young Papua New Guineans attended high schools, colleges and universities in Australia. Their presence was an important and enduring "people-to-people" association. I gather this number has been slashed massively because of the pandemic restrictions. With PNG's low vaccination rate, that won't change in the next year without a targeted approach by the Australia and PNG Governments – getting selected students fully vaccinated and giving them quarantine support after arriving in Australia. A special financial support scheme should also be considered.
The third important "people-to-people" link is sport, a vital component of social cohesion in Papua New Guinea. Rugby league is the national sport but rugby union, Australian Rules, soccer, cricket netball, softball and basketball are also played in urban and rural areas alike. Australia should urgently fully adopt the Joint Parliamentary Report on greater regional engagement in sport and start its implementation in Papua New Guinea. Our neighbour needs coaches, resources and administrators to improve standards in major sports, with a view to a return PNG teams travelling to Australia, and Australian teams travelling to PNG, when conditions eventually make this possible.
These three focus areas alone will help maintain key aspects of our vital people-to-people links. Other areas also need consideration, such as training and support for the agricultural sector, but given the constraints imposed by low vaccination rates and high case numbers these three are immediate priorities. I am sure goodwill towards Australia in Papua New Guinea remains high, but it must not ever be taken for granted.A vibrant and wide-ranging relationship is vital to our national strategic interest. It needs greater priority from our national leaders than it has so far received.