Christmas celebrations in Papua New Guinea differ from how we celebrate Christmas in Australia in one important respect. In Papua New Guinea it centres on the Christian significance of the occasion – and not the increasingly politically correct nonsense we have to endure such as "Seasons Greetings" and "best wishes for the Festive Season",
But in PNG there is still gift giving, though not to the same commercial extent in Australia.
I have been thinking about what "gifts" the people of Australia might give the good people of Papua New Guinea – and especially "gifts" that might contribute to the re-building of what is our most important regional relationship.
I would like to suggest that the transfer of responsibility for our PNG (and South Pacific) engagement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to somewhere more pro-active and relevant. But that won't ever happen so there is little point proposing it!
This Christmas the good people of Papua New Guinea deserve a promise of Australian support that is more relevant, and frankly more "substantial". We have done well, very well, supporting Papua New Guinea, and our other South Pacific neighbours, with vaccines, and support facilities such as oxygen and ventilators.
And we have done better than anyone else – better that China, the US, and New Zealand in particular. There is today NO shortage of vaccines in Papua New Guinea, and we met just about the whole burden of vaccinating, and doing so successfully, And Australia has additional vaccines available for PNG and the region – if needed.
The fact that the vaccination rate in PNG is barely 2 per cent is NOT Australia's fault. Yes, we could have done more perhaps but this is a tragic problem the PNG Government has failed, and is failing, to address.
But Australia could offer a "Christmas present" in the form of an offer to seriously help with the task of rebuilding the "failed" PNG health system, and especially the public health system. Sadly, while the vaccination rate remains appalling, this year has unquestionably seen a further deterioration in the standard of health care, and not just pandemic care, right across Papua New Guinea.
I have proposed this before, but it is worth putting forward again. Australia should offer to suspend most of the existing $500 million aid budget (it is just not possible to effectively implement an aid program with dozens if not hundreds of projects when the border between Australia and PNG is effectively closed).
Our offer should be to immediately redirect around $300 million of our aid budget (which equates to close to K1 billion) towards beginning the massive task of rebuilding the PNG public health system.
These steps could be undertaken in a matter of months to begin the task:
1. Pressure the PNG Government to immediately cancel the contracts for the supply of vital drugs and medicines for hospitals and health centres which are highly suspicious, have been seriously questioned by at least one parliamentary inquiry and as recently as this week by the East Sepik Governor who has demanded the contracts with Borneo Pharmacies be cancelled. This would probably cost around $100 million a year and would restore a system that worked reasonably well before the then PNG Government cancelled it in 2014. But it would give PNG safe, reliable and an adequate supply of vital drug and medicines.
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