Australia stengthening its Pacific links
Saturday, August 1, 2009, 7:45 pm
Australia and Papua New Guinea have started to intensify their relations, with more contacts at different levels (led by government level contacts) and increasing economic cooperation.
Guillaume Benoist attended a briefing at the Australian High Commission in the capital city, Port Moresby, with Australia’s representative, Chris Moraitis, to find out more about Australia’s desire to see its neighbour become an ”economically prosperous country in our region”.
Since PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975, Australia has been steadily reducing its aid budget, and by late 2007 relations had started to cool.
However things have changed with initiatives being put in place by the Rudd government soon after its election at that time.
PNG remains the largest receiver of suppport through the federal agency, AusAid, after Indonesia — which, a very large country, took over as chief benificiary during the last two years.
The High Commissioner says Australia has now decided to again increase AusAid funds to PNG to A$414-million p.a. … and Australia wants to increase its aid assistance from 0.5% to 0.79% of GDP, the level recommended by the United Nations.
”What I’d like to see is far more engagment between Australia and PNG’, said Mr Moraitis.
“The political relations are working quite well.”
In the political area, there have been stepped-up contacts, with Australian ministers starting to make extensive visits outside Port Moresby (Goroka, Madang and Vanimo in the last year).
The PNG Prime Minister, ”Grand Chief” as he is called there, Sir Michael Somare has visited most Australian States in the last year.
The most recent Ministerial gathering meeting was at Brisbane in June, and the themes discussed at that meeting were vocational training and higher education, climate change, HIV-AIDS, land reform, governance including development of the PNG public service, law and justice, and infrastructure for Papua New Guinea.
This approach is timely, with declarations by Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, of a stronger ”Pacific relationship” — meaning, for Australia to take a greater part in development and building economic links among countries in the South West Pacific.
This was outlined by Mr Rudd in his ”Port Moresby Declaration”, in that city, in March 2008.
This year, in Port Moresby (2.7.09), the Australia HC, Chris Moraitis said the relationship between the two countries was ”very deep and very complex”, but with a clear focus on helping to build up PNG as a strong independent state.
”We want to help achieve social and economic development, so there will be a healthy and educated, and economically vibrant Papua New Guinea; with healthy resources and land development.
“It will be, metaphorically ‘cooking with gas’. We want politically stable , economically prosperous countries in our region”, he said.
He also said that ”what is good for Australia is good for PNG”.
What are the prospects for a good future?
There are signs of a continuing good relationship at people-to-people level.
The HC said it was ”moving” that people at Vanimo hospital in North-West PNG had sent K 10 000 (A$ 5000) to help their ”friends in Victoria” after the bushfire disaster there; as a ‘thank-you’ also for Victorians’ help during the Aitape tsunami disaster in their region.
Each year approximately 2000 Papua New Guineans travel to Australia, with 6000 Australians visiting that country annually.
Nonetheless, PNG has many well known problems to overcome: its civil divisions created by the hundreds of separate language groups, poverty, social problems and crime, official corruption, poor health care standards.
PNG’s population is growing at 3% p.a. with an average age of 19 years; the population has risen from a little over three-million at independence to an estimated 6.2-million, or a little more, in 2009.
The country is pinning its hopes on major resource development as well as social development projects.
In the educational field, it is often pointed out that when girls receive more education, the population growth-rate will decline in PNG.
Some leaders in the country think the liquified natural gas (LNG) project in the Gulf region of PNG might double the country’s GDP, though Chris Moraitis is more cautious about that, thinking the figure might come to 30%.
Along with this the currency, the Kina, might appreciate, bringing a set-back with inflation.
For Mr Moraitis ”there is a lot of Macroeconomics challenge” in PNG.
A partnership between Exxon-Mobil and the Australian companies Oil Search and Santos will be joined by the PNG government buying a 20% stake in the project. The plan is to to pipe gas along the coast to Port Moresby and ship it out; already East Asian buyers have signed contracts.
The development means that like Australia PNG is well and truly engaged in the world debate on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions; its controversial logging industry has already been in the forefront of arguments about carbon emissions into the atmosphere, with demands for more action on reafforestation.
More pressing for the moment, local landowners in mining regions of PNG, including those where the LNG will be extracted, are demanding compensation and assurances of better protection.
”What can be done for landowners to protect their environment?”, asks Chris Moraitis.