Sanctions, Condemnation & Isolation: Bob Carr opens PNG Diplomacy with Fire
New Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr has opened up his diplomatic relationship with PNG with a bang.
In his first public statement focused specifically on PNG as Australia’s top diplomat, Carr has unexpectedly dictated a very rigid line in his diplomacy book on how he will deal with PNG regarding the most important issue on PNG’s agenda this year, the 2012 general elections.
In an interview with Sky News, Carr menacingly declared that Australia will consider sanctions against Papua New Guinea if it abandons plans to hold mid-year elections.
In what was an astonishing declaration, Carr stated that:
“It is absolutely vital that Papua New Guinea, that the government of Prime Minister O’Neill commit unequivocally to this election.
The failure to hold elections would create a shocking model for the Pacific.
You’ve got Australia placed in a position where we’d have no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea.
We’d be in a position of having to consider sanctions.
So I take this opportunity to urge the government to see that those elections take place, keeping Papua New Guinea in the cycle of five-yearly elections.”
There are two key factors which make Carr’s comments extraordinary: 1) The revelation of Carr’s hardline stance on PNG directly contradicts the approach his junior minister Richard Marles and Australia’s High Commisioner to PNG Ian Kemish have followed on the PNG situation to date; and 2) the exact words chosen by Carr to convey his perspective not only have incredible meaning but simultaneously carry irreversible damage to the Australia-PNG relationship if acted upon.
Bob Carr’s Hardline Stance
Since the roots of PNG’s political crisis spawned in August 2011, Ian Kemish and his team have continuously advised Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister (Kevin Rudd during this period) and Prime Minister Julia Gillard to tackle the PNG situation through the means of quiet diplomacy.
Responding to criticism on a perceived lack of influence on Somare-O’Neill Gate, former Foreign Minister Rudd retorted:
“The High Commissioner’s consistent advice…has been for Australia to adopt a low-key approach, while working intensively behind the scenes.
The High Commissioner has cautioned against high profile political visits to the country, or high profile political communications with PNG political leaders for fear that such actions would fuel rather than ease the situation.
The calm and effective way they went about their business was a case study in quiet diplomacy.
The ultimate resolution of political differences in a democracy is through the constitutional and electoral processes of that country.
Australia respects PNG’s sovereignty.”
That message, and in particular, the catchphrase that Australia respects PNG’s sovereignty, has been the central pillar characterizing the approach that Kemish, Marles, Rudd and consequently Gillard, have all utilized for dealing with PNG’s political problems since August 2011. These include Somare-O’Neill Gate, Lieutenant Sasa’s attempted coup, the arrest of Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia, and even to the upcoming general elections 2012.
All these issues are important to Australia and Australian interests, but at the end of the day, it was always reiterated by Kemish, Marles and Rudd that these matters were matters for PNG to solve. And rightly so.
That perspective has now changed in light of Bob Carr’s comments.
Gone is Australia’s quiet diplomacy regarding PNG’s political problems. Carr has replaced Rudd’s ‘behind the scene, low-key approach’ with a more dictative and aggressive public approach akin to that of Alexander Downer, the man responsible for the least effective Australia-PNG relationship in the history of our diplomatic relations.
It was interesting to note in Myer Foundation Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones‘ video interview with Ian Kemish last month his thoughts on Australia maintaining the existing quiet diplomacy approach regarding PNG’s political issues. Kemish notes:
“We’re not locked into that approach. We have to keep considering new developments and adjusting our approach accordingly, it would be nonsense for us to feel that we’re locked into one approach or another, but we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions.
One is, ‘Are the actions underway within the Papua New Guinean Constitution? Another is, ‘Are Papua New Guinean institutions coping?’, and of course, the most important question is, ‘What is the most effective way of us approaching this situation?'”
So, did Bob Carr make his comments after consultation with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles and/or Australian High Commissioner Ian Kemish? We don’t yet know.
But if Carr did not consult with Marles and Kemish, both men will be feeling vulnerable and Kemish particularly will need to doctor some spin with PNG Foreign Affairs Minister Ano Pala and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill as soon as possible in order to play down Carr’s rather imperious comments.
As I tweeted on Carr’s statement as it happened:
What will be PNG’s Response?
PNG’s response to Bob Carr’s comments will be interesting. It is wise to remember that although Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah publicly appealed for Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to defer elections, O’Neill has since assured the nation and our international partners that elections will go ahead in June as planned.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of Papua New Guineans will want Election 2012 to go ahead as scheduled; and any interference with it will not only be unconstitutional, but will be met with both deep concern and considerable opposition – internally and externally.
However, the unexpected nature of Carr’s comments on PNG’s elections will no doubt surprise O’Neill, and to some degree, the veiled threat it delivers will offend some in O’Neill’s caucus as well as every day Papua New Guineans. This offense will sting all the more as Bob Carr has yet to officially open dialogue with O’Neill and his government on a ministerial level. One doubts whether Carr has actually talked with O’Neill over the phone yet!
If this is the case, then it is a poor start to the Carr-PNG relationship and the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Bob Carr.
Adding complexity to this situation is the commotion and tarnishing of the reputation of PNG by recent revelations that Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah sexually assaulted a casino worker in Australia. This has resulted in calls within PNG for Namah to step down as DPM:
Peter O’Neill is already a man facing mounting pressure to keep in check the ever-blundering Belden Namah. But as recently as yesterday, O’Neill came out in support of Namah claiming that although the first-term member of parliament had an unorthodox style of leadership, his intentions were for the good of the country, and that he was often misunderstood by the PNG public.
Predictably, ousted former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare has also jumped onto the band wagon criticizing Namah.
The challenge for O’Neill is to ensure that his government collectively responds to Carr’s comments in a mature and sensible fashion. O’Neill will have the sense to tread carefully here and part of treading carefully will be ensuring that Namah is reigned in on a short tight leash as his unpredictability, in addition to the compromising situation he has landed himself in, and by association his Prime Minister and their coalition government, has the potential to make bigger the tiny cracks already appearing within the O’Neill faction.
As for Bob Carr’s extraordinary comments, I say there are only two plausible explanations for them: 1) He knows something about PNG General Election 2012 we don’t know about, or 2) He’s crazy.
Indeed, the most effective response O’Neill can deliver to immunize Carr’s statement and quite possibly help steady future Carr-PNG diplomatic relations is to deliver a free, fair and safe election for Papua New Guinea.