PNG-Australia Relationship will Flourish under Julie Bishop
And even though I agree that Kevin Rudd was indeed concentrating on marketing Australia to the world as a possible global leader, particularly in terms of Australia’s candidacy for a temporary seat at the UN Security Council and Australia’s leadership regarding Libya, I don’t think the Pacific Islands were ever not a priority for Kevin Rudd as many people who jumped on the bandwagon calling for his head claim.
I believe one of the key reasons for this perception, and one which was often presented to qualify it, was that it had been a while since Kevin Rudd had actually physically visited a Pacific Island State (his last visit to the Pacific was a special meeting on Fiji in PNG during January 2009).
There seems to be a perception present within Australian international relations circles that visiting a foreign state is a clear signal that positive measures have taken place in terms of developing meaningful bilateral ties.
A good example of this is Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce’s recent 10-day tour of the Pacific, which included visits to Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Micronesia; and in which she was accompanied by Australia’s parliamentary secretary for Pacific Affairs, Richard Marles.
(@Tavurvur) May 04, 2012
In terms of PNG, the fact of the matter is that despite the individual occupying the foreign affairs ministerial position, he or she will be served by one of Australia’s most effective diplomats – the Australian High Commisioner to PNG Ian Kemish.
Indeed, Kevin Rudd even quoted Ian Kemish’s advice when attempting to defend himself from criticism regarding a perceived lack of influence during Peter O’Neill’s wrestling of the Prime Ministership off Sir Michael Somare.
Ironically, I suggest it would have only taken an annual weekend visit to PNG by Kevin Rudd to probably shut up most of his critics who have accused him of neglecting the Pacific.
In that sense, and even though most likely not a complete reflection of his work in attending to the Pacific, his lack of action in physically visiting the Pacific in what is realistically not at all a difficult task, did undermine his credibility.
But it is even more difficult for me now to accept the view, and particularly the rhetoric, about how Kevin Rudd took his eyes off the Pacific when comparing his choice of strategy with that of his successor, Bob Carr.
Bob Carr was seen by many to be the person to fill the void created by Kevin Rudd in the Pacific by spending more time and effort on the region, particularly PNG.
Since then, Carr has made a sole visit to New Zealand to “pay them the courtesy of some consultation, given their expert feel for the politics of the South Pacific” after four days of being in office, and has also ventured on a fact-finding mission to Fiji as part of a greater Pacific Islands’ Ministerial Contact Group.
Since taking office, Bob Carr has yet to visit a Pacific State on his own merit in true bi-lateral fashion.
Kevin Rudd did, and even though his visits were relatively concise, their reverberations were significant as he managed to capture the hearts and minds of Papua New Guineans as represented by the naming of a family’s first born son as Kevin Rudd Junior.
It is difficult for me to imagine a Bob Carr Junior, or even Bob Carr visiting Goroka as Rudd did, or for that matter – any other town outside the comfort zone of Port Moresby’s segregated bureaucratic nature.
But there is some real hope for the Australia-PNG relationship and for the first time, what appears to be an authentic and genuine interest in the affairs of PNG, not in the dominant donor-recipient paradigm which has jarred consecutive Australian foreign affairs ministerial thinking since independence, but in the more mature and progressive vision of Australia and PNG being coadjuvant development-partners.
That vision is one that Julie Bishop believes in. And it’s powerful.
Nothing better reflects this vision more so than Bishop’s recently delivered address to the 28th Australia Papua New Guinea Business Forum and Trade Expo in Brisbane.
In that speech Bishop blows to pieces Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr, and even Richard Marle’s attempts to define how exactly the Australia-PNG relationship can be improved by painting a clear vision of what will happen under her direction.
“Few countries are more important to Australia than Papua New Guinea and I believe that our relationship with Papua New Guinea must be one of Australia’s highest foreign policy priorities.
It is a fact that much has been said over many years about the relationship and I think it is fair for us to be judged not on what we say but on what we do, not on just our words but on our actions”.
Bishop goes on to add:
“It is simply unacceptable for there to be so many bureaucratic hurdles in the way of trade and investment and doing business across the Coral Sea, and I most certainly commit to working with the PNG government to ensure that it can be the most cooperative economic relationship that we are able to achieve”.
“We need to see greater mobility in the labour force between PNG and Australia. I envisage some form of mobile workforce that could be supporting projects in Queensland, in Western Australia, and in PNG, and it will take some considerable will on the part of governments in both countries to achieve it but I am sure we can do it, for our mutual benefit”.
This is a refreshing Australian perspective.
Finally, there is one other aspect of Julie Bishop’s commitment to PNG which has impressed me – and that is her drive to engage with everyday Australians and Papua New Guineans who care about the Australia-PNG relationship.
She also takes an interest in responding to questions poised on PNG’s burgeoning social media presence:
@Tavurvur it was raised with me while I was in PNG and I don't get the rationale so I'm checking it out—
Julie Bishop (@JulieBishopMP) April 13, 2012
It is not just what Julie Bishop is saying about PNG that is exciting, it is actually what she is doing too.
With the PNG General Elections just around the corner, let’s hope that the incoming PNG Foreign Affairs Minister will share her drive and passion for improving the PNG-Australia relationship too.