The Guardian • Issue #2040

Albanese’s PNG visit falls flat

Photo: Asian Development Bank – (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the second week of January of this year, Prime Minister Albanese made a delayed visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG). Albanese addressed the PNG parliament, albeit not without controversy as some PNG politicians felt it was inappropriate for a foreign leader to do so.

There were one-on-one meetings, consultations, visits to a region or two, and promised further interactions.

Although there was a lot of rhetoric about “friendship,” observers in PNG have assessed that Albanese failed to deliver. Listening to the bilateral press conference after the meetings, one quickly gains the sense that Albanese and PNG Prime Minister Marape were speaking at cross-purposes. Albanese tried to emphasise a “security” agreement, which was supposed to have been signed at this meeting. Nothing was signed and it has been pushed down the road and is subject to more negotiation.

By contrast, Marape stressed that an economically independent Papua New Guinea would be better, stronger, and safer for all.

Has Australia assisted PNG’s economic development? No. Reading through the newspaper articles, there is a long list of grievances on this score. For example, they speak of “boomerang” aid, the ban on export to Australia of PNG tropical fruits and vegetables, immense delays for ordinary visas to Australia, since – astonishingly – there is no visa processing centre in PNG (the closest one is in Fiji).

Did Albanese promise anything? Listening to the press conference, all I could identify was an empty call for Australian businesses to invest, along with an increase in modern-day “blackbirding” in which young and able people would get work visas to come to Australia to work in agriculture, construction, road works, and so on. As for fruit and vegetables, he merely mentioned the need to increase “bio-security” checks. And a football team in the NRL …

It is no wonder the PNG commentators are singularly unimpressed. One speaks of the need for an “economic base,” which will lead to urbanisation and industrialisation. Another writes of the need for developing “downstream processing” of PNG’s rich resources. Yet another stresses the need to be free from the “bonds of poverty.” “How can Australia,” the author continues, “expect us to concern ourselves over regional security when our most immediate need is to fix our economy, feed ourselves and live quiet secure lives?” As for Albanese, all he offered was the “Old Father Christmas tune.”

The reader may wonder where China fits into all of this. At the press conference, Marape was asked this question. His response: this issue was “not before us.” There was no need to bring “China or any other nation into the picture,” since the relation with Australia is “particularly unique” – note the careful choice of words here. Instead, “The PNG-China relationship remains the PNG-China relationship.”

What has the PNG-China relation already delivered? Extensive economic collaboration so as to establish an economic base, downstream processing, and economic development so as to provide real benefits to the people of PNG.

As for the hapless Albanese, a newspaper headline sums it up: “Nothing delivered at Albanese – Marape meet.”

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