Raising the profile of Papua New Guinea in Australia
Hon Richard Marles MP. Picture courtesy of AusAID
By Hon Richard Marles MP
Thank you. I’d like to acknowledge HE Ian Kemish, Australia’s High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and I would also like acknowledge my colleague and very very good friend Senator the Hon David Feeney, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence.
I stand before you at lunch time today as a victim of last night’s Australia Week concert at the Lamana Hotel, which is not to say that I overindulged because despite a passion for one of the platinum sponsors I am very abstemious Parliamentary Secretary as my good friend David knows, we were house mates at university, and he knows that I am very abstemious but it was very loud music which was nicely reminiscent of my youth it did mean that my voice was raised a lot while I conducted conversations so I am a bit croaky in front of you this afternoon.
So you will have to forgive me for that.
It’s a great pleasure to be here to talk to you about raising the profile of PNG in Australia.
It’s a subject which is indeed very much close to my heart and one which I think is ‘core business’ for me as Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs.
PNG is one of the most important bilateral relationships that Australia has.
It is our closest neighbour.
From the islands of Saibai and Boigu you can see PNG. Indeed there are Papua New Guineas every day who commute to Australia to do their job.
We have an intertwined history.
A history which has a very strong military dimension to it, in the context of Australian forces being here during the Second World War and the very critical battles that were fought during that engagement.
But also an administrative history, being responsible for this part of the world from that time, indeed earlier, through until 1975.
Indeed Papua New Guinea and Nauru are the two countries in the world which gained their independence from Australia.
And in that context PNG has a particular place in Australia’s history.
It is a place which is going gangbusters economically and represents a place of enormous economic opportunity for Australia.
Two way trade between Australia and PNG today is at $7billion.
In the PNG LNG project alone it is estimated that there will be $3 billion worth of projects that will be undertaken by Australian companies.
It is a country whose population is fifty percent bigger than New Zealand’s, and it is growing.
And that fact I think, combined in a sense with the military history, points to the security significance that PNG has for Australia.
And so for all these reasons, it is a country of enormous significance to Australia. It’s a significance which I think at a Government level is well understood.
Port Moresby is one of the three largest overseas missions that Australia maintains in the world.
In development assistance terms, Papua New Guinea is the second largest development assistance programs that we have in the world.
But I think in the broader sense many Australians – particularly those born post-PNG independence – don’t know as much about Papua New Guinea as they should.
To put it simply, PNG does not play in Australia’s national discourse in the way that it deserves.
And so I believe that we must change perceptions and that we must build awareness about PNG among Australians.
And to do that we must tell the story of contemporary PNG. To my mind, there are three compelling parts to the Papua New Guinea story that will resonate with all Australians.
Part 1: Papua New Guinea is changing
Firstly, and very importantly, Papua New Guinea is changing.
And demographics alone underscore how quickly the change is occurring.
Papua New Guinea is home to 6.5 million people and 40 per cent, or nearly half, of its people are younger than 15.
By 2030, the population will have grown to 10 million - one-third of Australia’s population.
We are seeing change at the political level as a new generation of leaders come forward at a very very critical time in this country’s history.
At this time we are mindful that democracy is precious.
We are also mindful that PNG is a strong and a vigorous democracy with a history of holding elections on time.
A pillar of democracy is an independent and respected judiciary, as is the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.
Of course, Papua New Guinea’s constitutional processes have come under considerable strain in the past few months. But the truth is that they will continue to be under pressure until elections are held.
The Australian Government recognises that the credibility of PNG’s elections is an important matter for the PNG Government and its parliament.
But any delay to elections need to be thought through very carefully. Any activity outside the bounds of the constitution needs to be thought through very carefully.
Postponing the elections could undermine Papua New Guinea’s reputation among the international community as a robust democracy.
The business community could also be put off by signs of an uncertain political environment.
And we very much welcome the statements of PM O’Neill and other political leaders about the importance of holding elections on time.
Because Australia believes in elections that are both timely and credible, we are working closely with the PNG Government to help improve its capacity to deliver elections in June and July.
Some of the more recent support includes 30 computers for updating the electoral roll.
And two contracted helicopters to help the PNG Defence Force provide an effective and visible Elections Response Force.
We remain closely engaged with PNG on election planning and on how Australia can help PNG authorities deliver credible elections on time.
The recent debate in PNG about the representation of women in Parliament provides another indication of change.
Having women in leadership roles is critical to the economic and social development of any country.
We understand that all modern democracies wrestle with the issue of under-representation of women in political life.
We therefore will support PNG as it continues to debate this issue.
PNG is also changing economically, emerging in this second decade of the 21st century as one of the fastest developing economies not only in our region but indeed across the globe.
According to IMF forecasts, it was the seventh fastest growing economy in 2011.
If the right decisions are taken PNG stands on the cusp of a very prosperous economic future.
This is something we in Australia welcome wholeheartedly.
Much of its current prosperity, like Australia’s, comes from its wealth in natural resources, such as in minerals, oil, gas, timber agriculture and fish.
The Exxon-led LNG project really exemplifies the current confidence that the foreign investment community has in Papua New Guinea.
With estimates suggesting that the project could boost PNG’s GDP by 15 to 20 per cent per annum, it really does spell enormous opportunities for all Papua New Guineans.
The establishment of a Sovereign Wealth Fund is a key part of the PNG Government’s strategy to manage the boom and make sure that all Papua New Guineans benefit from it.
That the Sovereign Wealth Fund has just completed its passage through Parliament is an achievement that PNG leaders should be proud of.
Australia has supported it with this difficult task, sharing our experience, for example, particularly in relation to our own Future Fund.
It’s an exciting prospect.
Money from PNG’s natural resources flowing through well-governed sovereign wealth funds to ensure basic services to all Papua New Guineans.
We also need to start thinking about how this will affect the change in the relationship between our two countries, and change that relationship for the better.
Part 2: The Changing Relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea
This then brings me to the second compelling part of the story between Australians and Papua New Guinea.
That is the changing relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
There is a fundamental shift in the way Australia and PNG work with each other.
It is a relationship that is moving away from one narrowly focussed on development cooperation to a more mature relationship, one that is very much a partnership of equals.
PNG’s provision of $4 million in financial support to Australia during last year’s floods in Queensland, I think is a sign of changing times.
The economic cooperation treaty currently being negotiated between our two countries also reflects this evolution.
We recognise that development cooperation is only one part of our relationship, and that others such as trade, investment and business are becoming increasingly important.
Earlier this week, I met a number of Australian and Papua New Guinean business people and heard for myself about the success of the PNG economy and the great potential which exists to further grow our business and our trading partnership.
These growing business links are further transforming the Australia-PNG relationship.
They are boosting both our countries’ economies.
They are creating closer bonds between our people.
They are helping to transfer skills.
Business in PNG has helped improve the lives of so many Papua New Guineans – providing them with both employment and capital.
In partnership with the PNG Government, the Australian Government is doing its bit to help Papua New Guineans create a better life.
Because while the relationship is evolving, development cooperation will continue of course to remain a key part of our partnership with PNG.
Through the Australia-PNG Partnership for Development, Australia is supporting the PNG government’s own development priorities, focusing on four key areas: health, education, transport infrastructure and law and justice.
And our achievements to date reflect the commitment that both Australia and PNG have to real outcomes.
Providing fee subsidies to all children for the first three years of education, which has helped a quarter of a million kids get a free education.
That is a transformative affect on the society of Papua New Guinea.
With Australia’s help, the number of Papua New Guineans being tested for HIV/AIDs increased more than four fold in four years.
In Bougainville, we have helped halve the number of maternal deaths in five years.
We are helping maintain thousands of kilometres of key roads and highways across the country and helped improve 16 airports so that they are now safety certified.
We’ve also helped train female village court magistrates, boosting their numbers from 10 to 685 in just seven years.
We have been able to achieve these results because of the close partnership that has evolved between Australia and Papua New Guinea in development.
Australia, for example, welcomes the PNG Government’s commitment to increasing the portion of its budget that it allocates to education to 20 per cent.
And it also committed to abolish fees up to year 10 by 2012, and year 12 by 2014.
It is with this type of leadership, that I am confident the next generation of Papua New Guineans will benefit from an ever increasing range of opportunities.
Part 3: PNG’s Leadership Role in the Region
Which brings me to the third compelling aspect of the Papua New Guinea story: that PNG has the potential to and is increasingly playing an important leadership role itself in the region.
More and more Australia and Papua New Guinea are working together on some of the great challenges we face both globally and within the region.
Australia commends PNG for reaffirming its strong position on the urgent need for Fiji to return to democracy at the Pacific Islands Forum last year.
Given its increasing political and economic weight among Pacific Island countries, Papua New Guinea has demonstrated the important role it can play in encouraging Fiji to take concrete steps towards restoring democracy.
And the truth is that I believe that at the end of the day, PNG will be a far more important player than Australia in the ultimate resolution in Fiji’s issues.
Further afield, Papua New Guinea’s Defence Force is preparing its first ever UN peacekeepers for their mission to Darfur and South Sudan.
PNG has been a significant contributor to the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, with its police and military playing an important role in RAMSI’s stabilisation efforts.
So with a great story to tell, how do we go about the business of telling that story?
Well I believe that it really needs to happen at every level.
At the academic, elite level we have instituted for the first time a Papua New Guinea academic symposium which is being hosted by Deakin University.
We held it for the first time last year and it will be happening again in Geelong in April of this year.
It is a really important forum, I think, to reenergise Australian academia around PNG.
But it is also a wonderful forum where we can promote a dialogue between our two countries not just at a political level, but including at a political level, but also at a defence level, an academic level, a business level, NGO level, and at a media level.
That’s the story at the elite, academic, Government level in terms of thinking.
But we also need to tell this story at a more popular level.
And I would like to see, for example, the Today show, which comes into this country every morning on two stations, Imparjia and EMTV, show some respect to the 7, 6.5 million audience that it beams into.
I hear often on the Today show – as a person who does wake up with Today – an acknowledgement of many parts of Australia.
I have not heard once an acknowledgement by that program of the viewership of people here in Papua New Guinea, and that is something which ought to change.
And it would be really good if they told us every morning what the weather was going to be in Port Moresby, which frankly isn’t that hard, because it is basically the same every day.
In Parliament House, we have instituted the PNG Independence Day Oration.
Papua New Guinea is now the only country which celebrates its national day inside Australia’s Parliament House.
But it is right that PNG be the only country that does that, given the history of our two nations.
Every year on a sitting day in the Australian Parliament, as close as possible to the 16th September, we will have an Independence Day Oration by a senior figure from Papua New Guinea.
And we really enjoyed the fact that last year the inaugural PNG Independence Day oration was able to be given by Sir Rabbie Namaliu.
This year is the 70th anniversary year of some of the most significant campaigns for our two countries in World War II – including the Kokoda campaign – we will continue to preserve the memory of those from both Australia and PNG who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Thousands of Australians every year now make the pilgrimage to walk Kokoda.
And we really need to use these people better to tell the modern PNG story.
I am personally committed to fostering people-to-people links between our two countries.
It is something that I did when I was at the ACTU, and now I am very keen to see greater contact between the next generation of political leaders both here in PNG and in Australia.
Fostering people to people links is not just an act of sentimentality. It provides practical benefits to both sides through a closer and deeper understanding of our two countries
Education will play a crucial part in this.
I am proud that we are expanding the opportunities we are providing to young Papua New Guineans to study in Australia through the Australia Awards.
In 2011, 332 Papua New Guineans received an Australia Award scholarship.
It means that 332 of Papua New Guinea’s best and brightest – the country’s future leaders – are gaining vital skills as well as a strong understanding of Australia.
They join a growing number of Papua New Guineans who are coming to Australian institutions as private students, with enrolments from PNG totalling over 1 000 last year.
Rewind five years ago and that figure was less than 500.
These growing links in education will not just benefit Papua New Guinea.
They will benefit Australia as well.
For they will give Australians around them the privilege to learn more about the great country of PNG.
So in raising the profile of Papua New Guinea in Australia, it is incumbent on all of us with a deep fondness for this country to tell the PNG story to other Australians.
The story of a young, confident nation, with a rapidly growing economy and a deep commitment to democracy.
The story of an emerging regional leader that is taking on a new role in the region commensurate with its increasing economic and political weight.
And the story of Australia and Papua New Guinea – two countries with deep personal bonds and whose futures are and forever will be, completely tied together.
- The Hon Richard Marles is the Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs. This speech was given at the Australia Week Luncheon on March 9, 2012 in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.