Australia–Papua New Guinea relations: from ‘maturing’ to ‘uncertainty’ in one afternoon


The signing of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea has changed the nature of the bilateral relationship, says the Lowy Institute’s Jenny Hayward-Jones.

The Lowy Institute's Jenny Haywood-Jones

The Lowy Institute’s Jenny Hayward-Jones

Australia under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and Papua New Guinea under Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, had been on the verge of—if not enjoying—a mature bilateral relationship. Moves begun during talks between Kevin Rudd and Sir Michael Somare to broaden the relationship beyond aid came to fruition under Gillard and O’Neill, with the 10 May signature of the Joint Declaration for a New Papua New Guinea during Gillard’s visit to PNG.

This Declaration was intended to recognise the broadening and deepening of the bilateral relationship. It focused on democracy, economic and development cooperation, law enforcement and defence cooperation, border issues and regional and international cooperation—all indicators of a mature relationship between two neighbours. Trade and investment ties are strong and business is playing a bigger role in the bilateral relationship.

All of this good work has now been overshadowed since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 14–15 July visit and the events of 19 July.

Now that it is all about asylum seekers, what might change from hereon in?

O’Neill has claimed that this deal has delivered something ‘every PNG Prime Minister in the past has wanted to achieve’ – that is, a realignment of Australia’s aid program with Papua New Guinea’s priorities. But Kevin Rudd’s own 2008 Partnership for Development was designed to be a change in approach which aligned Australian aid more closely with Papua New Guinea.

The new Joint Understanding between Australia and Papua New Guinea on further bilateral cooperation on health, education and law and order signed as part of the asylum seeker deal sees Australia agree to enhance cooperation in the same priority areas that are part of the existing Partnership.

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No change to aid delivery

Prime Minister O’Neill may well be promoting the enhanced leverage he has won over Australian aid as part of this deal to convince a concerned public, but apart from the additional package and perhaps softer Australian political rhetoric about PNG’s responsibilities, it is unlikely that much will change in the short term in the way aid is delivered on the ground in PNG.

Even priority issues like law and order, education and health might struggle to get a look in during high level bilateral meetings over the next year.

The risk is that the enormity of both the task PNG has agreed to take on for Australia in processing asylum seekers and resettling those deemed to be refugees, and the financial costs Australia will need to bear under the deal, will completely dominate the relationship—to the exclusion of other very important issues like the trade and investment relationship and the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund.

Even priority issues like law and order, education and health might struggle to get a look in during high level bilateral meetings over the next year.

The sorry saga has also revealed some pretty ugly misconceptions and offensive views about Papua New Guinea in Australia’s political class and the commentariat.

After a sustained period of improvement at the political level, this risks being a major setback for the relationship. PNG High Commissioner Charles Lepani has issued a press release calling on Australian politicians to observe international protocols and courtesies in relation to discussions about the asylum seeker deal.

Everybody’s talking about …

One benefit is that the deal has put PNG front and centre of the policy debate in Australia.

Everyone is talking about Papua New Guinea.

There will be many more Australia ministers and officials making regular trips to PNG. But unfortunately all this attention is unlikely to provide much benefit to the majority of Papua New Guineans or help in advancing the bilateral relationship.

Now, more than ever, it will be up to business, civil society and ordinary citizen-to-citizen links to sustain the friendship between the two countries.

Jenny Hayward-Jones is Director of the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

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