The Parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Duncan Kerr, has reacted positively to concern expressed by the Papua New Guinea Association about his Department’s responses to Association representations.
On 29 June I wrote to Mr Kerr saying: “Since I was elected President of the PNGAA two months ago, the organisation has initiated major changes to strengthen its role in building a better relationship between Australia and PNG. As part of this new approach, the Association has, for the first time, established a PNG Relations function on its national committee and begun to make representations on matters that its members believe will enhance the PNG-Australia relationship at a civil level.
“The Association’s membership, now numbering nearly 1,700, has expanded rapidly over the last year. It seems Australians who served in PNG are rekindling their interest in that country, its people and its affairs. I think you would agree that this is a very positive development.
“Surely if a body such as this makes positive and practical suggestions about the PNG-Australia relationship, the government should respond in a considered way that seeks to encourage dialogue. Form letters, replies that misinterpret the points made and, in the case of the Prime Minister’s office, which I know is not your responsibility, long silences, are disheartening and disrespectful.
“Our members know of your time in Port Moresby and respect you as person who is both knowledgeable of and sympathetic to Papua New Guinea. For our part, I think the PNGAA can be strong advocate for PNG in Australia and a useful resource. In this context, I believe the Association must be engaged with properly not treated dismissively, which has been the sub-text of communications with us so far.”
The next day Mr Kerr asked his chief of staff, Bruce Mitchell, former editor of the Fremantle Herald, to respond in these terms: “Thank you for your letter of June 29, addressed to the Parliamentary Secretary, in which you detail your concerns regarding the Association's relations with the Government. Mr Kerr is seeking to build relationships with people and organisations that share a common interest in broadening Australia's engagement with the Pacific and he welcomes the inclusion of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia as part of this important network.
“Following the election of the Rudd Government-and Mr Kerr's appointment to the Pacific Affairs portfolio-relations with Papua New Guinea have improved markedly. Mr Kerr is keen to further build up these encouraging foundations and he looks forward to meeting with the Association at a mutually convenient time in order to further discuss its ideas.”
Readers will be kept informed of the meeting between the PNGAA and the Parliamentary Secretary, which we hope will be held in the near future. Among matters we wish to raise are the School of the Pacific proposal, the Richardson-Oates initiative for an exchange scheme between public servants in Australia and PNG, funding to locate the wreck of the Montevideo Maru, and seasonal work in Australia for PNG labour.
Photo: Duncan Kerr, replete with bilas, visits a school in PNG