BY DANIEL FLITTON
THE AGE / The National Times
AUSTRALIA HAS STRUCK A DEAL with Papua New Guinea to help smooth a "watershed" election this year with hopes of encouraging political stability in the troubled Pacific nation.
Australia's high commissioner to Port Moresby Ian Kemish told The National Times that he expected the election to be a historic sign of generation change — a shift that has also been evident in tensions over recent months between prime minister Peter O'Neill and ousted rival Sir Michael Somare.
The support package will include two Australian army helicopters to ferry local officials to polling booths across the country, some 30 computers to help clean up the electoral role and the injection of senior Australians into the PNG election commission to act as advisers.
Australian Federal Police have also completed a new $2.5 million communications network for local police to respond to any outbreaks of trouble.
But Mr Kemish said no Australian police are to be deployed to PNG to provide a "bobby on the beat" after PNG rejected moves by the previous Howard government for police co-operation.
"You can really say now the country is at a political watershed," Mr Kemish said. "This election in June to July this year will be historic — people have said that before, but it will be this time around."
Mr Kemish said the transformation of the PNG economy was often underestimated, with a resources boom in natural gas expected to leap by a massive 25% in 2015.
"There are no real ifs or buts about that, it's in the nature of these projects that the gas is already sold when you commence the project," he said.
Mr Kemish said Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and foreign minister Kevin Rudd had played an important behind-the-scenes role in recent weeks as concerns over PNG spiked after an attempted military mutiny.
Mr Kemish said there was a remarkable calm in the country despite the upheaval, with the courts and the bulk of the police and army all resisting immense political pressure to intervene.
"PNG has a way of holding itself together but we do have to be watchful and not take anything for granted," he said.