IN AN EXTRAORDINARY ESCALATION of his dispute with the Papua New Guinea government – a contretemps he says he wishes to “move on” from – businessman-academic Ross Garnaut has called on the Australian government to negotiate an agreement with PNG to “prevent the arbitrary use of its immigration powers to disrupt business between the two countries”.
Speaking to the ABC’s Jemima Garrett, Garnaut said the ban placed on his travel to PNG by the O’Neill government, which resulted in his resignation as chairman of the Ok Tedi mining company, “was a low point for Australian diplomacy generally, a low point for PNG development and a low point for Papua New Guinea democracy."
Reads like hyperbole to me.
Garnaut was supported in what could be considered an intemperate outburst by a colleague, Dr Stephen Howes from the Australian National University, who wrote in an opinion piece on the Development Policy Blog (article below) that the Australian government should have criticised the ban
"Australia should be supporting free speech in PNG and Australia should certainly be supporting the rights of its citizens to engage in lawful business activities in other countries." Howes said.
In response, PNG prime minister O’Neill has said Garnaut’s remarks were ill-informed and accused BHP Billiton of having a “colonial mentality”.
Yesterday BHP, which itself seems in need of a cold shower, amongst other things accused O’Neill of improper dealings in the granting of exploration licences.
O’Neill retaliated, saying that BHP failed to accept the enormous favour PNG did the company when it 'allowed it to relinquish its ownership of Ok Tedi without accepting financial or moral responsibility for the enormous environmental and social damage' that occurred in the Western Province.
O'Neill said BHP Billiton and Garnaut allege he wants to commandeer the funds of the PNG Sustainable Development Program which, O'Neill said, is both factually wrong and personally offensive.
PNGSDP is a $1.4 billion charitable trust set up by BHP when it handed over its shares in Ok Tedi to Papua New Guinea.
The Garnaut imbroglio poses something of a dilemma for the Australian government, which Howes believes should have issued a “public protest” when O'Neill put the travel ban in place.
There’s a plausible (and ethical) argument to be made that Australia's foreign policy approach to PNG should make it clear it does not condone bad policy, although the diplomatic nuances of such a posture are complex.
But, if Manus was the main consideration here, as Howes proposes, real politik within Australia would dictate that the government steer well clear of the tangled issue of Garnaut, PNGSDP and O’Neill’s sensitivity to what does appear to be an outbreak of neo-colonial expression.
In an election year, Julia Gillard and Bob Carr certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that might stimulate greater controversy than already exists around the Manus refugee camps (and O’Neill is already encountering resistance to the initiative from Belden Namah).
But most of all they wouldn’t want to jeopardise the newly strengthened and energised friendship with the PNG government, with O’Neill being central to this.
Papua New Guinea’s strategic importance in the China-Pacific era has dawned on our politicians and the need for a stable, friendly PNG has become a paramount goal.
Carr learned last year than intervening, even rhetorically, in PNG government affairs is a dangerous place to be.
One can perhaps criticise the PNG government over its heavy handed approach to the Garnaut issue, but it seems a pity that Garnaut - a man of great experience in such matters - didn’t handle the issue more sensitively and maturely himself.
Now he has resigned with all guns blazing – creating an impression that in transit he wishes to damage the Australia–PNG relationship. And he’s been joined in this little jaunt by BHP and an ANU academic.
Ross Garnaut and his supporters should undertake a short course on storms, teacups and the futility of immoderate behaviour.