2012 ENDED ON A NASTY NOTE with the banning in November of Ross Garnaut from entry to PNG for a critical remark he made to Rowan Callick of The Australian.
The comment related to the Sustainable Development Program (SDP), of which till late last year Garnaut was the Chair.
SDP was created by BHP to manage its share of the Ok Tedi mine in 2001. PM O’Neill has made it clear that he thinks BHP should have no say in the running of SDP.
The offending Garnaut quote was: “it’s very tempting for political figures to think of better ways of using it right now rather than putting it into long-term development.” O’Neill justified the resulting ban by saying that “we will not tolerate people of such standing coming in and disrespecting leaders of this country.”
Ross Garnaut has played many roles in PNG since the 1960s, but his main one is now as Chairman of Ok Tedi. I’ve known him for many years, and worked for him twice, so I’m not going to pretend I’m a disinterested observer, but let me make three remarks which I think any disinterested observer would have to agree with, but which, strangely, no one seems to have made so far.
First, it is remarkable just how little attention this issue has received given the stakes involved. Not only is Ok Tedi by far PNG’s largest contributor to government revenue, and an environmental challenge which needs to be managed with care, but it is an operation in relation to which decisions have to be made about mine-life-extension in the next couple of years.
Second, and more importantly, there is an issue of freedom of speech here. People should be able to criticise freely whichever country they want. Individuals should be no more banned for critical comments from countries they don’t belong to than locked up for criticizing their country of citizenship.
Third, where is Australia in all this? The only public response of the Australian Government has been from Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, quoted as saying that “Papua New Guinea was within its rights to block entry to Professor Garnaut” and that “who PNG says is welcome or not in its own country is obviously a matter for PNG.”
Really? Observance of human rights is now entirely a domestic issue for PNG? We insist on democracy in Fiji but not free speech in PNG? Australia has no obligation to support its citizens to undertake lawful business opportunities internationally?
It is hard not to see Manus behind Australia’s lack of protest. The episode is a sad commentary on both governments. Lifting the Garnaut ban would be a good way to start 2013.
Note: At the weekend it was announced that Prof Garnaut had resigned as Ok Tedi chair because of the travel ban.