SEAN DORNEY | ABC
IAN KEMISH, THE SENIOR AUSTRALIAN DIPLOMAT who has just wound up a three-year posting as High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, says Australians need to develop greater ‘regional literacy’ if they are to understand their near neighbours.
Late last month, Mr Kemish spoke in Brisbane as part of Griffith University's Asia lecture series. After his talk, I sat down with Mr Kemish to flesh out some of the issues he raised.
You spent your childhood in Papua New Guinea and you've obviously been extremely interested in the place. But you mentioned that there seems to be a blind spot in Australia towards Papua New Guinea. Can you explain?
Well, it's a paradox. There are so many Australians who belong to the same tribe as me. People who have an extraordinary level of personal link with the country, people who grew up there, people whose ancestors fought there in the Second World War, people who have modern day connections.
That all exists and there are many, many Australians who have quite deep knowledge and, by the way, affection, for PNG.
But, yeah, there is still in some quarters a surprising lack of knowledge about a country which in the end lies only, well, less than four kilometres from the northern most Queensland islands.
There is a bit of a paradox there and I think there's a responsibility for all of us to think about and talk about what is happening in Papua New Guinea a bit more.
Another comment you made was about a lack of regional literacy in Australia?
My reference was very much in the context of the recently released Australia in the Asian Century white paper. This is a document which amongst other things seeks to promote greater knowledge about Australia's region among Australians: not only in government but in business and academia. And in a positive way I think we should be thinking much more about our expertise on the region - certainly Asia but also the Pacific.
On that point of our expertise you made mention of China's relationship with Papua New Guinea and how we could possibly play a better role in the relationship between the two?
The point I was making is that Papua New Guinea because it's so vibrant, it's so dynamic, at the moment it's attracting interest from many external partners like I mentioned the Americans, I mentioned China as examples of that. And, yes, China's economic engagement in the region is growing.
It's something which we should be constructive about, engage with, you know, any external party. We should be constructive with any party that wants to play a constructive role in our region and certainly in Papua New Guinea.
And I think, you know, more dialogue about how you do development in PNG, a more collaborative approach is very much something that we are on about and certainly our colleagues from other countries, the U.S. and China and others are responding very well to that.
Certainly the United States seems to be paying greater attention?
Yeah. Well, we've had Secretary Clinton visit Papua New Guinea in quite recent times. We now have a Usaid presence in Port Moresby. It's small but there's some useful symbolism there.
We've also got very strong commercial engagement from the United States. Exxon Mobil is of course the lead party in the nation building LNG project which is at the centre of PNG's economic development.
So, sure, the United States as, perhaps, its refocussing on this part of the world is paying some good, welcome, additional attention. Australia is very much the party which should feel a sense of additional responsibility to talk to others and to help guide a collaborative approach.
The Chinese company building the Ramu nickel project has had more than a few problems. Have they sought some advice?
Oh, look, this is very much a commercial venture and by the way there is a small element of that venture that is Australian. Highlands Pacific is an Australian company which has a proportion of that venture which is largely dominated by the Chinese firm.
I think the sorts of experience Ramu Nico has had are very much like the experiences other resource companies have in Papua New Guinea. It is a complex business. It involves a careful, patient, respectful approach in dealing with environmental issues, in dealing with landowner interests.
You've got to step through all that if you want to mount any kind of resource project. And I think the Ramu Nico story is very much that kind of story.
You've had a very interesting three years there. There was all that trouble last year - the confrontation between the Government and the Judiciary. I was interested in your suggestion that consensus in Papua New Guinea has played a stabilising role. Could you explain?
Yeah, I think that is very much the case. It was a confusing period. It was a difficult period for Papua New Guinea. There was a strong leadership struggle between Peter O'Neill and Michael Somare, representatives of two different generations.
It was followed by another kind of struggle about whether the country should stick to its constitutional record and conduct an election. We had a positive outcome from both of those phases of the conflict.
It's hard sometimes for an outsider to understand a leadership struggle that was so bitter, so difficult between O'Neill and Somare, could be resolved with this extraordinarily strong reconciliation between precisely those two people.
Now, Peter O'Neill has no stronger coalition partner than Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare. It's only if you understand the importance of consensus building and reconciliation in PNG society and, I think, in Melanesian society generally that, that you can really explain that. I think that when all was said and done there was a stabilising factor.
If you knew little about Papua New Guinea there were moments over the course of that year where you might have been alarmed - the country's about to go off the rails, things are going to become very difficult. But there is a degree of common sense, there's a degree of underlying calm.
Importantly, the PNG military, the PNG police after some attempt to manipulate them played a proper role. The population remained very calm. And these are quite positive things. I think that that conflict tells us some quite positive things about PNG society.
You also talked about the new leadership and its confidence?
Certainly. This is a generation of people who grew up in an independent Papua New Guinea. They're presiding over an economy which has been growing very rapidly over the course of the past twelve years.
PNG's economy has been among the ten fastest growing economies in the world over the last two years. That gives you a different outlook on life and the world. It's also a country whose population is changing very significantly. It's now seven million. It's by far, if you count Australia, the second largest country in the Pacific.
Of course that is going to provide a different outlook. And there is an inbuilt confidence in PNG culture anyway. I think we're just seeing the restoration of that thirty-seven years on from Independence in some ways. And this is a generation that will want to take each of its external relationships on its merits.
The good news for Australia is that we're still very much regarded as a natural partner. And we have an extraordinary common history and common links that bind us closer together.
Do you see Papua New Guinea playing a bigger regional role?
Certainly. I think we can see that already. Papua New Guinea has been playing, we think, a very helpful role in diplomacy about key regional issues including Fiji. But let's think about how Papua New Guinea has been a significant troop contributor to the Regional Assistance Mission on Solomon Islands for some years now. PNG's even got military observers with the United Nations in Darfur and South Sudan.
Papua New Guineans certainly feel that the country should be playing a more serious regional role. And I think that's all to be welcomed. I think there's a new kind of partner available for Australia in the region. Very positive.
Papua New Guinea can be an extremely complex place. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
People like to categorise themselves as optimists or pessimists. I'll say that I've got a lot of hope about Papua New Guinea and that this is a time of great hope. For all the reasons I've been describing - economic growth; new confidence; new political stability. I think it's a time of great hope.