I’M ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD but, by reading the lines and between the lines, I’m going to analyse Australian prime minister Julia Gillard’s just completed three-day visit, nominally but not substantively to Papua New Guinea.
Strangely, Ms Gillard's first visit to PNG was spent entirely in Port Moresby.
I wonder who was the last national leader to visit Australia to spend all three days in Canberra.
Ms Gillard had her visit preceded by a succession of underlings - the increasingly impressive parliamentary secretary Matt Thistlethwaite and the consistently unimpressive foreign minister Bob Carr. Clearly some issues were on the table and some ‘announceables’ ready to release.
But none turned out to be truly earth-shattering.
Well, it had to be politics, hadn’t it, and it had to be the politics of being a stateswoman and regional leader.
(Although the Melanesian Spearhead Group nations would have something to say about any Australian posturing in that latter direction.)
It also had to be anout the politics of visiting Papua New Guinea per se, correcting a serious oversight in her four-year term as leader of a country that professes a ‘special relationship’ with Australia’s former colony but which Gillard PM had hitherto pretty well ignored.
The visit did not all go to plan.
As Steven Scott wrote in the Brisbane Courier-Mail: “It was a warm greeting that echoed the hero's welcome the Australian Prime Minister received as she toured Port Moresby… As she left talks with her PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill, Ms Gillard strode past a guard of honour formed by highly decorated Huli Wingmen…
“But inside [parliament house], Ms Gillard faced a more frosty reception from Mr O'Neill, who repeatedly expressed frustration at what he called Australia's ‘insulting’ attitude to visa arrangements for his citizens.”
Twice Mr O'Neill confronted Ms Gillard about her refusal to offer Papua New Guineans faster visa processes: once at an official dinner and again at a private meeting.
For her part, the Australian prime minister conceded her plans to introduce an online visa for regular business travellers would not satisfy Mr O’Neill, adding that she did not want to risk an increase in medical refugees from PNG.
Could there be an excuse more spurious?
"PNG is a nation, to take one example, with greater rates of TB than us, so it's appropriate to do health checking before visas are extended," Ms Gillard said. The woman sure knows how to kick someone when they’re down.
Ms Gillard also clashed with Mr O'Neill over his plans to introduce death penalty laws. PNG Attitude has previously expressed the view that this is a domestic matter for PNG and not one in which Australia’s involvement is either proper or welcome, except perhaps in a more universal context in which the United States, China, Indonesia and other important ‘partners’ would feature.
“The Australian immigration detention centre on Manus Island rated only a brief mention,” wrote AAP’s Eoin Blackwell with Mr O'Neill saying he was “pleased that prime minister Gillard is working with us to start construction [on an improved facility]."
The Australian government expects to start work on the permanent centre in July.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian Bernama news agency reported that the Australian government has transferred a third group of 21 Vietnamese asylum seekers from Darwin to Manus.
The men, described as low-risk detainees, had previously escaped from the Northern Territory Immigration Detention Centre, which the Australian government clearly feels is a far inferior destination to Manus for such wily operators.
The centrepiece of the visit was the signing of a joint declaration (far from the first) of ‘new partnership’ to strengthen cooperation between the two countries.
“This 2013 declaration points the way to a new level of cooperation based on mutual trust, respect and common values,” Ms Gillard said. “We must build relationships that stand the test of time during the pressures and changes that accompany the Asian century.”
I guess that sounds statesmanlike. Or blatherly.
Apart from (another) ‘new’ agreement to enhance defence cooperation, Australia has agreed to help PNG improve its policing through the third phase of the PNG-Australia Policing Partnership.
"It's a model where police would be made available to participate in advisory roles," Ms Gillard told a press conference. "We will look to broaden that, to recruit former [Australian] police to work in PNG."
Mr O'Neill said there had been a 10-year gap in police training in PNG, and the scheme would also focus on training police in prosecution and investigation.
Eoin Blackwell reminded us “in 2005, PNG's Supreme Court turfed out Australian police who had been brought in to walk the beat in the country, ruling their appointment was unconstitutional. Mr O'Neill said the new program would be different.”
Well, we will see.
“The PNG women in business initiative will support PNG businesses to facilitate connections between women in business and enhance the status of women in workplaces,” according to an AusAID news release.
But the funding for this - at $1 million over five years - is hardly generous. One consultant perhaps?
Ms Gillard's last engagement was a visit to the Bomana War Cemetery outside the capital Port Moresby. The ABC’s Liam Fox reported her as saying she was pleased she had time to visit the cemetery.
"I've come here to PNG to commemorate our past and to build for our future," Ms Gillard said.
But what did the three day visit – the first by an Australian prime minister to PNG in five years – achieve in a practical sense?
Agreements renewed, fine words spoken, a little money given away and the burning visa question unresolved, in fact probably intensified
A bit of gloss for Julia Gillard perhaps? I can’t see it. The Australian prime minister is looking like a lame duck with each successive public opinion poll.
And – just as Ms Gillard has shown in Australia – there was no coherent vision expressed for the future direction of the PNG-Australia relationship.
It’s this lack of real understanding about the nature and purpose of government that will bring down Ms Gillard and he government in September.
Papua New Guinea will then need to get down to business with the people who seem likely to lead Australia for the next six years or more.
So where do you stand on a fair and non-discriminatory visa system, Julie Bishop?
Factual sources: Steven Scott, Brisbane Courier-Mail; Bernama News Agency; Thomas Whittle, Xinhua News Agency; AusAID; Eoin Blackwell, AAP Papua New Guinea Correspondent; Liam Fox, ABC Papua New Guinea Correspondent