THE ANTI-CORRUPTION MOVEMENT Transparency International reports that 70% of respondents from Papua New Guinea believe the level of corruption in the country has increased over the past two years, including 46% who said it has increased 'a lot'.
Without wishing to join any 'PNG bashing', it is worth trying to gain a clearer understanding of what Kevin Rudd has promised and whether it is in the interests of either Australia or PNG.
The Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea consists of 11 paragraphs of text.
Although it is labelled a 'regional' arrangement, it is actually a bilateral deal with no other signatories. Under the arrangement, for a period of 12 months PNG agrees 'to accept unauthorised maritime arrivals for processing and, if successful in their application for refugee status, resettlement'.
The implication is that PNG is liable to resettle all those deemed by it to be refugees, though the document refers to other unnamed (and uncommitted) Pacific nations sharing this burden. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has since used the word 'quota' to imply a limited PNG resettlement commitment, without explaining further.
The agreement bears all the marks of a hastily conceived, ill thought out plan — unlike the blockbuster taxpayer-funded advertising campaign that has accompanied it.
The agreement asserts that both countries are abiding by the 'non-refoulement' obligation under the Refugee Convention. It means they must not put refugees in harms way by sending them to a third country.
Some commentators have suggested that PNG — for cultural, religious and economic reasons — is not a destination Australia can genuinely say meets this concern, notwithstanding that PNG is a signatory to the convention.
In this regard, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea stated on 21 July: 'This country [PNG] does not have the capacity at this time in its history to welcome a sizeable influx of refugees and provide for their immediate needs and a reasonable hope for a new and prosperous beginning. The leaders of Papua New Guinea and Australia surely know this and therefore appear to be making a very unwise decision.'
The agreement says all necessary arrangements will be paid for by Australia. Since, under international rules, the money cannot come out of the existing aid budget it must necessarily be new spending. No estimate has been offered of the amount of money likely to be involved. In addition to the costs of moving, housing and processing asylum seekers on Manus Island (and elsewhere), the deal reportedly has been sweetened by Australian promises of additional infrastructure aid. It is in this context that the issue of governance in the country is hotly debated.
Australia's assistance program to PNG is its biggest overseas aid commitment, worth almost $500 million this year. Prime Minister O'Neill said the benefits of the new deal for PNG are 'very, very clear. For the first time we are realigning our aid program ... with the Australians, where we, the Papua New Guinean government, will now set all the priorities under which Australian aid program will be now directed towards [sic]'. By 'realigning' he means taking back control, which has been a major ambition since his government seized office in 2011.
In October last year an analysis by Task Force Sweep, a national corruption watchdog, found that up to half of PNG's 7.6 billion kina (about $3.5 billion) development budget from 2009 through 2011 was lost to corrupt practices or mismanagement by public officials and government departments. The Transparency International report quoted above suggests the situation has got worse.
New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade states, concerning PNG: 'Poverty is pervasive and income disparity is growing, despite several years of macro-economic improvement.' Law and order problems and the highest prevalence of HIV infections in the Pacific are cited as serious threats to development. These, of course, are compelling reasons for Australian aid. How the money is really used, however, is also pertinent. Graham Teskey, an AusAID specialist, wrote about PNG on the Development Policy Centre blog in January:
Politics is shaped by the 'big man' culture, where elites and politicians provide benefits to clients and supporters. MPs spend big to win office and are expected to reward family and supporters appropriately. There is no constraining authority at the political centre to discipline this system of rent management ... More aid may make the problem worse by weakening the incentives to raise revenue domestically and undermining domestic accountability.
O'Neill has made it clear that, flowing from this new deal, he expects Australian funding for a wish list of roads, airports, hospitals and schools. While infrastructure projects are top of the agenda, according to some with first-hand experience of these schemes, poor implementation is a major issue. Philip Hughes, writing for the ANU's 'State, Society and Governance in Melanesia' project, warned:
The state's ability to exercise its functions in this area must be improved dramatically. This undoubtedly would require a suite of major interrelated administrative and legislative reforms ... In reality, in the present economic, political and social climate in PNG it is unlikely that there will be a rapid change in the situation.
A constitutional challenge in PNG to the resettlement agreement could quickly destroy any disincentive value as far as people smugglers are concerned. Under the country's constitution, foreigners may not be detained unless they have broken the law in entering the country.
Since the asylum seekers are being sent there against their will they cannot be held to have entered illegally. This may be surmountable in the longer term, but it suggests — as does the commentary quoted above — that the agreement will go the way of Labor's other 'solutions' to border security.
Walter Hamilton is a former ABC foreign correspondent and author of ‘Children of the Occupation: Japan's Untold Story’