An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
IT is mind boggling to think about the future implications of the current agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea to resettle refugees in the ‘land of the unexpected’.
The agreement may both transform this nation and further consolidate its diplomatic ties with its former coloniser.
However educated Papua New Guineans are asking some tough questions. Why are we helping Australia? Do we have a choice in deciding against Australia using us for its own benefit? Is the Manus Island issue a breach of PNG’s sovereignty?
So many unanswered questions but the intricacies of the deal are classified. Officials from foreign affairs, immigration and citizenship services are not at liberty to disclose information on what is happening on Manus nor about the future of the asylum seekers.
This is not good because information is necessary to cultivate a well-informed public opinion and effective decision making.
PNG does not really know what Australians think in regards to the asylum seeker issue although we do know that, like us, they do not have a good understanding of what is going on. Hopefully, the Deakin University conference, ‘PNG in the World’, in September this year may provide a platform.
Australia has cut the amount of money given as aid to channel more into funding the asylum seeker package. That said, regardless of the cut, Australia is still the largest aid donor to PNG.
For so long PNG has been feeding off Australia’s hand. Australia has helped in building classrooms, dormitories, offices, aid posts, hospitals, roads, bridges, the list goes on. These infrastructure developments have helped PNG a great deal.
Australia has also provided human capital in the form of advisors and consultants in various fields to help rehabilitate PNG. Over the years skilled and knowledgeable people have assisted in capacity building.
This has been complemented by the many scholarships given by Australia to help develop the human resources of PNG. The growth and success of the PNG-Australia Alumni Association is a demonstration. The more students Australia educates, the stronger the bilateral relationship.
Trade is also an important part of PNG-Australia relations. Under the Pacific Island Trade Agreement (PICTA) and the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER), PNG has benefited immensely from trading with Australia.
PNG is economically dependent on Australia both for goods that it cannot produce like cheese and milk as well as goods that it can, like chicken, beef, rice and wheat.
On the other hand, the trade agreements have made it difficult for PNG to develop its own dairy and grain industries.
As the saying goes ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’ and PNG is now paying back all the favours by adhering to Australia’s call for help on asylum seekers. Australia has an urgent and controversial matter that is testing the limit of its ability to stop the endless flow of asylum seekers into its territorial waters.
This matter is of international significance because it involves different countries and criminal groups which are smuggling people across sovereign boundaries. Mostly from south-west Asia, the asylum seekers travel to Indonesia where they board small fishing vessels hoping to sneak into Australian territory.
The challenge facing developed countries at the moment is how to close the tap. The flow of asylum seekers and illegal borders crossers aided by people smuggling syndicates is a complex problem that no country can address alone.
PNG is not really part of this problem. It did not induce these individuals to go to Australia nor did it facilitate their journey. So why is PNG helping Australia?
Well, over the years, both countries have developed the understanding that if you scratch my back then I will scratch yours. Australia has been scratching PNG’s back for a long time and now it is PNG’s turn to return the favour.
PNG really did not have a choice. If it did not help Australia there would be repercussions. Perhaps Australian monetary aid to PNG would have dried up.
For so long PNG has depended on Australia. We suffer from dependency syndrome. We have got used to the idea that Australia will always help when we need help. This way of thinking is ingrained into every Papua New Guinean.
PNG sees Australia not as its big brother but as its mother. For years Australia has catered for PNG’s needs and wants. Now this near 39 year old nation is still dependent on its mother, Australia. There seem to be no cure for this syndrome.
PNG is nervous that, if it does not help, then Australia will make sure that PNG feels its wrath.
In good times or bad, Australia has helped PNG just like any parent would do for their child. PNG thinks it cannot survive without Australian support.
When it comes to asylum seekers, due to the nature of the PNG-Australia relationship, PNG does not have a choice, it has to help its benevolent mother.