AUSTRALIA is again looking on, more or less helplessly, at a political and constitutional crisis among one of its Pacific neighbours, friends and, in this particular case, former colonies.
Last week Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill was served with a warrant requiring him to submit to questioning on official corruption charges, relating to a payment to lawyers said to have been authorised by him.
In the aftermath, the police commissioner and, apparently, an assistant commissioner were sacked by the O'Neill government, and replaced by another assistant commissioner, himself the subject of charges of perverting the course of justice. There is a a fresh Attorney-General sworn in after O'Neill dispensed with the services of another.
After a while, the various manoeuvres, charges and counter-charges – even some of the fresh allegations made – have less significance in themselves than as evidence of O'Neill's determination to hold on to power, whatever damage he does to the rulebook and nation's institutions along the way. He has, at least at the moment, overwhelming parliamentary support, though no shortage of enemies and rivals.
PNG has seen it all before, with any number of its political leaders, just as have others of its neighbours, including Nauru, the Solomons, Fiji and Vanuatu. The usual root cause is corruption or alleged corruption, usually involving the diversion to the higher political classes of money desperately needed if the nations themselves are to provide basic health and education services, law and order and economic and social development.
Australia's interests are engaged in these crises, particularly so whenever the political and social stability of PNG is threatened. We give PNG, and other Pacific nations, substantial aid. Some is directly to strengthen and help maintain some of the very institutions that are being so ill-used.
But our aid is also to help in the planning, organisation and delivery of badly needed basic services at community level. The quality and quantity of this service delivery had been deteriorating over recent decades, partly because of poor national, regional and local decision-making, but also partly because national politicians have diverted to themselves money which ought to have been used in service development. Beyond such economic matters, however, the Pacific is our neighbourhood, and its people are our friends.
The crisis in PNG is particularly worrying because it as been on the verge of fresh wealth and opportunity from natural gas development. Yet the very nature of the brawl suggests that the politicians and the political class are fighting among themselves about the divvie-up of the bonanza, and about just how much of the spoils of development should be used to line the pockets of top politicians and bureaucrats.
The obvious venality of the political class in PNG does considerable harm, within and without. It often deprives the most isolated and poor any sort of local investment in community development, especially in better health and in education. It embitters the have-notes, and reduces their trust in the institutions of the community, including in the law.
Corruption inevitably spreads downwards, and has, in particular, partially incapacitated the police, making them unable either to maintain order, or to detect crime and bring malefactors before the courts for punishment. Just as significantly, the nation as a whole pays for official corruption not only in higher prices for goods and services, but international disdain and unwillingness to invest other than at premium returns.
By and large, the problems of a PNG are there in spite of, not because of, the legacies of the colonial past. But that very past makes difficult any Australian, or western, action smacking of the paternalist, the neo-colonialist, or the neighbourhood bully.
Indeed, even the claim of Australian interference or taking sides often aggravates the problems. It is thus wise counsel, generally, for Australia to keep its distance and to hope that the issues can be resolved locally, legally and with an absolute minimum of violence.
All the more so when at least one of the proximate sources of local political tension is a favour being done to Australia by Peter O'Neill, at some cost to his local popularity, over the detention of Australian asylum seekers at Manus Island.