This morning I took the opportunity of visiting the High Commissioner at the Haus Tamberan in Canberra; a courtesy call on an old friend and contemporary for a chat about one of the most important international relationships for both our countries.
Charles is a keen reader of PNG Attitude and was full of praise for the Crocodile Prize and its associated activities.
But beyond the domestic concerns of this blog, he is a practical visionary who is working to substantially strengthen and advance the PNG-Australia relationship.
I’ll get on to what this means shortly, but first I should mention that the High Commissioner – previously very critical of AusAID’s performance in relation to PNG – now believes the organisation has turned a corner and is functioning effectively in the interests of both countries.
Certainly I had observed that the once strident criticism of AusAID in PNG Attitude has been absent for most of this year. Silence has been golden.
Another issue on which Charles Lepani is working energetically is in trying to free up the onerous visa requirements that apply to Papua New Guinean visitors coming to Australia; conditions that do not apply to Australians entering PNG – for whom visa formalities are minimal.
The limitations on Papua New Guineans can have devastating consequences. Like the recent example of young student in Canberra, diagnosed with an advanced brain tumour, whose parents were unable to see her before she died – because visas could not be organised quickly enough through the tortuous processes required.
This is not an isolated incident and, in my view, reflects great shame on Australia.
But I feel confident that, with Charles and PNG’s new foreign minister Rimbink Pato on the job, we’ll soon see some changes.
And here’s the visionary bit I referred to. Equality in visa conditions is really part of Australia recognising the sovereignty of PNG as a nation equivalent to itself in every respect.
Like the way the ‘boomerang aid’ component of Australia’s development assistance program was rooted out under Kevin Rudd’s leadership a couple of years ago.
Charles Lepani, on behalf of his government, has a vision for the PNG-Australia relationship.
He wants to see it established on a new, equivalent and more mature footing – and he is working in practical ways to achieve this goal.
It is imperative for both our countries that his important idea of a cooperating and friendly ‘archipelagic arc’ in the south-west Pacific is realised and that Australia stops looking to Asia through PNG as if our one-time colony was of little consequence.
Once Australia begins to fully accept PNG’s critical role as a strategic partner of ours, and as PNG's aid dependence diminishes, which it will, the basis of the relationship will be equivalent, sound and sustainable.
Australia and PNG are fortunate to have Charles Lepani – a charming man of vision and practicality – helping guide this process through.