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Disappointment for PNG in Gillard ministry

BY KEITH JACKSON

CONTRARY TO SUGGESTIONS before Australia’s recent Federal election, a Pacific Island Affairs portfolio is not included in the new ministerial line-up announced this afternoon by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The role of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs - last occupied, and with distinction, by Duncan Kerr - was abolished without explanation in 2009 by the Rudd Government. The portfolio had been expected to be reinstated by Gillard.

Australia had been thought to have been ready to place renewed emphasis on regional relationships as a result of the growing volatility of neighbourhood politics: China’s creeping incursion into the south-west Pacific; the backing of the Melanesian states, including PNG, for renegade Fiji’s aggressive attitude to Australia and New Zealand; and the strategic uncertainties posed by a brittle and morally-challenged government in PNG.

Prior to the Federal election, PNG’s High Commissioner to Australia, the respected Charles Lepani, publicly praised Australia’s relationship with PNG under a Labor government and intimated that the ALP, if elected, would do better than the Coalition with its PNG relations.

Well, if the new Gillard ministry was a test of that hopeful attitude, we'd have to so far mark it a 'Fail'.

But there is a chance of redemption provided new Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is willing to reprise the enthusiasm he showed for the Australia-PNG relationship when he became prime minister in 2007.

Like much of Rudd’s early promise, that initial effervescence was not sustained – as the demise of the Pacific Island Affairs portfolio showed.

We caMarles_Richardn still hope, however, that one of the new Foreign Affairs parliamentary secretaries - Justine Elliot and Richard Marles - may be given the Pacific Affairs gig.

 While Elliot has no link with PNG, Richard Donald Marles, the member for Corio in Victoria [left], has first-hand experience.

The 43-year old, with degrees in Law and Science from Melbourne University, worked with PM Gillard’s old law firm Slater and Gordon for indigenous landowners on the successful Ok Tedi litigation against BHP's environmental despoliation.

Marles later became Assistant Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions before being elected to federal parliament in 2007.

Comments

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Stephen Cox

I agree with what has been said [about Australia and PNG] but while Australia has dropped the ball at a political level we must not forget there are many Australians who in official capacities continue to serve our Pacific neighbours with good faith. These officials are not always in government organisations but often with NGO's.

With a sister working with the Red Cross and a cousin filling an official role in Micronesia and elsewhere in the region previously, I am aware that we do have many good people around the Pacific and elsewhere.

Whether these people are getting the required support from Australia's government is hard to quantify, but either way we Australians who believe in being good neighbours will do what we can.

Sadly many have taken our good and loyal friends for granted for much too long, and I daresay this point can be applied in different degrees to many people around the South West Pacific region.

We all know that only one Pacific neighbour takes a stand for the Melanesian peoples of West Papua.

Possibly the current paralysis at a government level in some countries is due to lack of genuine leaders who have the courage to stand up and grasp the nettle for the good of their people.

Alex Harris

Well said, Keith. Australia has for the past decade failed to engage with our near neighbours in any kind of meaningful way, leaving a dangerous vacuum that China is only too happy to fill.

I was only reading yesterday the article on this blog about the failures of AusAID in PNG.

One can only hope that a lawyer so intimately familiar with the negatives of our Australia-PNG relationship can, and will, want to turn the page on a disastrous chapter of foreign relations to make a far more positive and lasting contribution to the welfare of all our neighbours, for all our sakes.

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