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Turnbull in PNG: media snubs, refugee jitters & money problems

Malcolm Turnbull at Bomana War CemeteryKEITH JACKSON

THAT was one strange weekend Malcolm Turnbull just spent in Papua New Guinea on his first official visit, even if at first glance the running sheet looked typical enough.

The usual Aussie-prime-minister-in-PNG schedule was dusted off trotting out a tête-à-tête with the PNG PM, a Bomana-Kokoda experience and a business breakfast dominated by expats. Nothing new there.

But otherwise there were some bizarre deviations, including a mix-up which left the PNG media believing it hadn’t been invited to a Turnbull press conference.

As ABC PNG correspondent Erik Tlozek put it in a Facebook post: ““I am disappointed and embarrassed that my PNG media colleagues felt they were not allowed to attend this morning’s press conference with Malcolm Turnbull at Bomana.

“If Australia wants to show that its government is open to media scrutiny, surely it should welcome journalists to a presser held in their own country.”

Later SBS journalist Stefan Armbruster added to this by tweeting: “Hear from sources [that] PNG journalists excluded from Turnbull presser post-Kokoda wreath-laying. [They] were told it's an ‘Australian thing’.”

An Australian thing?

This was later rendered by New Zealand journalist Michael Field as: “Some Australian journos now using Facebook to say sorry for the Whites-Only press briefing Turnbull had in PNG: Melanesians journos were excluded” – not quite on the money but an understandable interpretation.

The Australian High Commission in PNG later apologised for what was described as "a misunderstanding".

As Radio New Zealand's Johnny Blades reported, "the fact that only Australian journalists had access to Mr Turnbull during this leg says a lot about how Canberra conducts its business in PNG."

Turnbull further raised the ire of Papua New Guineans and refugee support groups by sidling away from one of the key issues in the Australia-PNG relationship – the future of asylum seekers stranded on Manus Island.

He didn’t address the issue front on, preferring to use the evasive words, “one step at a time.”

This prompted Manus MP Ron Knight to tweet: “He hasn't even the courtesy of meeting the Manus leaders or coming here to see himself the problem. No respect.”

Turnbull’s immigration minister Peter Dutton was not as reticent as his boss, airily telling PNG the refugees were its problem, not Australia's,

This provoked a sharp rebuff from Transparency PNG's gritty chairman Lawrence Stephens: “You haul people illegally into PNG. Now they become PNG's problem? Come on!”

Dutton doubled down with what read like a ‘stuff you PNG’ statement: “We’ll be withdrawing the assets from Manus Island. We are not going to have a detention centre there for other uses. We’re not going to have facilities being used or repurposed. The centre will be dismantled.”

So there, PNG. We'll trash all the stuff we gave you and go home.

Turnbull had earlier run into criticism about the timing of his trip from former PNG prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta.

Morauta said Turnbull had placed himself in a "dangerous position", especially "with the prospect of a new government just around the corner".

Turnbull dismissed the complaint, saying the timing of his visit was "entirely unrelated" to any domestic political events in PNG and that the election was a matter for the people of PNG "absolutely".

Before departing Port Moresby for India, Turnbull also was forced to deflect questions about PNG's poor economic performance.

Asked if it was a concern to Australia that the PNG government was "broke", Turnbull said this was a matter for the PNG government.

Not entirely the case, though, as just a couple of weeks ago Australia effectively refused to bail out PNG who had asked that the half billion dollars of tied Australian aid be used instead to prop up its budget.

Australia had said no.

Oh, and a footnote to that business breakfast with Malcolm Turnbull. Christine Aiwa - executive assistant to the managing director of the Post-Courier - paid K900 for four senior journalists to attend.

"But the waiters were instructed not to serve our journalists any breakfast; one was only given an orange juice," she wrote on Facebook.

"That's discriminating. I will not stop until I get the full refund of K900 back, and I want an apology."

It was, all in all, quite a weekend. 


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Barbara Short

Just listened to the Press Club talk by Chris Richardson. Turnbull has to work at getting Australia new markets in case China collapses. At the moment he is working with India, then there is Indonesia, then the Philippines, then Vietnam... so I guess PNG needs to join the queue. Ha!

Peter Sandery

Well, Kevin Byrne, written like an apologist for the great Wentworth Waffler. I don't think Tony Abbot, Kevin Andrews or Eric Abetz, to mention three Australian parliamentarians would share the same view of MT's characteristics.

One of the inevitable results of PNG's final steps down the path of failed state status will result in a huge influx of disenfranchised Western Province people to Queensland, being driven there by frustration at actually receiving very little from "developments" in their province since Ok Tedi's start up and the skulduggery surrounding the "Border Villages Issue" in relation to the Torres Strait Treaty, problems which have been clearly documented and delivered to DFAT and the relevant Australian parliamentary committees on more than one occasion, only to be completely ignored by all.

I would have thought that there would be sufficient switched analysts in Australia to have picked up on his issue by now - it is, the border villages at least, more than 35 years old.

Kevin Byrne

The breakfast was organised by another group so linking this to a snub with racial undertones by the PM and Australia is cheap rubbish. Nothing would have been further from the truth and I know the Aussie side would have no truck with this.

Further it is well known PNG is struggling financially so why is this Australia's problem or as suggested part of their doing. PNG is a mature country who of 40 years of post independence rule have demonstrated little interest in seeking any advice and less interest in following it.
You reap what you sow.

Were they snubbed at Bomana? Would not have thought so. Australia is not normally known for this. PNG journos need to get more assertive and be part of the gig.

I am a proud Aussie and I suspect that much of this report is a pretty miserable attempt to portray another visit on an Aussie PM as a failure. It happens all the time.

Turnbull is a charming man. Is it any wonder that visiting PNG is not high on the agenda.

Mathias Kin

Ya.... Turnbull tanim tanim na embarassim other Aussies. Turnbull yu no tru fren blo mi, yu giaman man, pipia man.

Andrew Phillips

Seems like satire. Embarrassing and disgusting behavior. Aussie government needs to be held accountable.

Barbara Short

Unbelievable! Sounds like he is not interested in PNG.

He appears to only be interested in countries if they can offer him something.

Gone on to India where he will talk to some rich Indian who is going to invest billions in Queensland and at the same time grease up the Indians so they will buy more from Australia.

My apologies to PNG, especially the journalists! Australians aren't all like that. But at least we are still giving you some help.

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