ON Tuesday I had a vigorous exchange of views on Twitter with Dr David Ayres of Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute triggered by continuing debate on PNG's recent election and its often violent aftermath.
David - a straightforward man - let me know in no uncertain terms that he believed my (and others’) expressions of opinion about the chaotic election were over the top.
In fact, he referred to them as “hysteria” and said my own reaction was “punch drunk” – comments he subsequently deleted from Twitter late Tuesday night, as was his right.
During my own tweets that night, I had mentioned my discomfort with reports and articles on the PNG election that have been emerging from the professional commentariat in organisations like the Lowy Institute.
It seems to me these professedly independent think tanks have developed a habit of pulling their punches on the PNG and Australian governments when it might be considered deeper investigation and greater critical analysis would be more appropriate.
I've observed this for some time but, during and after the election, felt there was a failure of these commentators to go the full distance and identify the evident malfeasance, fraud and likely corruption within and surrounding the conduct of the election.
They wrote articles covering important topics relating to the poll but which failed to properly examine the role of the O’Neill government in a process which was chaotic, corrupted (for example, see Paul Flanagan here, Busa Wenogo here and Francis Nii here) and ultimately contributed to death and destruction on a wide scale.
Which leads me to the main point of this piece.
I had in PNG Attitude a couple of weeks ago already commented on the Australian government’s supine response to what had been in many ways a disastrous PNG election.
That piece followed a statement by Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop that the election had been a “success”.
Observing the think tanks' reactions to the election, I mused that, while not quite echoing the foreign minister’s extraordinary complacency, they nevertheless failed to describe the full scope of what had occurred and sheet home responsibility to where it belonged.
This soft treatment of the PNG government by these institutes, and their seeming reluctance to use their resources and position to inquire into the now deeply entrenched corruption at a high level of PNG public life, have become obvious.
Could it be, I conjecture, that this is because these bodies are sensitive to an Australian government that itself is not only nervous not to mention disingenuous in conducting its relationship with PNG but which demands that those it gives money to behave in the same way?
It seems that most if not all of these organisations receive Australian government money, directly or indirectly, and it further appears that – by their actions – they are beholden to the Australian government to the extent that the financial relationship is able skew or at least soften their views.
It can be argued that many of these think tanks have become little better than mouthpieces of Australia’s foreign policy in relation to PNG, a policy which seems acquiescent to PNG government excesses.
A case has been propounded for some time to address such conflicts of interest by detaching the funding process of think tanks from politicians and bureaucrats who use money power to pursue their own partisan objectives.
Proponents of an arm's length approach argue that core funding should be made available not directly but through instruments like the Think Tank Initiative, which you can read about here.
I certainly believe this is a proposition that needs pursuing.
In the meantime, many readers have already responded to Phil Fitzpatrick’s call to urge the ABC Four Corners program to take a close look at Australia’s government to government relationship with PNG.
Thanks to all of them and I encourage other readers who want to see things improved to do the same here: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/contact