In Papua New Guinea, there are almost 90,000 people displaced by violence. Kleptocracy and fraudulent election allegations are all on the rise. Australia’s development and diplomacy treads a fine line between respecting the sovereign domestic affairs of its partners, and speaking up when it comes to democratic principles and human rights protections.
People are asking how long Australia can ignore these trends in PNG, and what is at stake by doing so? We go straight to the experts to grapple with these questions and consider whether a new policy foreshadowed by Wong is a good time for an Australian rethink.
CONTENT WARNING: This edition of The Intel contains references to violent incidents that may be confronting for our readers. For confidential support, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
Papua New Guinea staggered through its National General Elections in July, 2022. It was marred by violence, death and widespread allegations of rigging.
Recent general elections have typically been violent, shambolic affairs costing lives and engendering deep fissures in many communities. Yet at each electoral cycle, Papua New Guineans approach the ballot box with trepidation and a tiny amount of hope that their democracy remains somewhat intact and functional.
PNG’s women continue to bear the greatest losses. Violence, intimidation, and sexual assault remain the most eggregious impediments to women voting freely.
Shortly after Marape was first elected PM in 2019, 15 women and children were massacred in Karida, Hela Province – Marape’s home province. Marape took to Facebook to issue an impotent warning to the perpetrators. Two years on, the perpetrators of this chilling massacre remain at large.
In 2022, after machete wielding men were seen on the streets of Port Moresby, Marape responded to calls for a curfew and general action to stem the violence by asking Papua New Guineans not to believe what they saw on social media – his tone of condescension not entirely lost on a horrified public.
In all this, Australia remained silent. No doubt watching as Papua New Guineans burnt ballot boxes, ambushed and shot voters and murdered 18 people in a massacre in Enga Province. Australian representatives in PNG tweeted about innocuous DFAT-related events, seemingly oblivious to the violence and death during a time when Papua New Guineans expect to exercise their most basic democratic right.
Papua New Guineans have long bristled at Australia’s colonial condescension in the Pacific and yet, we found its silence during this period deeply concerning and indicative of Australia’s lack of any real commitment to peace, law and order and safe elections in PNG. We do not expect Australia to step in yet Australia’s silence has revealed much more about what Australia would do in times of deep division and instability in PNG – not much.
Elvina combines the sharp mind of a lawyer, the prose of a stylist and throws in a dose of wicked humour wherever she goes. Like many irreverent people, Elvina’s humour disguises a strong moral core and headshaking despair at people who know what is going on but who refuse to name the problems they see. Elvina’s podcast is a must listen for anyone wanting a window into contemporary Papua New Guinea. Her tweets ‘say out loud’ what many think.
Tari, capital of Papua New Guinea’s Hela Province, presides over one of the largest natural gas resource extraction projects in the world. A man suspects his wife of adultery, comes to their house armed with a bushknife, and beheads her while she is suckling their infant child. The child continues to suckle its headless mother. In neighbouring Enga Province, home to one of the world’s largest gold mines, nine women are set on fire, five of them raped with hot iron bars. The township of Mendi burns after rival political candidates enabled their supporters to fight on their behalf using high-powered assault rifles. Meanwhile in Madang Province ten primary school girls are gang-raped as police have been diverted to deal with the election violence in Mendi and elsewhere.
Enough. What diplomatic purpose has Australia’s gratuitous silence come to serve? I write these words not to sensationalise, or to distort a truer picture with excessive displays of misery and trauma. But to give voice to a neglected and wholly unacceptable reality pounding against the high walls of the well-appointed security bubble that is Australia’s High Commission in Port Moresby.
The United States is stepping in. Under the U.S. Global Fragility Act PNG has been named as a priority country for the prevention of violent conflict. The U.S. administration is now legally bound to implement its conflict prevention and stability promotion strategy in PNG. Now may be the time for Australia to speak up, or get out of the way.
Michael is an anthropologist of the Huli people who wears his heart on his sleeve. He calls upon his backgrounds in environmental studies, geology and development studies to take a sometimes no holds barred approach in writing about the lives of the people he meets through his work. He is not afraid to name the problem and at the Lab, we respect Michael’s deep expertise in PNG and dedication in not shying away from tough conversations.
Despite technical pretence, foreign affairs is riddled with best guesses at the best of times and hand wringing at the worst. There is no tougher choice for a developmentally-minded diplomat than what to do in the face of violence, corruption and fraud enabled by a partner Government, or frankly, our own.
So at what point does Australia speak up? I’d answer in two parts. First – now. And second – we need way more than words. We need action.
Indeed, that’s exactly what (some) Papua New Guineans are asking for. Yesterday, Australia took a blow direct from PNG Immigration Minister Bryan Kramer for harbouring a Papua New Guinean elite in Cairns who is charged with defrauding the PNG people of $117m AUD. The Royal PNG Constabulary added that Australian inaction here ‘does not sit well with its broader anti-corruption and security intentions in the region’. There’s often good reason for extradition delay, but nothing stings quite like being accused of hypocrisy.
This isn’t the first incident and nor will it be the last. We can assume the lattes are just about self-frothing inside the Australian High Commission in Moresby, just as they did when Sam Koim accused Australia of being the ‘Cayman Islands of the Pacific’ in 2012. Parliament knows none of this is new and solutions have been proposed before.
A new Government offers a fresh chance to test our risk appetite for saying something and doing more on corruption beyond our borders and behind them too. Last week, Foreign Minister Wong foreshadowed a new development policy is on the cards. It’s time to think about progress in the region, not just projects. Sure, the diplomatic megaphone is one possibility. We should use it more often than we do. But getting down to the robust business of operationalising our relationship with the leaders and communities inside PNG who want to call out violence, fraud and kleptocracy is key too. Here, actions might just speak louder than words.
Bridi is the founder and CEO of the Lab and has recently returned from Washington DC where she was a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Strategic International Studies. The team at the Lab love Bridi’s commitment to creating a space to explore pathways to development that is locally-led, geo-strategically attuned and which represents the best Australia has to offer. She’s known by her peers for expertly gathering different perspectives on issues and working in collaboration to tackle development challenges that lie ahead.