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Six ways Albanese’s visit can help PNG

By Anthony Bergin and Daniel Mandell

Next week, Anthony Albanese will make his first visit to Papua New Guinea as prime minister, where he will deliver a historic address to the parliament.

The visit will provide a significant opportunity for Australia to prioritise PNG as one of our most important relationships.

Arguably the most important area in which Australia can support PNG is defence and security. As an archipelagic nation with a large exclusive economic zone and complicated borders with its neighbours, PNG’s domestic maritime and border security forces need equipment, funding, and better coordination to enable them to do their jobs.

The PNG Defence Force and Royal PNG Constabulary have insufficient resources deployed to border areas. PNG’s 720-kilometre border with Indonesia, as well as the maritime border with Solomon Islands are not well patrolled on the PNG side.

We should explore with PNG the creation of a joint coastguard or maritime police force and involve the US and possibly Japan, (the Japanese Coast Guard have helped in training regional coast guards), for law enforcement in PNG’s waters.

Australia can help PNG more directly by assisting it with the development of strategies for maritime and border security, including ways to coordinate the many PNG agencies concerned with these missions. Addressing this problem should be a priority for Australia since a lack of security in PNG means illegal migrants, drugs, and other prohibited goods can more easily reach Australia.

Related, but no less important given China’s wish to increase its presence in the region, Australia should offer to initiate a project to enhance the port facilities and airfield at Milne Bay. 

Upgraded facilities there would offer better potential defensive coverage of the vital Solomon and Coral Seas than Manus Island, which lies more than 500 nautical miles to the north.

There would be many economic and social benefits that would accrue to PNG in building a strategically convenient, multipurpose port facility and airport at minimal cost. The United States and Japan may be interested in assisting, making it a prime candidate for funding under the Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership.

Australia may also be able to assist PNG in strengthening its criminal prosecution abilities. PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko recently expressed frustration at the ability of the country’s police to build cases that stand up in court.

“Our police are very good at getting the arrest done, but I think the problem that we have in PNG is in concluding the process and making sure that that person ends up in jail and gets the full force of the law put upon them,” he said.

The inability to properly investigate, develop a case, and prosecute following an arrest isn’t unique to PNG. Other Pacific islands face similar problems: a lack of sufficient numbers of experienced law enforcement officials and lawyers who are capable of handling a complex criminal matter in court.

As a potential solution, Australia could work with like-minded partners to develop a regional legal centre of excellence. Such a centre could provide a full suite of services to legislators, prosecutors, judges, and private practice lawyers including training, the publishing of statutes and regulations, and the hosting of a modern electronic database to enable legal research. It could also have experienced legal professionals “on call’ who can provide support on an as-needed basis to countries throughout the region.

A further area where Australia can help PNG is in visa application and processing procedures. There are reports of senior PNG businesspeople being unable to attend scheduled business meetings or bilateral conferences in Australia as a result of slow visa processing. By the same token, PNG has continued to fail to issue on-arrival short-term business visas for Australians. The withdrawal of multiple-entry business visas also has been problematic for many Australian business visitors. Australia should work with PNG to reduce obstacles – on both sides of the border – for travel between the two countries.

Finally, the Australian government should do a better job of leveraging the full benefit of private sector business intelligence in the bilateral relationship. Australian businesses can provide unique insights into the operations of the PNG government and the needs of its people. Using this knowledge will enhance Australia’s ability to craft an appropriate and effective government policy to bolster the bilateral relationship.

We should hope Albanese brings along plenty of Australian business leaders on his flight to Port Moresby. Having business leaders at the table during his discussions in PNG will help build greater confidence about Australia’s support for PNG’s continued economic development, while at the same time conveying a message to the Marape government about the importance of supporting a stable business environment.

The prime minister has a historic opportunity to demonstrate to PNG the importance Australia places on the bilateral relationship. From maritime and border security, to strengthening legal capabilities, to engaging with the private sector, Australia has a variety of ways in which it can help PNG continue its development to the benefit of both nations.

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 06 Jan 2023