Lowy Institute

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill did something remarkable last Thursday. In a wide-ranging policy speech at a leadership summit in Port Moresby, he acknowledged the oppression of the people of West Papua. It was the first time an incumbent prime minister of Papua New Guinea has spoken directly about the rights of West Papuans in a public forum:

Papua New Guinea today is a respected regional leader. After 40 years of undisturbed democracy, we are in a unique position to lead mature discussions on issues affecting our people in the region.

Our leading role in encouraging Fiji to return to a democratically elected government and voicing our concerns about the plight of our people in New Caledonia are examples of our growing influence. We have also participated in the restoration of democracy and law and order in countries like Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.

But sometimes we forgot our family, our brothers and sisters, especially those in West Papua.

I think as a country the time has come for us to speak about oppression our people. Pictures of brutality of our people appear daily on social media and yet we take no notice. We have the moral obligation to speak for those who are not allowed to talk. We must be the eyes for those who are blindfolded. Again, Papua New Guinea, as a regional leader, we must lead these discussions with our friends in a mature and engaging manner.

O'Neill was careful not to refer to independence or greater autonomy for West Papua. He also made no reference to the latest attempt by West Papuan independence groups to seek membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. But significantly, he referred to West Papuans as 'family', 'brothers and sisters' and 'our people.' This is not quite the same as questioning the sovereignty of Indonesia over West Papua but is a radical departure from previous language. It is notable that in the year that Papua New Guinea celebrates 40 years of independence from colonial rule, the Prime Minister of the most populous Melanesian state has sought to identify with Melanesian populations which are not yet independent – in New Caledonia and in West Papua.

Interestingly, O'Neill indicated he was concerned about the pictures of brutality appearing on social media. If his decision to speak out now was even in part inspired by the images of human rights abuses posted by supporters of West Papua on Facebook and Twitter, this is a breakthrough moment for the influence of activists who use social media for political advocacy in Papua New Guinea. Indeed, those who post pictures on social media of brutality that women experience in Papua New Guinea will hope the Prime Minister may be paying attention to them too.

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O'Neill's remarks will be a blow to Jakarta (see here for comments from Indonesia's Human Rights Commissioner). Indonesia has been working hard to court Melanesian states and has attended Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) meetings as an observer as part of efforts to dissuade the MSG from admitting the West Papuan independence movement as a member. The then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the guest of honour at Fiji's Pacific Islands Development Forum meeting in Fiji last year, demonstrating the importance Indonesia attaches to influencing Melanesian countries.

Although the PNG Government has long carefully managed its relationship with Indonesia and avoided public statements on West Papua, there is much support in the PNG community and among a number of MPs for the West Papuan independence movement. Papua New Guinea's capacity to drive international action on a human rights issues is unproven, but O'Neill will now come under domestic pressure to follow through on his statement. The decision by Indonesia's Foreign Ministry to establish a special working group to 'handle developments and issues relating to Papua' might offer a window for closer engagement with Papua New Guinea on human rights issues.

O'Neill's remarks will have surprised others in the region. O'Neill has been at odds with with Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama over a range of issues, including Fiji's desire to reform regional diplomatic architecture. O'Neill's statement on West Papuan human rights may now leave Fiji as an outlier within the Melanesia Spearhead Group; Vanuatu and Solomon Islands are supporters of West Papuan independence but Bainimarama has been reluctant to endorse West Papuan demands. At a time when Fiji's government is seeking to reclaim regional leadership at the expense of Papua New Guinea's ambitions, this will unnerve Fiji.

The move also wrong-foots Canberra. It would be naïve to imagine Canberra can comfortably stay neutral on this issue. Australia wants a stable relationship between its two nearest neighbours and therefore has an interest in averting tensions over West Papua. The Australian Government's position in relation to West Papuan lobbying efforts has always been that it supports the sovereignty of Indonesia over the provinces of Papua and West Papua, a position shared by the Papua New Guinea Government.

Australia has also been supportive of Papua New Guinea assuming a more significant regional leadership role, consistent with the size of its population, its economy and its potential for growth. Papua New Guinea is a country of some 7 million people and its economy, the largest of the Pacific Island countries, is forecast to grow by 15% in 2015, more than any other country in the world. Canberra can hardly complain if Peter O'Neill has determined that PNG will stand a better chance of recognition as a regional leader if he stands up for the rights of West Papuans. But in so doing, he has changed regional dynamics in the Pacific, probably made them even more difficult for Australia to attempt to manage and may even add to pressure on Australia to act.

Papua New Guinea will host the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' summit this year. The Forum has avoided recognition of West Papua issues in its official pronouncements but discussion this year could be quite different if PNG, this year's chair, campaigns for it.


The count in Fiji's elections is well underway following a smooth, apparently trouble-free poll yesterday. Provisional results are expected today, with the process of allocating seats in parliament to follow. It seems likely that FijiFirst, the party of incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, will form government.

I argued here (Fiji election: More to do to restore democracy) that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy, a sentiment Australia's Foreign Minister echoed last night while welcoming the successful conduct of the elections. From the way the election has been conducted, there are reasons to be confident that Fiji is indeed on the path to building a full democracy. Unfortunately there are also reasons to be worried.

Reasons to be confident:

1. High voter turn-out: reported record numbers of voters coming out to vote indicate public confidence in the process and enthusiasm for participating in democracy. This is important if Fiji's population is ultimately to hold its elected representatives to account and create an impetus for those representatives to do their job.

2. The rise of social media: in Fiji's first election in the age of social media, voters, official observers and journalists excitedly posted photos of the voting experience to Facebook and Twitter. In a country where free speech is constrained and even while a media blackout was in place (which also applied to social media), the determination of Fijians to communicate with each other and with the world about their election bodes well for their willingness to insist on the right to engage openly in public debate.

Reasons to be worried:

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1. A new Secretary-General (Clerk) of the Fiji Parliament was appointed on 16 September, the day before the election. Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum announced that senior civil servant Viniana Namosimalua would be taking on the position, effective immediately. He also announced the appointment of a new Deputy Secretary-General, Mary Qiliaso, to work alongside Namosimalua.

The optics of an unelected incumbent government making such a senior appointment on the eve of the election, and during a media blackout, are poor. But worse, it appears to be unconstitutional. According to Fiji's 2013 constitution, the President elects the Secretary-General in consultation with the Constitutional Offices Commission, which includes the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Attorney-General, two people appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and one appointed on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition.

As there is very obviously no leader of the opposition in place prior to the election, it is hard to see who was consulted in this appointment. If Bainimarama does form a government, the apparent disregard from his Attorney-General for the most basic of parliamentary processes does not inspire confidence.

2. Since Rear Admiral Bainimarama stood down from his military commander's role, there has been an expectation that Fiji's military would step back from politics, an expectation supported by statements from Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga.

The Fiji Government had said the military would not be involved in pre-election and election-day proceedings, but on the eve of the election, Tikoitoga announced the military was on standby. The military also conducted a highly visible training exercise in a public area on election eve, creating a storm on social media, and marched in the streets of Suva. These actions have unnecessarily and unhelpfully raised the profile of the military at the very time when it should have taken a low profile. 

If the parties, and most importantly the eventual government, act responsibly, my reasons to be worried may disappear and my reasons to be confident may grow. But it is clear Fiji still has work to do to prove its democratic credentials.


After eight years of Voreqe Bainimarama's military rule in Fiji, there is much excitement about the prospects for Fiji's return to democracy with elections next week. Seven parties and one independent candidate will contest 50 parliamentary seats. 591,095 Fijians have registered to vote; 120,000 of them will vote for the first time. With limited time and despite some constraints applied by the Fiji Government, the Fiji Elections Office has educated Fiji's voters on a new voting system, trained some 14,000 volunteers to staff polling stations and injected a vigour to the process that significantly diminishes the risk of fraudulent behaviour.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has expressed confidence in the preparations underway for the elections. A Multinational Observer Group co-led by Australia, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and featuring observers from at least ten other countries is already in Fiji monitoring the elections.

It is tempting to see the elections as the culmination of years of international pressure, driven largely by Australia and New Zealand, for Bainimarama to deliver on his promise to restore democracy in Fiji. 

In a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief, I argue that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy. Fiji has much more work to do to restore all the elements of a democratic society. And Australia should play a key role in assisting this transition.

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Fiji's democratic institutions have taken a battering since the 2006 coup. Political parties were not permitted to operate as parties until 2014. There was no formal political opposition to Bainimarama's Government. The independence of the judiciary has been compromised. The freedoms of Fiji's media and civil society are constrained.

Elections themselves do not make a democracy. As we have seen in other ostensibly democratic polities, such as in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, elections can be used by dominant leaders to both legitimise and entrench authoritarianism. Developments in Turkey in recent years are one such example. Charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved his talent for winning elections, with his Justice and Development Party claiming victory in six consecutive polls (general and nationwide local elections) and most recently winning Turkey's first ever popular election for president.

But Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, restricting civil liberties, cracking down on public protests and imprisoning record numbers of journalists. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol has argued that Erdogan has created a 'winner-takes-all democracy' where as elected leader, he both defines and dominates the nation to the exclusion of opposing voices.

If Bainimarama's Fiji First party is in a position to form a government either in its own right or in a coalition after the poll next Wednesday and Bainimarama is elected prime minister, there is no guarantee he will be a democratic leader. Indeed, his authoritarian governing style to date, his aversion to criticism and suspicion of media and civil society indicate he is more likely to emulate the leadership example of Erdogan than that of a typical leader of the Westminster style of government prevalent in the Pacific Islands region.

Bainimarama has arguably evolved as a civilian rather than a military leader through the campaign process. If elected, however, he is likely to see victory as a vindication of his leadership approach and agenda for Fiji rather than seize the opportunity to remake himself as the leader of a vibrant parliamentary democracy. After years of ruling by decree and centralising decision-making in his office, Bainimarama and his Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum will struggle to adjust to facing robust debate in parliament in order to pass legislation. The 2013 constitution does little to promote a more independent judiciary. Some constraints on the freedoms of civil society and media prevail.

Without the moderating influence of an effective parliament, where an opposition holds the government to account, an independent judiciary and (in the words of the Australian Foreign Minister) a 'free and unfettered media to hold all the sides of politics to account on behalf of the people', an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will not be able to consolidate the progress established by the election.

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?


Pacific Island leaders will meet at the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting next week in Palau. Prime Minister Abbott has cancelled his travel plans in order to focus on the response to the MH17 disaster and is sending Deputy Prime Minister Truss in his stead.

Pacific leaders will be disappointed but will no doubt understand. What will disappoint them more is a much greater snub for the region: the decision by ABC management to slash Radio Australia's capacity and services. This decision will diminish Australia's leadership and influence and do long term damage to both political and people-to-people relationships.

As a result of the loss of the Australia Network contract and other budget cuts, ABC management is making swingeing cuts to the Asia Pacific News Centre and ABC International. Correspondent positions in Asia, the Pacific and in Parliament House Canberra will be abolished. The Tok Pisin (PNG) language service will be cut to just three staff — this for a country which has just been elevated in the Australian Government's foreign policy priorities, where the economy is growing at record pace, and where radio remains king.

Editorial and technical staff for the popular Pacific Beat program will be reduced. A six-hour per day television service will be syndicated in the region but its primary news program, The World, is due to be broadcast late at night and early in the morning in the Pacific. Given the television audience in the Pacific is already limited to the urban elite, this is of questionable value.

While ABC management stresses that news services will remain, it's hard to see who will produce the stories that feed the news. By retrenching its most experienced Pacific hands as well as abolishing correspondent positions, the ABC will lose much of its capacity to report. The loss of journalistic legend Sean Dorney, who has the deepest understanding of the Pacific of any Australian journalist, will be felt deeply in the region. Presenters will likely need to rely on social media sources and the internet sites of Pacific newspapers to gather news. There are quality and reliability questions around both these sources and to a significant degree they already rely on the ABC for content.

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The impact of the decision will be a terrible blow to Pacific Island populations which rely on Radio Australia to report about not only international news but events in their own country. In an age where domestic news broadcasters across the Pacific are shrinking and in some cases being subjected to increasing political control, Radio Australia provides a vital service. Because Radio Australia provided coverage of criticism of Commodore Bainimarama's interim government in Fiji, he shut down transmission of Radio Australia services in 2009, demonstrating the considerable influence he considered Radio Australia to have. In addition to regular news services, Radio Australia also provides a critical service warning affected populations to prepare for impending cyclones, king tides or tsunamis and advises when help is on the way.

The cuts are a huge diplomatic own goal for Australia. Radio Australia has the single greatest reach of any Australian entity in our neighbourhood. Australia's diplomats are represented in almost every capital in the region but they can only travel out beyond the capital as their limited budgets permit. The approximately $1 billion Australian aid program to PNG and the Pacific has significant reach across the region but is not everywhere and the work of the aid program is often only known to Pacific civil servants. Australian banks ANZ and Westpac have a presence in most countries of the region but their reach is limited to people who bank.

Almost every household in the region, however, either owns a radio or has access to a radio in their village. In many remote parts of the region, where domestic broadcasters cannot be picked up or where shortwave radio is the sole means of access to the world, Radio Australia dominates. Whenever I have traveled to remote villages in the region, I have been struck by how much detailed knowledge the local residents had of Australia. There were hardly any books in the villages and no newspapers, let alone internet. All their knowledge was learned by listening to Radio Australia on shortwave radio. The growing coverage and availability of mobile phones and growth of internet access is changing the media scene but at a much slower rate in the Pacific than elsewhere. Many illiterate Papua New Guinean villagers, for example use their mobile phones to listen to radio rather than sign on to Twitter.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said she wants Australia to be recognised as the partner of choice for Pacific Island countries and is frustrated by the recognition China and other countries receive for much smaller aid contributions. A smaller Radio Australia will struggle to enhance the recognition of Australia's contribution to the region; it will barely be able to fulfil its charter. Radio Australia already has a small budget and provides extraordinarily good value for money. But cuts in the range of 60% will threaten not only the quality but the viability of the service. It is worth noting that China is investing in its international television and radio broadcasting, including in shortwave in the Pacific.

As Australia seeks to step up its diplomatic influence globally, it is not the right time for the ABC to be stepping back from its critical soft power role in the Asia Pacific. 

Photo by Flickr user Daniel Lu.


A remarkable 72 hours in Port Moresby has seen an arrest warrant issued for Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, the Attorney-General and Deputy Police Commissioner sacked, and PNG's anti-corruption agency, Taskforce Sweep, disbanded. Respect for the rule of law and good governance from the highest political office in the land appears to be in meltdown.

The arrest warrant was issued based on information collected by Taskforce Sweep and PNG police and relates to the long-running scandal over fraudulent payments from the PNG Finance Department to Paraka Lawyers. New evidence suggests O'Neill, as finance minister, personally signed off on many of these payments. O'Neill sought a court injunction against the arrest warrant and announced he would establish a separate Commission of Inquiry into the corruption allegations. The court has not yet granted a stay of the warrant and after two sittings has now adjourned further consideration until 25 June.

O'Neill sacked his Attorney General, the well regarded Kerenga Kua, on the evening of 17 June, claiming he threatened the integrity of the government when he opposed proposed amendments to the constitution. These amendments would have further entrenched the power of the ruling party.

Yesterday O'Neill took the further extraordinary step of disbanding Taskforce Sweep, putting its head, the courageous Sam Koim, out of a job. O'Neill created Taskforce Sweep and said on numerous occasions that he fully supported its corruption investigations against politicians. But his support was only ever going to last as long as the Taskforce did not come knocking on the Prime Minister's door.

PNG's police are also caught up in the turmoil. Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga exited the scene after he was convicted of contempt of court last week, but the O'Neill-appointed replacement, Geoffrey Vaki, did not have the confidence of the force. When Deputy Police Commissioner Simon Kauba moved against him, Kauba too was sacked by O'Neill. The plot thickened still further last night, with Vaki charged with perverting the course of justice and released on bail.

O'Neill is unlikely to gain the respect of the people with what is looking more and more like a desperate bid to avoid any investigation into his past actions and hold on to power, and PNG's young educated class are expressing frustration and anger via social media.

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But having the respect of the people matters little as long as the Prime Minister has the numbers on the floor of the parliament, and despite his sacking of competent, high profile ministers like Kua (and earlier, former Treasurer Don Polye), O'Neill still commands a large majority in parliament. PNG's major foreign investors will be worried about what these incidents reveal about the Prime Minister's character. But as he is the chief decision-maker where their interests are concerned, they are unlikely to protest.

The chaos of this week presents a difficult challenge for the Australian Government, which has a close relationship with Peter O'Neill. The previous Labor government developed close ties with O'Neill from the time he became prime minister in August 2011, welcoming him on a visit to Canberra soon afterwards. Both Prime Minister Gillard and Foreign Minister Rudd avoided saying too much about PNG's constitutional crisis, which saw Prime Minister O'Neill and his predecessor Sir Michael Somare both claiming rights to the top job. This enabled Canberra to maintain its friendship with O'Neill but left the clear impression that Australia was not concerned that the Prime Minister had put self-protection (in the name of stability) ahead of respect for both the constitution and the Supreme Court. Kevin Rudd's asylum-seeker deal with Peter O'Neill in July last year further entrenched Canberra's ties with the PM.

While Julie Bishop likely has a good appreciation of O'Neill's faults, she has worked hard to enhance Australia's political relationship with PNG and that means a good relationship with O'Neill. Now she must walk that fine line between demonstrating Australian support for transparency, accountability and the rule of law in PNG and avoiding making an enemy of Peter O'Neill, who is still critical to the success of a number of Australian policies, not least on asylum seekers.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the ANU's State of the Pacific conference yesterday:

To underpin economic growth in the Pacific, we need strong political and community leadership, with sound institutions and respect for the rule of law. It is vital for there to be transparency and accountability, strong anti-corruption regimes and robust police and defence forces. The Pacific, with its unique challenges, opportunities and constraints needs vision and leadership from within.

When asked at the National Press Club a few hours later about the crisis and Australia's aid to PNG, Ms Bishop said PNG was family for Australia and our close friendship meant Australia would continue to support PNG. She described the events of the last few days as an internal matter for the PNG Government. Bishop may have sent a subtle signal to O'Neill with her remark about the need for strong anti-corruption regimes but he undoubtedly knows there is little risk Canberra will hold him to account for his actions of this week.

While Peter O'Neill's preference for holding on to power predictably won over his commitment to tackling endemic corruption in PNG, it is encouraging that there are opposing voices. Taskforce Sweep's Sam Koim is undeterred from his ambition to rid the country of corruption. He would be under considerable personal risk but his courage in speaking out deserves support.


The Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program convened its second PNG New Voices conference in Port Moresby yesterday. We assembled a group of interesting and passionate young people with strong views about the future of their country. They spoke on a range of topics across three key themes: Papua New Guinea's relations with its neighbours, responsible sustainable development and new political engagement.

A PNG New Voices panel session on sustainable development (Andrew Gavin/Kate Uvia) 

Papua New Guinea's relations with its Melanesian neighbours are complex. PNG appears to be somewhat ambivalent about its membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Contributors suggested the government does not involve the people in its management of relations with Melanesian neighbours, leaving some to wonder what the benefits of trade agreements and intra-Melanesia labour mobility agreements are for Papua New Guinea.

The question of support for West Papua was a controversial one. Many Papua New Guineans have sympathies with the independence movement in West Papua but contributors argued the government puts its relationship with Indonesia ahead of popular interest in supporting fellow Melanesians and ahead of lining up with fellow Melanesian Spearhead Group members.

We collaborated with Tanim Graun, a PNG version of the ABC's Q&A program, which looked at the future of the informal economy. Participants quickly renamed the informal economy as the 'people's economy' given that the vast majority of Papua New Guineans are engaged in informal economic activity rather than employed in the formal sector.

Despite the continuing resources boom and forecast economic growth of 21% in 2015, participants acknowledged there would never be enough jobs in PNG's formal economy to support the population. The first shipment of LNG from PNG in the past week has made international headlines but after the construction phase, LNG projects will not deliver the number of jobs required to meet the high expectations of Papua New Guineans.

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Increasingly, salaries in the formal sector are insufficient to support the rising cost of living in urban areas in Papua New Guinea, particularly in Port Moresby. Participation in the informal economy, including in activities like selling betel nut (which is now officially banned in Port Moresby) is needed to subsidise the formal economy for many families. Speakers remarked that the systems around transporting and selling betel nut worked better than those for most other goods in PNG. 

The private sector voice was articulate and impassioned at the conference. From more than one contributor we heard that the private sector is bearing the brunt of the apparent decline in educational standards in recent years. Significant investment is required in developing personnel, including those who have graduated from tertiary institutions, in order for them to be fully productive. Some businesses are compelled to buy-in talent or skills from overseas, which has the knock-on effect of putting up their prices. This has impacts in the wider business community.

Suggested solutions included short-term work placements in Australia that could be funded by the Australian aid program in the case of small and medium enterprises (SME); degrees undertaken in Australia could include a year-long work placement to expose PNG students to Australian standards and practices; and private sector peak bodies such as the PNG Chamber of Commerce to be consulted as part of the process of awarding scholarships to identify skills most needed in the labour market.

A strong sense of national identity is often hard to find in Papua New Guinea, where clan, cultural and linguistic identities typically are more important than association with the nation. One speaker, ardent about building national identity, reflected on the factors that made Papua New Guinea unique. PNG is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse nations on earth, with approximately 850 spoken languages. 'Wantoks' (people from the same area or speaking the same language) and large extended family and clan connections are central to society and also provide a social security system where no formal one existed. While these connections were special for PNG, building a national identity would not be possible without higher education standards which allow for better discussions about identity and development.

Reflections on the looming referendum on the future of Bougainville and some unresolved issues from the conflict prompted discussion about the need to prepare for Bougainville's independence, as well as the national identity questions for PNG that would follow what is now an unthinkable prospect for PNG authorities.

Much is expected of PNG's young people. Yesterday's discussion proved that the country's future leaders are already thinking about how to change the country.

Image courtesy of Andrew Gavin.


The Abbott Government will next week bring down its first aid budget, a budget which itself will contain two interesting firsts: it is the first since the integration of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) with AusAID, and the first since the transition of the very expensive Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to a policing-only mission.

In a new Lowy Institute Analysis out today, I argue that the Abbott Government can draw some important lessons from Australia's experience in RAMSI as it moves forward with its ambitions to align Australia's foreign, trade and aid policies.

Australia has just spent $2.6 billion (in constant prices) in a decade-long engagement in Solomon Islands in which it aligned foreign, aid, economic and security policies.

I argue this was a massive and disproportionate investment to restore stability in a small country, which became and remains today the third largest recipient of Australian aid. RAMSI expenditure, 95% of which was covered by the Australian Government, also saw Solomon Islands move from being the 35th most aid-dependent country in the world before 2003 to being the second most aid-dependent country in the world by 2009.

Although RAMSI was undoubtedly costly, it had some impressive results.

The Mission restored law and order in Solomon Islands in fairly quick order. RAMSI assistance also helped reconstitute a shattered economy and was instrumental in rebuilding the machinery of government. These successes were largely due to Australia's decision to establish a unique whole of government approach to its leadership of the mission, involving DFAT, AusAID, Finance, Treasury, Defence and the Australian Federal Police in a united effort.

Successes were also due to the effective cooperation established with New Zealand and other members of the Pacific Islands Forum. Although Australia provided most of the funding, the regional nature of the Mission, which saw defence and police officers and some public servants from other Pacific Island countries work together and alongside Solomon Islands counterparts, was critical in leveraging political and popular support for RAMSI's work.

Even if Australia does not lead another large-scale intervention in the Pacific, the need for external assistance in Papua New Guinea and Pacific Island countries for a variety of governance, economic and security challenges is unlikely to disappear. So the lessons of RAMSI are relevant for responses to such challenges. Here are four that feature in my Analysis paper:

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1. Australia's experience of cooperating with the security forces of Pacific Island countries could be built on by involving regional defence and police forces in future responses to natural disasters in the region.

2. The placement of Australian officials in frontline positions in the Solomon Islands government helped resolve some immediate challenges, particularly in policing but also in government finances. Over time, however, this approach was not as effective as it might have been in building the capacity and skills of local officials. Future efforts to provide this kind of support in the Pacific may be better targeted by focusing on building local capacity at an earlier stage.

3. Despite RAMSI's significant efforts to improve economic governance and the machinery of government, and assisting the passage of difficult legislative and bureaucratic reforms, it had no mandate to reform the political system of Solomon Islands. Unfortunately, the political system of Solomon Islands encourages the political class to undermine the rule of law and ignore governance reforms in a quest to accumulate funds that will support their re-election. All MPs have the potential to exert influence in making the machinery of government work and to promote the rule of law, but a lack of support from Solomon Islands MPs may threaten the enduring positive impact of the work of RAMSI.

It is extraordinarily difficult for Australia to influence positive change in the politics of Solomon Islands. And it is important to remember that improving government processes alone does not guarantee better governance in the long term. RAMSI was successful in convincing some politicians, but the lessons from RAMSI show that securing strong political ownership of and support for governance reforms is as important as assisting in the implementation of reforms.

4. The alignment of the operations of Australian government agencies and their cooperation with regional counterparts made for some good results in Solomon Islands. But the large number of players in RAMSI made it difficult to reach a common position on when the Mission should be drawn down. Progress was made at different rates and at different levels across the pillars of the mission, which meant the Mission stayed on to maximise its impact and also address new challenges but costs also increased beyond expectations.

The main lesson is the importance of agreeing on an exit strategy and on acceptable spending levels at an early stage of a mission, and employing the necessary tools to measure performance and impact.

The Audit Commission has recommended Australian aid be focused on 'nearby countries' where Australia's expertise and strategic interest is higher. This is consistent with the Abbott Government's outlook. As the Government implements this strategy, it is worth reflecting on and learning the lessons from a decade of intensive assistance in the nearby Solomon Islands.

Photo from Australian Department of Defence


Tony Abbott flew in to Port Moresby last night for his first prime ministerial visit to Australia's nearest neighbour. Karl Claxton has foreshadowed some of the major themes of the visit over at The Strategist.

Despite the range of issues on the agenda and whatever the expected results of the visit, the most important outcome for Tony Abbott will be the establishment of a friendly relationship with his counterpart.

Prime Minister O'Neill

The two leaders had an unfortunate start to their relationship before the Australian federal election, with O'Neill taking then Opposition Leader Abbott to task for misrepresenting his remarks in relation to the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement. But both leaders are pragmatic and will be anxious to demonstrate they have moved on with a positive meeting today, during which they are due to sign an Economic Cooperation Treaty, setting out a framework for bilateral cooperation in trade, investment, business and development cooperation.

It would be tempting for Abbott to leave the management of bilateral relations to his capable foreign minister, Julie Bishop, who has already built positive relationships with PNG ministers. Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea, however, require prime ministerial attention. The relationship has thrived and dived on personal contacts between prime ministers in the past and the range and depth of current bilateral activities means that Tony Abbott needs to take overall responsibility for the relationship. To do that, he needs to understand the character and motivations of his counterpart.

Abbott's visit comes after a period of rapid change in Papua New Guinea's cabinet. In the last month O'Neill has sacked four ministers: Treasurer Don Polye, Petroleum and Energy Minister William Duma, Industrial Relations Minister Mark Maipakai and Higher Education Minister David Arore. While political volatility is not unusual in Papua New Guinea, Peter O'Neill's time as prime minister has been characterised by his dominance and commitment to stability, so the rush of sackings was surprising.

But what looks like political chaos is really evidence of further consolidation by O'Neill.

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O'Neill moved early after the 2012 elections to consolidate his leadership. He has legislated to extend the grace period during which he is protected from a motion of no confidence from 18 to 30 months. He has reduced the number of sitting days parliament is required to meet each year from 63 to 40 and he has built a governing coalition numbering 105 out of 111 seats in parliament, a majority any prime minister in a Westminster-style system would envy.

O'Neill's sacking of Don Polye, who was widely respected as treasurer, was the most controversial of his recent reshuffle. While O'Neill claimed Polye was causing instability in his government, the real reason for his sacking was Polye's refusal to sign loan agreements worth A$1.2 billion to enable the PNG Government to re-acquire a 10.1% share in Oil Search. Polye believed the purchase of Oil Search shares was a bad decision and claimed no due diligence was done on the transaction.

Peter O'Neill's credo is to ensure PNG has a stake in its own development. He is under pressure to deliver the benefits of Papua New Guinea's impressive resources boom not only to the elites who support him but also to the constituents who vote for him and his coalition. There is a perception among a number of O'Neill's supporters that it is mainly foreign companies which benefit from the global demand for PNG's resources, and that they are taking their profits out of the country.

If O'Neill is to stay in power over the long-term – always a difficult proposition in Papua New Guinea – he must be seen to fulfil his promises and increase the ownership of the state or PNG-owned companies in major resources projects, investments and even the Australian aid program.

This mission influenced O'Neill's controversial decision to nationalise Ok Tedi and attempt to seize control of PNG Sustainable Development Program , his willingness to sack Polye to effect the purchase of the shares in Oil Search and his intention to revise media ownership laws to favour local investors. His negotiation of the Joint Understanding between Australia and Papua New Guinea on further bilateral cooperation on health, education and law and order, under which PNG acquired greater say in how the additional aid package associated with the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement was spent, is also evidence of O'Neill's interest in asserting PNG's stake in flagship national projects.

Meanwhile, Abbott, with a few exceptions, has refused to commit taxpayer funds to private companies owned by foreign investors in order to rescue them or influence them to remain in Australia. And Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos has just stood aside while he gives evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales.

In PNG, O'Neill has just appointed a Treasurer, Patrick Pruaitch, famous for his alleged corrupt dealings as Treasurer and later Forestry Minister in the Somare Government. The difference in approach is obvious.

Prime Minister Abbott is accompanied on his trip to PNG by nine senior business figures from Australia, who support the Government's objective to expand economic ties with Papua New Guinea. This is a great initiative and O'Neill, who is practised at telling foreign audiences what they want to hear, will welcome this evidence of commitment to PNG from Australian business.

If Abbott wants to build a good personal relationship with O'Neill, he should encourage O'Neill's commitment to foreign investment in line with the Treaty they are signing. But he should also demonstrate that he understands PNG's desire to have a greater stake in its own future. It may be too early to have a frank discussion about how PNG can do that without risking alienating new foreign investors, but if the prime minister of PNG's largest source of trade, investment and aid wants to have that conversation, he needs to build trust first.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


Foreign Minister Julie Bishop believes PNG is one of Australia's highest foreign policy priorities and is committed to strengthening ties with PNG.

Australia's merchandise trade with our nearest neighbour totals $5.7 billion and Australia's investments in PNG are as high as $18.6 billion. PNG is also Australia's largest recipient of aid, a constructive ally in the Pacific region and a security partner. The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby is one of the largest Australian missions in the world, managing a complex political relationship and coordinating the activities of multiple federal government agencies. Bishop has proposed a range of new initiatives to broaden and deepen the relationship.

But just as with Indonesia, Australia's obsession with asylum seekers now threatens to weaken the positive momentum in Australia-PNG relations.

The 17 February riots and the tensions within the detention centre they exposed, the negative sentiment of prominent figures on Manus towards the detention centre and resettlement of refugees, the growing opposition to the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement as revealed through various social media forums in PNG, and concerns like those expressed by the influential Catholic Bishops Conference in PNG about the asylum seeker centre are all potential triggers for generating deep resentment towards Australia in PNG.

The situation is not aided by irresponsible and offensive descriptions of Manus by senior Australian politicians and members of the media, who have paid scant attention to the impact of Australia's policy on the people of Manus.

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Politicians including former House of Representatives Speaker Anna Burke, independent MP Andrew Wilkie and Greens Senator Sarah-Hanson Young have described Manus Island as a 'gulag' and a 'hell-hole'. Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition described Manus Island as an 'inherently dangerous place'. Waleed Aly went further, writing that PNG is a 'deeply unliveable country, racked by lawlessness and violence'.

These opinions have been countered by better informed writers such as David Bridie and Rowan Callick. But it is the negative descriptions which play in Papua New Guinea where, unlike in Indonesia, Australia's media is followed avidly, not least through Australian television stations broadcast in PNG.

The Australian and PNG governments are alert to the risk that the asylum seeker issue poses to their interests in enhancing the relationship. The announcement of a new monthly Joint Ministerial Forum involving Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Papua New Guinea Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration Rimbink Pato and Attorney General Kerenga Kua will 'provide clear direction and oversight to the implementation of the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) and provide a timely and accountable process to ensure that the arrangement is being converted into tangible and practical outcomes.'

The early focus of the forum will be on investigating this month's violence, but it will also deal with processing claims, resettlement, and delivering the $420 million of projects that are part of the resettlement deal. While Julie Bishop's focus in these meetings will be on delivering the sweeteners of the RRA, her participation alongside her PNG counterpart will enable her to maintain a wider focus on enhancements to the relationship and ensure the asylum seeker issue does not undermine these.

The challenge is significant. Lowy Institute Fellow Khalid Koser warned of the dangers of dressing up the Refugee Resttlement Arrangement as a benefit to PNG. He said a similar approach by the EU in making Greece the outer wall of Europe has seen rising Greek resentment against the EU and more violence against migrants.

Manus has an enviable reputation in PNG as a peaceful province, with high education levels and literacy rates which have seen Manusians prominent in senior levels of the public and private sectors. If the violence we saw during the 17 February riots was indeed triggered, even in part, by the racial vilification of local residents by some asylum seekers, as Sean Dorney suggests, then Australia has cause to be concerned.

It is not lost on the people of Manus, even if it is on Australians, that a number of the asylum seekers come from countries (namely Iran) which are both richer than PNG and have more employment opportunities than exist on Manus. If they are found to be refugees and then are able to enjoy more privileges than the citizens of Manus themselves, thanks to Australian assistance, there is likely to be resentment and further unrest in a province which has little experience of violence. Some of the anger may even be directed at Australian interests, be it government, businesses or nationals.

Even with both governments working on calming tensions, there are limits to the powers of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's government. His authority may not be accepted by the people of Manus if they continue to feel they are not being heard.

The question of whether or not Papua New Guinea will resettle any asylum seeker determined to be refugees also remains open. Prominent PNG blogger Deni Tokunai has pointed to likely difficulties in resettling refugees in PNG. Processing and resettlement will be the stumbling blocks. Rural resettlement of refugees would need the consent of complicated customary landowner groups; urban solutions would need to take into account urban growth, constituent perceptions, and the questionable nature of many state-owned land titles, some of which already house significant settlements of Papua New Guineans.

Despite the commitment under the Regional Resettlement Arrangement to resettle asylum seekers recognised as genuine refugees in PNG, Peter O'Neill has been inconsistent in his reassurances on this issue. His resolve will be tested by strong local opposition to resettlement. This uncertainty is likely to frustrate an Australian Government under pressure to make the policy work.

The decision to house asylum seekers on Manus may well stop the boats, but if it also stops or even hinders the development of a closer relationship with PNG, will it be worth it?

Photo by Flickr user DIBP Images.


Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sprang a surprise on Australia's Fiji watchers last Friday. She not only pulled off what looked like a friendly meeting with Fiji's authoritarian prime minister but also revealed she would soon be normalising relations with Fiji, officially in the freezer since Commodore Bainimarama's military coup of December 2006.

I wrote here about the risks of the Australian Government waiting until after Fiji's promised elections in September to change course with its policy and suggested Bishop initiate contact with Bainimarama after he stood down from heading the military. 

bishop bainimarama australia fiji relations

But I did not think it likely that Bishop would move to normalise relations quite so early in the year. Despite her commitment in opposition, I thought the influence of cautious DFAT officials and the advice of New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who has been burned on several occasions for making overtures to Fiji, would act as a brake on her enthusiasm for normalisation.

Now that we are here, what does it all mean?

The details of Bishop's policy were reported by Rowan Callick (who accompanied Bishop to Fiji) in The Australian on Saturday. In addition to support for election preparations, Australia will introduce a 'twinning' arrangement in areas including foreign policy, finance and the Public Service Commission, with Fiji officials working in Canberra, and Australians in Suva (incidentally, an initiative I suggested back in 2011). Australia will also expand its seasonal workers' program to include Fiji. A review of the travel sanctions which so concerned the Fiji Government is underway and will be presented to cabinet.

In the defence sphere, Australia has invited Fiji to send a defence representative to Canberra, and wants to reinstate an Australian defence attaché in Suva.  Fiji will be invited to participate again in Australia’s Pacific patrol boat program. A defence co-operation program that includes joint exercises and staff-college training will be re-established.

These could be interpreted as rewards for Fiji, which in the view of many critics has not done nearly enough to deserve them. This interpretation, however, would be wrong.

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By moving now, Australia sets its own terms for the relationship with Fiji, no longer hamstrung by waiting for an unreliable Fiji Government to act on conditions set by previous Australian governments and the Pacific Islands Forum.

Bishop's approach restores a political element to the relationship, which at the very least gives Canberra the ability to keep talking to Bainimarama, who has the last word on whether elections go ahead or not. Australia also needs a political relationship with Fiji for other reasons: so it can pursue important regional or international policy initiatives and so it can elevate requests for the Fiji Government's assistance when Australian investors or tourists need help.

If Fiji has an election that meets even a minimum standard of freedom and fairness, Australia would have no choice but to accept the result, which may very well be an elected government of Voreqe Bainimarama. Far better that Bishop establish a relationship with him now on Australia's terms than to seek to meet him for the first time after the election, when he, not Canberra, would set the terms.

Australia's new policy is  likely to be popular with many other members of the Pacific Islands Forum, which were uncomfortable with the impact of isolating Fiji and will welcome Australia's leadership. That the Ministerial Contact Group visiting Fiji last week recommended inviting Fiji to rejoin PACER Plus and Pacific Islands Forum Trade Ministers' meetings is an indication that the Forum is ready to move away from its own policy of isolation.

Bishop's policy undermines the Fiji Government’s favourite tactic of blaming Australia to avoid taking responsibility for Fiji's economic problems. This is important in the lead-up to elections where the Fiji Government should be held to account by voters for its own economic decisions, not the actions of foreign powers.

The decision on military cooperation has mutual benefits. It gives the influential (and ruling) Fiji military what it most craves: the opportunity to engage with a first-class military. This will help it upgrade the skills which have suffered since the 2006 coup so it can continue meeting the expectations of UN peacekeeping operations. It also means Fiji will be less likely to continue making overtures to China and Russia for military assistance, which will mitigate the concerns of Australia's defence and strategic planners about the influence of other major powers in the Pacific Islands region.

Most importantly, the policy gives Bishop a new range of policy levers. If Bainimarama does renege on holding elections, Bishop can express sincere regret that he proved to be untrustworthy and pull back on one or more of the new initiatives. Under the previous policy, Bishop had few additional sticks (short of economic sanctions which hurt poor Fijians and Australian business interests) that she could have employed to signal Australia's disappointment.

Bishop's strategy is the right one for Australia but it is important to be realistic about what it will achieve within Fiji. It is unlikely to induce Bainimarama to change his personality, keep the military out of politics, ease up on restrictions on the media and unions, and support enhanced human rights, at least in the short term. Australia's new approach, however, returns Australia to a position of strength in bilateral and regional discussions, where it can hope to exert more influence than it has in the last seven years.

Photo courtesy of the Fiji Ministry of Information.


This is an important moment for Fiji.

Today Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop makes her first visit to Fiji as part of the Pacific Islands Forum's Ministerial Contact Group. Foreign ministers from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are due to meet Fiji's Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola as well as the Electoral Commission, registered political parties, civil society organisations and trade unions. The Ministers will formulate policy positions that will guide the Pacific Islands Forum's approach to Fiji after elections due in September.

Julie Bishop will also conduct a separate meeting with Prime Minister Bainimarama.

In Julie Bishop, Fiji has a new minister with an open mind who is committed to normalising bilateral relations. True to her earlier commitments to pursue normalisation of relations with Fiji, she sent very deliberate signals to the Fiji Government with this interview on Australia Network yesterday.  She discussed normalisation, said she was not imposing conditions on her discussions, and canvassed the rebuilding of economic and defence ties. She said travel sanctions were under review and she flagged more support for elections. 

Former Coalition Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was responsible for the original smart sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup, has re-entered the debate on Fiji this week. Declaring himself opposed to sanctions and acknowledging that Bainimarama is in a strong position which Australia cannot do much about, he has lent support to Bishop's plans to normalise relations.

The Bishop visit presents a big opportunity for Fiji. For all the bad blood between the two countries since the 2006 coup, the Fiji Government knows Fiji's economy is heavily reliant on Australian tourists and Australian investment and trade. 

An Australian foreign minister for the first time has indicated that she wants to normalise relations and comes to meetings in Fiji without defined expectations. A landmark meeting between Bishop and Prime Minister Bainimarama is on the agenda, a positive development which elevates Australia's relationship with Fiji from one conducted by officials to a political one, a move which I have argued would be timely

Yet the Fiji Government has a history of missing opportunities to reset the relationships damaged by its 2006 military coup.

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It has wasted many an opportunity offered by changes of government in Australia and New Zealand and several changes of foreign minister in Australia (Bishop is the fifth Australian foreign minister Fiji will have dealt with since Bainimarama took power in 2006) to have a dialogue about improving relations.

Fiji has not only missed opportunities with Australia. After Fiji made a big effort to expand its relationship with Papua New Guinea in April last year, Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola used a speech in Brisbane in July to not only to castigate Australia but insult Papua New Guinea.  PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has since been less than friendly, choosing to visit New Zealand instead of attending Bainimarama's inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum in August, and making life difficult for Fiji's major investments in his country, with pressure put on Fiji TV's investment in PNG's EMTV.

Before the new foreign minister sets foot in Fiji, the Fiji Government has reverted to its favourite strategy of vilifying the Australian Government. Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has been openly critical of Australia's sanctions and dismissed overtures from the Australian High Commission.

The Fiji Government needs to think seriously about how it manages its engagement with Julie Bishop. If Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum adopt a friendly stance and are forthcoming about election preparations and their own political intentions, they could induce a constructive policy response from Australia. If they adopt their publicly belligerent manner in their private meetings, they are unlikely to secure Bishop's trust. Even foreign ministers have their pride, and if Bishop is harangued and insulted, her continued commitment to normalising relations with Fiji might be tested.

For her part, Bishop needs to have a few concessions to put on the table before the elections to give her an advantage in what are likely to be difficult discussions. She already has electoral assistance on offer. She could also offer to start preliminary military-to-military talks about renewing defence ties after the elections. Consistent with the Abbott Government's commitment to economic diplomacy, Bishop could also propose an initiative where officials and private sector representatives from both countries meet to discuss ways trade and investment relations could be enhanced.

Bishop has demonstrated some adroit handling of the media over the last week in relation to her visit to Papua New Guinea and in preparation for the Fiji visit. Her decision to have ABC New Zealand correspondent Dominique Schwartz accompany her to Fiji is clever. It sends a valuable signal about Australia's interest in media freedom. But just as importantly, because Fiji journalists are reluctant to report anything not approved by the Fiji Government, Schwartz's presence means Australia and the region have a reasonable chance of learning what is really going on.


On her first visit to Papua New Guinea as Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop has reconfirmed the high priority the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship has for Australian foreign policy and declared her deep affection for the country. 

A frequent visitor to PNG as shadow minister, Bishop was a familiar face to Papua New Guinea government ministers, business and media on the first day of her visit in Port Moresby. Her decision to visit PNG three times for extended trips while in opposition was smart. She appeared instantly at ease in her press conference with PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato at Parliament House in Port Moresby and has been treated as an old friend rather than a new kid on the block.

I wrote in September last year that one of the tasks Bishop should focus on during her first visit to PNG should be meeting and listening to women working in civil society organisations, health, education, agriculture and government.  She did just that yesterday at a roundtable with 18 high powered Papua New Guinea women working in senior positions in business, government, law and justice and civil society.

Led by PNG Minister for Community Development, Youth and Religion Loujaya Kouza, these inspiring women spoke about their priorities for the advancement of women in their fields as well as noting some important achievements. Bishop spoke of her desire to use Australia's political assets to promote economic empowerment for women, encourage leadership potential and address violence against women. 

Bishop's use of the term 'political assets' is notable.

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It speaks to Bishop's objectives to unite the aid program with foreign and trade policy priorities, to pursue broader economic development, and also to her appointment of Natasha Stott Despoja as Ambassador for Women and Girls.

Bishop's tribute to popular National Council of Women President Scholar Kakas, who passed away last week, at the beginning of the meeting was but one indication of the genuine empathy the Minister has with PNG women. She listened carefully to the comments of all the women before acknowledging and responding to their remarks and suggestions in a humble, almost Melanesian, manner.

Discussion focused on the usefulness of leadership and election training, financial literacy, micro-finance arrangements, assisting women with export-oriented businesses, building the next generation of women leaders in schools and universities, enabling connections between young leaders in Australia and PNG, gender-based violence, the importance of public defenders in the justice system, and the difficulties of helping women start businesses in rural area where there is little or no cash-based economic activity.

Despite the Minister's familiarity with Papua New Guinea, she may not have fully appreciated until yesterday the important role she plays as a role model for Papua New Guinea women. In response to a question seeking Bishop's advice on how she herself advanced in politics to become the Foreign Minister, Bishop joked that an answer would take three days, but then added that mentors were very valuable.

It is obviously not lost on PNG women that Julie Bishop is the only woman in the federal cabinet and that her rise to foreign minister and deputy leader of the Liberal Party is an achievement from which PNG women can draw lessons. 

Julie Bishop has a significant agenda as foreign minister. If she can keep PNG near the top of this agenda and ensure there is real substance to the new economic and strategic status of the bilateral partnership, this will be a major achievement. But her biggest achievement could be the influence she exerts to change the future for women in PNG. Bishop has an obvious love for the country that endears her to Papua New Guineans used to Australian ministers who have tended to prioritise the relationship with Papua New Guinea only when there was a problem. 

The trust she has built with PNG ministers will permit her to speak frankly about their responsibilities to create more opportunities for women and address gender violence; her empathy with senior PNG women will give her entrée and an interested audience; her appointment of Natasha Stott Despoja and the review of the aid program in PNG will enable her to enhance Australia's diplomatic and aid focus on women's equality.

Bishop herself is Australia's chief 'political asset' in PNG. She should focus on deploying herself as well as Australia's other political assets effectively in PNG.

Photo courtesy of the Foreign Minister's office.


In what may be the clearest sign yet that Fiji Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama (pictured) intends to make good on his promise to hold elections in 2014, he has announced that he will resign as head of the military on 28 February and stand for election.

Bainimarama has promised that his political party, the details of which he will announce on 1 March, will deliver. He has that the party he forms will be standing on the record of delivering basic services.

While Fiji's new Electoral Act has yet to be enacted, four other parties have registered to participate in the elections, which are expected to take place in September. Many commentators believe Bainimarama is confident of electoral victory and hence made this most recent announcement. He told soldiers during a parade on Monday that it was important people chose their government representatives sensibly, and said voters should be wary of politicians who had their own agendas, implying that voting for him would be a wise choice.

In other countries that use a single national constituency and/or open list proportional representation voting system, which Fiji's new constitution endorsed, it is difficult for one party to win an absolute majority and coalition governments are the norm. Bainimarama has spent the last seven years governing on his own terms. Whether he has the negotiating and coalition-forming skills of an Angela Merkel or a Benjamin Netanyahu is yet to be seen.

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Bainimarama might take heart from this end of year survey by Gallup International. The results showed that 70% of Fijians thought 2014 will be better than 2013, 62% thought this year will be a year of economic prosperity and 88% personally felt happy about their lives. The survey was a universal one and did not test what Fijians thought about their prime minister but Bainimarama would be pleased that Fijians expressed so much confidence about their country in 2014 and would hope to convert this into votes for him and his party. By comparison, the same survey indicated that only 39% of Australians thought 2014 would be better than 2013; just 17% believed this year would be one of economic prosperity, while 32% predicted economic difficulty and 43% said it would be the same as 2013; and only 53% personally felt happy about their lives.

If Bainimarama follows through on his intentions, it creates a slight opening for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to pursue her promised change of course to Australia's Fiji policy. In opposition, Bishop said a Coalition government would prioritise the normalisation of relations with Fiji. As Minister she has been more circumspect in public about any major changes to Australia's Fiji policy. But Bishop did meet with Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola, and has conferred with New Zealand Foreign Minister McCully on the path ahead. She has signaled that confirmation of an election date would be significant in her thinking about future shifts in policy.

Interestingly, Bainimarama's official Twitter account announced yesterday that the Australian High Commission would be inviting him to attend Australia Day celebrations. His advisers clearly believe this to be something of a breakthrough, signaling that improving relations with Australia may be more important to Bainimarama than he has previously indicated.

It will be tempting for Canberra to proceed cautiously where Bainimarama is concerned and prior experience shows that such caution is warranted. But waiting until after the election to change course in Fiji policy risks a continuation of the high level bilateral impasse. Bainimarama, if he is to win government, may choose to punish Australia for its isolation of him since 2006. This could in turn create difficulties in Australia's relations with the region as an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will seek to attract the early support of Pacific Island countries.

Early normalisation of relations is unlikely, but Bainimarama's decision to stand down allows Bishop to consider initiating a conversation with him about his plans for the election. Once Bainimarama is officially a candidate, the Foreign Minister could speak to all the leading candidates (even if only by telephone) about Australia's commitment to provide support for elections. While this work would normally best be done by diplomats, Australia needs to widen its political conversation with Fiji now if the Abbott Government intends to expand relations after the elections.

Image courtesy of Reuters/Tim Winbourne.