Lowy Institute

Last weekend Fiji's police force arrested six prominent opponents of the ruling party. Their alleged crime was breaching the Public Order Act by making remarks about the constitution at a conference convened by Pacific Dialogue, an NGO, on Fiji's Constitution Day. The arrests were nothing short of a government-sponsored assault on its own democracy, and yet another worrying sign that the Fijian Government is uncommitted to the full restoration of democracy.

The six arrested were the leader of the National Federation Party, Biman Prasad; the party (but not parliamentary) leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party and former prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka; the general secretary of the Fiji Council of Trade Unions, Attar Singh; academic and former politician, Tupeni Baba; Jone Dakuvula, from Pacific Dialogue; and Labour Party leader and former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry. They were not charged while in police custody for 48 hours but their cases have been referred to the director of public prosecutions, so their eventual fate is not yet clear.

The arrests were made under a 2012 decree that amended the Public Order Act to allow charges to be laid against anyone who takes part in a public meeting for which a government permit has not been obtained. Pacific Dialogue had not applied for a government permit to convene the conference but that's not unusual for a civil society event.

The arrests have exposed a key flaw of the constitution, and ironically one that Prasad (one of the arrested) has previously identified. In an opinion piece for the Fiji Times in June, Prasad wrote that the Fiji had a 'parliamentary democracy established under a Constitution that basically plays the role of bridesmaid to decrees and promulgations'. While the 2013 constitution (meant to be the supreme law of the nation) enshrines human rights such as the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, it also provides for those rights to be restricted using laws that were decreed by an unelected dictatorship rather than passed by a parliament. Just what threat was posed to public order by remarks made about the constitution at a NGO conference held on Constitution Day is not clear to anyone.

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Like President Erdogan in Turkey, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama appears to believe that the only way to govern successfully in a democracy is to eliminate all opposition (including by jailing dissenting voices). But Fiji has no Gulenist equivalent with access to the nation's military assets that can threaten Bainimarama. His party, Fiji First, has a significant majority in the parliament and he enjoys favourable coverage in the nation's media. A recent opinion poll gave him an 82% approval rating, with 51% saying he was doing a very good job and 31% saying he was doing a good job. If the Prime Minister spent more time governing the country and less time worrying about how to shut down a small number of public dissenters, he could be even more popular.

Since the September 2014 elections, opposition parties have played their part in rebuilding the nation's democracy by participating in parliament. Despite strenuous efforts by the government to discredit individual opposition MPs, these parties are still trying to debate legislation and contribute to public debate by engaging with civil society organisations. These arrests will make it more difficult for MPs and for some elements of civil society to persevere in their efforts.

It is hard to see what Fiji's international partners can do about this situation. Bainimarama proved prior to the 2014 elections and reiterated this week that he has no patience for international scrutiny of his government's actions. Further, his removal late last week of Ratu Inoke Kubuabola from the foreign affairs portfolio has cut off a valuable conduit for Fiji's international partners. The popular Kubuabola had established good relations with his Australian and New Zealand counterparts and played an important role in the gradual warming of Australia-Fiji relations. Bainimarama himself has assumed responsibility for foreign affairs. His well-known antipathy for Canberra and Wellington will make it very difficult for the Australian and New Zealand governments to continue improving their relations with Fiji and to express concerns to Fiji counterparts. New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key has already raised the ire of Bainimarama by remarking that the Fijian Government has the support of their people and 'don't need to do anything particularly silly'.

But Fiji's opposition MPs and civil society deserve international support as they strive to rebuild Fiji's democracy. Even if there is nothing practical Australia can do in response to these arrests, it is still important to express concern for dissenting voices in a democracy. Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has done that by saying that Australia was 'watching developments' and 'viewing them from the perspective of a government that strongly supports as a matter of principle the universal rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly'. Similar sentiments have been forthcoming from New Zealand, the US and EU. 

Australia and New Zealand will be loathe to go back down the path of complete estrangement from Fiji, but they will need to be ever more nimble in their approach to Suva if the Fijian Government continues to undermine its own democracy.

Photo: Getty Images/Simon Watts

Election Interpreter 2016

Almost three years after the 'stop the boats' election, there is a surprising lack of debate on irregular migration in Australia in this campaign. The bipartisan consensus on offshore processing appears to have removed the political incentive for any serious policy discussion. This week there were echoes of the 2013 election when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned of chaos on Australia's borders in the event of a Labor victory, but this was largely seen as a tactical move to counter Labor's scare campaign over Medicare.

The Lowy Institute's Poll this week probably validates the major parties' reluctance to engage in policy debate. The Poll showed public support for the policy of turning back boats continues, with 63% of Australians agreeing that 'stopping the boats means that Australia can take in more refugees through UN processes'. There are few votes to be won in softening Australia's hard-line stance on asylum seekers who seek to come to Australia by boat.

But Australian politicians are studiously ignoring the reality that the PNG Supreme Court's 26 April ruling that the detention of asylum seekers in Manus was illegal and unconstitutional. This will force a change to the offshore processing policy by removing a key plank of Australia's deterrence strategy in managing irregular migration.

This week the Supreme Court will hear applications for consequential orders that will enforce its decision. While government ministers can argue this process has no legal consequences for Australia, the PNG government will have no option but reiterate its plea to Canberra to relocate the asylum seekers and refugees. Australian voters deserve to hear how their future government plans to respond to this.

There is no excuse for the lack of political debate about the future of the detainees in Manus.

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Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has signalled publicly he no longer has any motivation to resettle those asylum seekers found to be refugees in Papua New Guinea. He moved quickly after the Supreme Court ruling to announce the closure of the Manus detention centre and said he would ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the men detained there. It seems unlikely he will endorse the suggestions of my friend Lisa-Marie Tepu and address the treatment of refugees within Papua New Guinea. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, O'Neill told Australia's National Press Club that his government could not afford to resettle the refugees and wanted to close the Manus centre.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton tried to deflect earlier debate on the ruling by saying it was a matter for Papua New Guinea. He has reiterated government policy that refugees in Manus and Nauru will 'never' be resettled in Australia. His Labor counterpart Richard Marles concurs. Prime MinisterTurnbull said much the same on Monday night when he told the ABC's Q & A program that people who were found to be refugees in Papua New Guinea did not have the option of coming to Australia; they had to stay in PNG.

Australia says it is PNG's problem and Manus detainees will never be resettled in Australia. Papua New Guinea will neither detain nor resettle the refugees, nor accept any further asylum seekers as a favour to Australia. So what happens now?

Labor's Marles has suggested, rather unhelpfully, that the Australia should offer the PNG government 'more money', or ask it to change the law in order to maintain the detention centre. Marles knows PNG better than most: back in 2013 he was dispatched by Prime Minister Rudd to negotiate the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. That negotiation resulted in more aid for Papua New Guinea in health, education and law and order in an arrangement known as the 'Joint Understanding'.

Offering more money to the PNG government now would not enable the resettlement of the refugees. Papua New Guinea is in the midst of an economic crisis that is putting extraordinary pressure on its budget. Even if Australia is footing the bill, it will become increasingly difficult for the PNG government to allocate the resources necessary to support some 900 foreign men in a stagnant economy. The government would find it difficult to justify special treatment for the refugees to its people, suffering from the effects of drought, and general elections are only a year away.

At a time when Peter O'Neill stands accused of corruption, suggestions that Australia should offer 'more money' to the PNG government to persuade it to ignore or subvert the Supreme Court's judgment, or to change the nation's laws are highly inappropriate.

Both major parties in Australia need to start being frank with voters about the future of the asylum seekers on Manus. The PNG government will close the detention centre and refuse to resettle refugees. Manus can no longer be the deterrent Australia wants it to be and it will be incumbent on the Australian government to relocate the detainees to another country. A responsible government in Canberra cannot willfully breach PNG's constitution, snub the Supreme Court, or ask the PNG government to prioritise resettling refugees when its budget for essential services is already under huge strain.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's claim that the government had anticipated the Supreme Court decision for some months suggests it will have considered what it might do about relocating the detainees. Given previous failures to persuade third countries to take refugees from Manus and Nauru, and Australia's refusal to accept New Zealand's offer to accept some of the refugees, the option Canberra is most likely to be considering would be moving refugees from Manus to Nauru.

Nauru is also in the midst of an election campaign and not without its own problems. The Nauru government's lack of commitment to the rule of law, its lack of transparency, and its antagonism towards journalists have created headlines over the last two years. It has earned the opprobrium of the New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who cut off aid to Nauru's justice sector due to concerns about the rule of law. If Nauru is indeed the preferred option to rehouse the Manus refugees, the voters of Australia and Nauru should be informed while they have an opportunity to express a view at the ballot box.

The major parties in Australia should also be canvassing other options. If the Manus 'deterrent' can no longer be a key plank of Australia's immigration policy, how much symbolic value is there in 'never' permitting refugees currently detained in Manus access to Australia or to New Zealand, while we continue to risk our bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea? Australian voters have accepted policy backflips before and no doubt will again. Our politicians might even persuade us to do so this time if they do us the courtesy of involving us in an informed debate.

Photo Ryan Pierse/Getty Images


The images on our television screens last week of police firing live rounds into a crowd of students at the University of Papua New Guinea and injured students being carried into hospital were profoundly shocking. Even for seasoned observers, used to disturbing images coming out of Papua New Guinea, this was bad. Police shooting at students exercising their democratic right to protest is almost incomprehensible.

Papua New Guineans and friends of PNG often bemoan that the all too rare international reporting on the country is negative and inaccurate. The international media coverage of the violent police crackdown of student protests on 8 June was negative and also, at first, inaccurate, wrongly reporting some students were killed. But the reports served a very important purpose in revealing to the world the cracks in PNG’s democracy. Before last week, the PNG government’s questionable commitment to the rule of law had so far played out in the government avoiding court cases, sacking corruption investigators, evading motions of no confidence, castigating critics, and intimidating journalists and bloggers. But last week's actions by police showed just how far the government is prepared to go to quell dissent and, ultimately, avoid accountability. Papua New Guineans should be very worried about this development.

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The ongoing protests are significant because some of these students will be PNG's future political leaders. Their protest against what they believe to be corrupt practices of Prime Minister Peter O'Neil and his government suggests they will fight corruption and conduct themselves honourably and honestly when they assume positions of influence 15 or 20 years from now. Some of them may be the force for change in politics that PNG so desperately needs. I argued in my Lowy Institute Analysis, The Future of Papua New Guinea: Old Challenges for New Leaders that the next generation of leaders would need to embrace some fundamental changes in approach if they are to turn PNG’s negative trends into positive ones. That university students have identified the problems in the government and want change now, rather than opting to wait until they are in positions of power in 20 years’ time, should be welcomed by the population at large.

The Prime Minister’s obduracy regarding the allegations of corruption against him suggests he is highly unlikely to accede to the students’ demands that he resign, so the students will inevitably be disappointed. O’Neill already advised the students in a 10 page letter on 26 May that he had no intention of stepping aside or resigning. Last week's violence has not changed his mind.

As Sean Dorney has argued, the police crackdown on the student protests was not a Tiananmen moment for Papua New Guinea. It is not the first time, as Bal Kama has pointed out, that PNG’s tertiary students have protested against injustices or that such protests have led to violence. But the events of 8 June were nevertheless momentous for the next generation of leaders in PNG, who have been traumatised by the violence of their own police force.

Whether or not the Prime Minister resigns should not be the measure of the success of the students’ current protest actions. They have already done much to raise awareness of the PNG government’s diminishing commitment to the rule of law — both among their fellow citizens and now globally — and have therefore made an important contribution.

The real measure of success, however, will be seen in how the students seek to continue to influence change in Papua New Guinea after they graduate, both collectively and as individuals. The conviction and commitment to values that comes easily to youth may weaken when it is time for these students to navigate their way through the complexity of PNG politics. Many of the leaders now tainted with corruption allegations were idealistic student activists themselves once. Just standing for election in Papua New Guinea is an expensive business; achieving power and holding onto it within the parliament quite simply requires a capacity to distribute cash or other benefits. It is an extraordinarily difficult feat for politicians to effect change in Papua New Guinea without access to large sums of cash and the pressures on members of parliament are immense. If even some of the protesting students can maintain a principled stand against corruption and work to change the business of politics they will do more for their nation than forcing Peter O’Neill to resign now.

Prime Minister O’Neill, for his part, could do much to redeem the situation without resigning or stepping down. He could wait the students out but the violence on university campuses in Lae and Goroka in the last few days suggests that is not the most effective strategy. His letter to the Presidents of the Student Representative Councils at UPNG and Unitech has also not been very effective. The Prime Minister should embrace the Ombudsman Commission’s investigations into the events of 8 June. He should also seek to meet face-to-face with student leaders. A traditional Melanesian resolution to the impasse may not be possible in the current environment but a traditional Melanesian conversation is essential if the Prime Minister is to regain some of the trust he has lost over the last week.

Photo courtesy of UPNG4PNG





I’m glad my paper, Papua New Guinea: Old Challenges for New Leaders, has triggered debate on The Interpreter about PNG’s future. I agree with James Batley and Stuart Schaefer that thinking about development in Papua New Guinea needs a long-term perspective. I am also keenly aware that I am Australian and that ultimately the responsibility for shaping the future of my country’s nearest neighbour rests with the leaders and the citizens of Papa New Guinea.

The ideas I put forward in my paper were drawn from discussions I have had with young Papua New Guineans for the last three years but they are just that; ideas. Developing policy priorities and determining the relative affordability of those priorities into the future is a matter for Papua New Guinea. I hope that the paper might generate more discussion among PNG’s younger generation and emerging leaders about their own ideas for changing the future.

I agree with James and Stuart that Papua New Guinea has a 'small quantum of money available' and this is a serious problem that I did not address in my paper. But PNG also has a vast endowment of resources that gives the nation long term revenue options that are not available to many developing countries and certainly not to any of PNG’s Pacific neighbours.

I’ve heard a number of development experts say Papua New Guinea would be better off if it didn’t have an extractives industry. Possibly. But that industry has provided education, training and employment opportunities for thousands of young Papua New Guineans who would not have otherwise had those opportunities. The country’s resource wealth is a factor driving corruption but countries without a vast resource base also suffer from corruption. Further, if Papua New Guinea is able to diversify its economy, by measures such as developing its agricultural sector, a broader tax and revenue base would be a possibility. The 'small quantum of money available' could grow in another generation or two.

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In addition, the priorities I suggested the next generation of leaders focus on in law and order, infrastructure and national education were deliberately not large-scale in nature and do not require expenditure that a future government of Papua New Guinea could not afford. Cooperation with international partners and the private sector could make a focus on new initiatives more affordable.

James and Stuart say they are suspicious of circuit breakers. Of course there is no one solution to solving all of PNG’s development challenges that has somehow remained undiscovered. 

Circuit breakers, however, are not only possible in the future; they have already opened up development paths in Papua New Guinea. Regulatory change in the telecommunications sector allowed the Irish company Digicel to enter the market in 2007. The introduction of competition to the sector revolutionised telecommunications in PNG. It has delivered mobile phones to half the population, including to people in remote areas who had never had access to a landline or travelled to an urban area. Broadband services have followed and, while not yet as widespread, have opened up many new options for small business and education. Access to mobile phones has enabled rural dwellers to be in regular touch with their relatives in urban centres, allowing more timely transfers of cash or assistance with business development. Wide access to social media platforms via mobile phones has enabled people across the nation to access information, share opinions, and learn from each other, without ever owning a computer.

Even if future 'circuit breakers' are not as revolutionary in nature as the telecommunications example, if they open up new development paths in only a few population centres, they are still worthy of the name. Achieving small wins in PNG is important. They give the population hope. They also provide examples of workable change useful for leaders across all sectors who are making sustained efforts to achieve long-term development gains.

James and Stuart say my analysis takes for granted that Papua New Guinea’s leaders value the strength of national institutions, and assumes that what constrains them is the availability of financial resources. I disagree. PNG’s current leaders have been willing to actively devalue institutions by not respecting the role or authority of the courts, the transparency and accountability agencies, and even national departments of health and education. Incidentally, this phenomenon — of devaluing independent national institutions — is not unique to Papua New Guinea as this UK analysis explains.

The reason I suggested in my paper that PNG’s next generation of leaders will be under pressure to strengthen national institutions is that emerging leaders are already committing to respect and rebuild the institutions they believe are being undermined. What has impressed me over the last three years of working with emerging leaders is how different their values are from those projected by that the current generation of leaders. Young people in Papua New Guinea, probably like young people in every country, appear to be motivated more by a sense of fairness, justice and integrity than they are by building personal wealth. They seem more determined to use their skills to make a positive contribution to their community (in both urban and rural settings) than to accede to positions of power or securing high paying jobs. But, unlike most young people in developed countries, emerging leaders in Papua New Guinea are acutely aware of the responsibility they, as educated and capable people, bear for building and developing their nation. They value the importance of rule of law, the constitution, and the independence of the nation’s institutions. They may not be able to prevent the damage being done now but they deserve a chance to repair and rebuild in the future.


For the last three years, the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program has hosted the Australia-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue under the auspices of the Australia-PNG Network, with the generous support of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and also of GE  I’ve been privileged to co-chair this Dialogue with Serena Sumanop, the founder of The Voice Inc, PNG, an organisation devoted to cultivating leadership skills in university students. The Dialogue and the subsequent connections we have made with emerging leaders in Papua New Guinea (including some great friendships) have been the highlight of my eight years at the Lowy Institute. The extraordinary talents and commitment of these young emerging leaders has been truly inspiring.

The challenges this group of young Papua New Guineans will face when they and others assume more senior decision-making roles in government, the private sector, and civil society organisations are immense. In a new analysis published by the Lowy Institute today, I examine seven trends that are shaping Papua New Guinea’s future: weak governance; poor law and order; a failing health system, a mediocre national education system; an over-reliance on the extractives industry; the unrealised potential of subsistence agriculture; and a growing population.

I agree with Sean Dorney when he says in his Lowy Institute Paper, The Embarrassed Colonialist, that there is a disproportionate focus in Australia on PNG’s weaknesses — such as high crime and corruption — rather than PNG’s strengths.  Papua New Guinea has a lot going for it. It has a vast resources endowment, abundant food sources, a young population, and it enjoys geographic proximity to important markets in East Asia and in Australia. Although the economy is in dire straits this year, Papua New Guinea has enjoyed 14 years of successive GDP growth and attracted a major successful investment in LNG from ExxonMobil. A growing middle class has produced a number of very talented emerging leaders.

But the negative trends in Papua New Guinea have serious implications for the future of the country. These trends are also mutually reinforcing. By 2050, PNG’s population could reach 30 million. A young and growing population can be a real boon for a developing country but it will place large demands on PNG’s national infrastructure and service delivery agencies. Without meaningful investments in commercialising agriculture, subsistence agriculture is likely to struggle to meet a larger population’s food needs. This, along with further tensions over resources could lead to increased numbers of conflicts over land, exacerbating PNG’s law and order challenge. One result could be a growing need to import food, which would have consequences for the incidence of non-communicable diseases. At the same time, improvements in technology could deliver significant advances in diagnoses and treatment.

More Papua New Guineans and, most importantly, more girls will go to school but this is unlikely to have the desired impact on improving educational outcomes or skills levels as the growing population overwhelms an under-resourced and under-skilled education system.  If education standards for the majority are not dramatically improved, it will be difficult for the nation to take full advantage of the foreign investments it attracts in its resources base. Its labor force will be ill-suited to participate in other areas of the economy that require skills, leading to a larger number of unemployed youth. This is likely to reinforce the trend towards declining law and order, which will not be addressed without significant institutional reform. Poor law and order raises barriers to the creation of small and medium sized enterprises and dissuades a significant expansion of investment beyond the extractive industries.

The next generation of leaders have a near impossible task ahead to strengthen the nation’s institutions. Read More

These are already under threat from the District Services Improvement Plan that will devolve national responsibilities for service delivery to individual members of parliament. They will also be under pressure to deliver tangible results in the form of improved living standards at the same time as the quality of key agencies responsible for service delivery and law and order is diminishing.

Delivering better living standards for all Papua New Guineans is a very long-term endeavour. Rather than trying to solve all PNG’s problems simultaneously, as has been the practice to date, the next generation of leaders should pick a few areas where bold and innovative policy interventions can make a real difference to communities and unlock barriers to progress. 

In the paper I suggest that early efforts from a new generation of leaders in Papua New Guinea could concentrate on:

  1. A new national investment in education, learning from successes in PNG’s own history.
  2. Improving access to electricity and telecommunications in select rural areas that will help to enhance the quality of healthcare and create opportunities in education and business development.
  3. A tailored approach to reduce crime by targeting hotspots in a holistic way,  combining government, private sector and civil society talents to address the drivers of crime in one high crime area, which could then act as a model for reducing crime nation-wide.
  4. Developing and commercialising subsistence agriculture through strategic investments in infrastructure in a number of rural centres that will improve market access and supply chains and offer viable employment options for a large number of young people in rural areas.

These are only suggestions. PNG’s emerging leaders are already starting to change their country by pursuing community development initiatives alongside their professional roles. They are acutely aware of the complexity of the challenges facing Papua New Guinea and are thinking strategically about how they can influence change in the future.

Australia, which has enduring interests in Papua New Guinea, can help not just with official aid but targeted private sector investments and civil society partnerships. Investing in young people can help emerging leaders implement their ideas now, rather than waiting 15 to 20 years for them to obtain senior leadership roles. The next generation of PNG’s leaders is certainly capable of implementing meaningful change that could put their country on a much more positive trajectory. They deserve support.

Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank


Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, gave an address at the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday. The Prime Minister's address was a great opportunity to spur more awareness of Papua New Guinea, but the Prime Minister did not fully embrace it. 

Prime Minister O'Neill's speech was clearly designed to promote a positive image of Papua New Guinea to a wider Australian audience, and reassure the audience at home, on the assumption there would be a television audience watching on ABCNews24 (also broadcast in PNG). But the ABC was covering Cardinal Pell's testimony from Rome and the Prime Minister was instead preaching to an expert audience, composed almost entirely of friends of Papua New Guinea including Australian business people with interests in the country, past and present Australian Government who have worked on PNG, academics and graduate students as well as his own cabinet colleagues.

O'Neill was frank about some of the more sensitive issues within the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship, which was encouraging for those us trying to help improve awareness of Papua New Guinea in Australia. But the audience in the Press Club and were probably hoping for greater candour about the economic and social challenges facing the country.

The Prime Minister said he did not want to 'sugar-coat' the challenges posed by Papua New Guinea's budget crisis, but went on to do exactly that. He declared his Government was managing debt repayments, and in cutting spending had been careful to avoid having an impact on the delivery of essential services. But reports out of Papua New Guinea suggest otherwise. In discussing climate change, he referred to the devastating drought his country had faced over the last year and was pleased that his Government had been able to manage the response without seeking international help. Evidence on the ground, however, has shown that assistance is not reaching communities who need it most and many people have died from the impact (in an interview after his address O'Neill rejected reports of drought-related deaths).

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O'Neill was less than convincing in answering questions about his Government's response to appalling levels of violence against women. He called violence unacceptable, but by attributing family and sexual violence to 'tribal issues' and saying he was surprised his Government's own Lukautim Pikinini (Child Welfare) Act had yet to be certified and implemented, we were left with the impression that reducing violence was less than a top priority for him. 

On the corruption allegations and outstanding arrest warrant against him, the Prime Minister argued that he had been targeted because he was doing his job, and claimed he had no knowledge of the letter approving fraudulent payments to Paraka Lawyers that is allegedly signed by him. He also said it was unlikely Papua New Guinean politicians and business people were transferring the proceeds of corruption to accounts in Australia, saying these people were not wealthy and there were rigorous rules in place preventing money laundering. However, Papua New Guinea is still on the Financial Action Task Force's gray list of countries with deficient anti-money laundering frameworks. 

O'Neill was generally upbeat about Australia-Papua New Guinea relations, paying particular attention to the value of people-to-people relations. But on sensitive issues such as asylum seekers and aid advisers, he didn't do the Australian Government any favours. Unusually, he also expressed concerns about Australian market access for Papua New Guinea goods.

He labelled asylum seekers as a 'problem' his Government and the current Australian Government had 'inherited' from their predecessors. The establishment of the Manus detention centre was agreed between the Howard and Somare Governments. The current arrangement, however, is very much the responsibility of Prime Minister O'Neill, who negotiated a significant additional package of aid and attained remarkable leverage out of the deal. His argument that Papua New Guinea could not afford to resettle refugees and wanted the eventual closure of the Manus detention centre is not surprising, but will challenge the Australian Government's ongoing management of asylum seeker policy.

The Prime Minister said that he valued Australian aid but was sceptical about the outcomes of the aid program. He was keen to see closer alignment of aid with his Government's priorities and wanted fewer advisers (a new aid partnership between Australia and PNG is soon to be signed). But after announcing last year that he would ban foreign advisers, he told the Press Club audience that he wanted them to work for the PNG Government rather than foreign governments and 'no-one had been kicked out'. A small number of advisers have not returned to their posts as of January 2016.

Sean Dorney has made an excellent case in The Embarrassed Colonialist that Australians need to start learning more about Papua New Guinea. Prime Minister O'Neill's Government could do much more to capitalise on the goodwill (77% of Australians told the 2015 Lowy Institute Poll that Australia has a moral obligation to help PNG) that exists within Australia by being more open about the nature and scale of the challenges the country faces.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Commonwealth.


The Lowy Institute launches a new Lowy Institute Paper today, The Embarrassed Colonialist by Sean Dorney, former ABC Papua New Guinea correspondent, former captain of the Kumuls (Papua New Guinea's national rugby league team), legendary Pacific journalist and Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. This piece is the first in a series in which experts debate Sean's arguments in detail. Sean himself will take part in the conversation.

Sean's paper argues that Australia needs to acknowledge its colonial past in order to move to a deeper level of engagement with the Papua New Guinea of today.

The title of the paper is a little startling. Is Australia an embarrassed colonialist? Australian government officials are undoubtedly uncomfortable with Australia's status as Papua New Guinea's former colonial master. Ministers and officials prefer to use the terms 'deep historical links' or 'shared history' rather than mention the word 'colony' when talking about Australia's history in Papua New Guinea. This could be political correctness but is by no means a new sentiment. Sean quotes Rachel Cleland, the wife of Sir Donald Cleland, Australian administrator in Papua New Guinea from 1952 to 1967, saying 'I wouldn't say that any Australians thought we had a colony...that was not in any way the thinking.'

Unlike the Pacific, African and South American colonies of European powers, the geographic proximity of Australia and Papua New Guinea means we cannot escape each other. Australia is still Papua New Guinea's largest bilateral aid donor by a margin of US$374 million to the next most generous donor. This translates into the Australian government having interests or connections in almost every sphere of governance in Papua New Guinea. Australia is Papua New Guinea's single most important trading partner. Australians also occupy many leadership positions in the private sector. This dominance invariably leads to sensitivities among Papua New Guinean politicians and officials about Australian influence.

We have seen these sensitivities play out to the detriment of Papua New Guineans over the last year.

In the midst of a serious drought that ruined crops and caused significant suffering and even starvation in some parts of the country, the Papua New Guinea government delayed requesting external assistance. It was confident it was capable of responding to the crisis, principally through distributing funds to members of parliament from the affected areas, and has been defensive of criticism that its response has been inadequate.

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The Australian government had delivered significant assistance to regions affected by the 1997 drought in Papua New Guinea and although it was ready to assist again, it was unable to mount a similar effort unless asked by the Papua New Guinea government. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced a package of assistance in November last year but the Papua New Guinea government remains determined to be seen to be in control of the response, which appears to mean a very different level of visibility of Australian assistance to that of 1997.

Australia has a large official presence in Papua New Guinea — a High Commission of 360 staff (larger than Australia's Embassy in Washington) and an aid program worth over $550 million — but struggles to understand its nearest neighbour. Poor media coverage of Papua New Guinea within Australia, a small Papua New Guinea diaspora (mostly based in Queensland), a lack of coverage of Papua New Guinea in school curricula, the tiny number of universities offering courses about Papua New Guinea, and limited tourism promotion mean that even interested Australians find it hard to comprehend developments across the Torres Strait.

The signing of the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement in 2013 and subsequent re-opening of a detention centre for asylum seekers on Manus Island has seen an increase in Australian media coverage of Papua New Guinea. This has provided a bit of an upsurge in business for Papua New Guinea watchers like me, providing information on Papua New Guinea to journalists, non-government organisations and politicians. I am usually disappointed to find that most of my new friends appear more interested in the plight of the asylum seekers than in the challenges facing 7.5 million Papua New Guineans, but nevertheless I take every opportunity to draw their attention to the much more interesting issues I think they could be following.

The seeming intractability of Papua New Guinea's many challenges (Sean does a great job of summarising them in his paper) make it hard to entice Australians to engage with our nearest neighbours. As Sean says, 'it is easy to focus on Papua New Guinea's weaknesses...but less often do people consider its strengths.' This resonated strongly with me. In the work we have done at the Lowy Institute with emerging leaders in Papua New Guinea, I have been impressed by their energy, their enthusiasm, and their commitment to the development of their communities, which stands in contrast to reporting on negative trends in governance, law and order, health and education in Papua New Guinea.

Australia's nearest neighbour is an endlessly fascinating country, with a huge endowment of natural resources and a hard-working and enterprising young population which is desperate for more education and employment opportunities and which knows far more about us than we know about them. I recommend you read Sean Dorney's The Embarrassed Colonialist to learn how Australia can 'build a new partnership with one of our most vibrant neighbours'.

  • This editorial in The Age of 4 January argues the Australian government has sacrificed the promotion of good governance in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in order to sustain its asylum seeker policy, at a cost to local populations and Australia's international reputation.
  • PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has followed through on his promise to terminate the services of a number of foreign advisers seconded to government departments by the end of 2015. Fifteen Australian public servants attached to PNG government agencies ended their contracts on 31 December. According to the PNG Post Courier, Australian advisers were told they will need to leave their employment with the Australian government and work under PNG government employment contracts if they wished to continue.
  • Over at Devpolicy, Tess Newton Cain foreshadows the year ahead for the Pacific Islands region. Elections are scheduled to be held in Vanuatu, Samoa and Nauru this year.
  • Paul Flanagan considers what went wrong for the PNG economy in 2015 and looks at what lies ahead in 2016, warning that poor policies hinder the realisation of the country's great prospects.
  • ABC PNG correspondent Eric Tlozek reports on a great new initiative: a free women-only bus in Port Moresby, funded by Australian aid and the UN, providing safe travel for women who are frequently victims of crime on the city's Public Motor Vehicles.
  • The Republic of the Marshall Islands has a new President. Parliamentary newcomer Casten Nemra, 44, won a close vote this week, a month after general elections saw half the cabinet lose their seats.
  • A second round of elections in Kiribati this week will decide the composition of the 44-member national parliament. The number of women contesting the elections has doubled since the last elections in 2011.
  • French photographer Marc Dozier documents PNG tribesman Mundiya Kepanga's journey across the US. You can follow him on Twitter.
  • Jo Chandler documents the contribution scientist Vojtech Novotny has made to Papua New Guinea's forest conservation efforts.
  • Outgoing Kiribati President Anote Tong features in this short documentary about the environmental and human impacts of rising sea levels in Kiribati. EyeSteelFilm and filmmaker Matthieu Rytz have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete the film.


The Lowy Institute, with the support of GE and the DFAT-sponsored Australia-PNG Network, is hosting the Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue this week. The Dialogue, which seeks to develop deeper, people-to-people relations between Australia and its nearest neighbour, takes place at the end of a year in which the official relationship has taken a few hits.

A shared history: PNG and Australian fire fighters after a training session (Photo courtesy Flickr user DFAT)

The most recent came when an AFP officer alleged in the media last week that Australian police serving as advisers in Papua New Guinea were constrained because of the Manus processing centre. I won’t deal here with the other allegations the officer made, which have been refuted by the AFP, Papua New Guinea’s police commissioner and DFAT, and which changed in later interviews with the officer in question.

But the reference to Manus bears further analysis. A number of prominent commentators on Papua New Guinea have publicly and privately regretted the impact of the political imperative to maintain the Manus island refugee processing centre as a deterrent to future asylum seekers. The ANU’s Stephen Howes and I are on the public record saying that this imperative dissuades the Australian government from tackling tough issues in Papua New Guinea and constrains Australian policy options. Anti-corruption campaigner and head of the now de-funded Taskforce Sweep in Papua New Guinea, Sam Koim, has also cautioned about ignoring corruption at the highest levels in Papua New Guinea in order to preserve the O’Neill government’s cooperation with refugee resettlement processing and resettlement.

Are we right? Is Australian policy in Papua New Guinea beholden to its immigration policy?

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If the processing centre in Manus were to be closed, would Australia be freer to publicly criticise the government of Papua New Guinea about the rule of law and the behaviour of its police force?

Australia has many reasons to maintain a friendly bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea, including:

  1. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s nearest neighbour. Its security is inextricably tied to Australia’s security. The 2013 Defence White Paper identified the security of Australia’s immediate neighbourhood (including Papua New Guinea) as the second of four key strategic interests.
  2. Bilateral trade is worth $5.9 billion. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s 17th largest trading partner. Australia takes 36% of PNG’s exports and Australian goods account for 34% of PNG’s imports, making Australia by far Papua New Guinea’s leading trading partner. The stock of Australian investment in Papua New Guinea totals $18.9 billion.
  3. Papua New Guinea is the largest bilateral recipient of Australian aid, with $554.6 million due to be disbursed this financial year. According to DFAT, Australian aid accounts for 68 per cent of total official development assistance received by Papua New Guinea and makes up 14 per cent of Australia’s total aid program. 
  4. According to DFAT, approximately 10,000 Australians live in Papua New Guinea. The latest Australian census shows about 15,000 Papua New Guineans living in Australia.
  5. Australia’s colonial relationship with Papua New Guinea gives Australia special responsibilities. The 2015 Lowy Poll found 82% of Australians agree that ‘stability in Papua New Guinea is important to our national interest’ and 77% say ‘Australia has a moral obligation to help Papua New Guinea.’

Separately and together, these are good reasons not to risk damaging the bilateral relationship, regardless of whether Australia maintains the costly processing centre in Manus.

The Australian government is constrained from speaking out about the rule of law, corruption and human right abuses because it wants to avoid the risk the PNG government would renege on its agreement to process and resettle refugees. However, by far the most most important reason for Australia’s reticence is that the nature of the bilateral relationship has changed.

After the tense times of the Howard-Somare era, Australian leaders and foreign ministers have sought to put the relationship on a friendly and more equal footing. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd set the wheels of change in motion, showing overt respect to his elder counterpart Sir Michael Somare and agreeing to Somare’s request to focus more on the bilateral economic relationship and reform the aid relationship. When Peter O’Neill replaced Somare as Prime Minister, he quickly developed a friendly relationship Julia Gillard as prime minister and Rudd as foreign minister. O’Neill understood Australian politicians well. He convinced them he was the leader Papua New Guinea needed and that he could provide the regional leadership Australia needed, presenting a viable alternative to the then undemocratic Fiji.

Through these years, PNG’s economy strengthened, benefiting from the impact of ExxonMobil’s landmark LNG investment and high commodity prices, and it developed more substantial trade relationships with Asian countries. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has worked harder than any of her predecessors to improve the relationship in an era when Papua New Guinea is no longer dependent on Australia. Peter O’Neill’s government has a relationship of trust with Canberra because of efforts on both sides. The Manus deal helped Prime Minister O’Neill gain some leverage over Canberra but the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship had changed before that deal was struck.

The relationship could certainly be better but at this particular juncture is hard to see how an Australian foreign minister could tackle the most difficult issues in a public way without risking another hit to the official relationship. In these challenging times, strong people-to-people and business-to-business relationships are more important than ever.


Fiji's 2013 constitution calls for a separation of powers between military and police (Photo: Getty)

Fiji’s Police Commissioner Ben Groenewald ended his contract this week. The official statement from the Fiji government cited personal and family reasons for the Commissioner’s departure, however Groenewald admitted in an interview with Radio Australia’s Bruce Hill that the Fiji military’s interference in policing 'indirectly' influenced his decision. The Fiji military’s Land Force Commander, Colonel Sitiveni Qiliho has been appointed acting police commissioner.

The South African Groenewald had earned respect in Fiji and the wider region in his relatively short term for improving the performance of the Fiji police and dealing effectively and transparently with disciplinary issues. In the post-2006 coup era, Fiji’s police commissioners were drawn from senior military ranks; Colonel Esala Teleni and then Brigadier General Ioane Navilarua, who were not universally regarded as effective. It was therefore a positive achievement for Fiji, as it rebuilds its democracy and implements a new constitution, to have its police force led by an independent and experienced police officer who was not linked to the military.

In contrast, the appointment of Land Force Commander Qiliho as acting police commissioner is a poor decision on many fronts. The appointment was formally made by Fiji’s outgoing president, on the advice of Prime Minister Bainimarama as chair of the Constitutional Offices Commission. Bainimarama’s choice of one of his former military colleagues harks back to the post-2006 coup era and pre-2014 election when Bainimarama put senior military officers in the roles of police commissioner and heads of civilian government agencies. The Qiliho appointment indicates the prime minister is happy for the military to be influencing the police.

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Fiji’s 2013 constitution and the 2009 State Services Decree make clear the separation of powers between the military and police. The prime minister’s decision to appoint a senior military officer to the police commissioner’s position, even temporarily, blurs this distinction and undermines his commitment to the constitution.

The prime minister’s choice of Qiliho in particular is worrying because Qiliho has just recruited into the military three police officers charged in relation to the infamous torture video (warning: video contains graphic images). The three suspended officers were charged in relation to the assault captured in the video, that went viral nearly three years ago. Qiliho has claimed the police had abandoned the officers. Although Groenewald did not name this case when he made his claims about military interference in policing, this is the clearest evidence of such.

Qiliho says he recruited the three officers so they would be provided with lawyers but it sends an unfortunate message to the Fiji people that he is more interested in protecting the alleged perpetrators of crime than condemning the crime. His approach is in marked contrast to Groenewald who made it clear he would not tolerate any ill treatment of the citizenry by police, and has actively investigated allegations of police brutality. 

The people of Fiji are entitled to have confidence that their police commissioner will protect their rights as well as those of police officers. The appointment of Qiliho does not inspire such confidence.

Groenewald’s admission that the military are interfering in policing was important because it means this can be discussed within Fiji. The Republic of Fiji Military Forces are regarded as something of a sacred cow in Fiji. Few politicians are prepared to tackle the issue of the military’s extraordinary influence in the country, not least because of the three coups the military has engineered. 

Groenewald’s admission also, however, has the potential to make recruiting a new police commissioner more challenging. There are unlikely to be many qualified candidates within Fiji, and it may be difficult to find foreign candidates who are prepared to deal with what may be continuing attempts by the military to interfere in policing operations, particularly if there is scant government support for preserving police independence.

After the elections last year, I argued Fiji had more to do to restore democracy, and in this Policy Brief I said Australia should continue to back Fiji’s transition to democracy beyond the elections. Australia is supporting good governance in Fiji through its aid program but could further assist by offering to help with the recruitment process for a new police commissioner.

Groenewald's admission and departure, and Col Qiliho’s subsequent appointment, are setbacks for Fiji’s rebuilding democracy project. If the military continues to assert its influence over policing in Fiji, police will struggle to perform their constitutional role effectively. The government’s commitment to the 2013 constitution and to the rule of law then has to be questioned. 

But the situation is not beyond repair. The appointment of another independent and experienced police officer to the police commissioner’s job is critical. The Fiji government should recognise it has a constitutional duty not only to recruit a qualified person, but to also support the police commissioner in carrying out his or her duties independently of the military. 

Fiji’s international partners should convey their interest in this process and offer to assist with an international recruitment process to find the best candidate.

  • The PNG government brought down the 2016 budget this week, which drew the government back from the edge of a fiscal crisis. Jonathan Pryke provided his immediate reaction to the ABC, and will provide more in depth analysis in the coming days.
  • Australia’s minister for the Pacific and international development Steve Ciobo is visiting New Caledonia, Fiji and Niue this week. In Fiji, he observed Exercise Longreach — a disaster preparedness seminar organised by the Australian Defence Force and, importantly, the first exercise the ADF has undertaken in Fiji since the 2006 coup.
  • Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten, shadow minister for foreign affairs Tanya Plibersek and shadow immigration minister Richard Marles are also in the Pacific this week, visiting Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati to investigate the impact of climate change. The ANU’s Professor Stephen Howes argues Australia needs to do more to provide labour migration options for Pacific Island countries affected by climate change.
  • Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is calling for greater political will from wealthy nations in the lead up to COP21 climate change negotiations in Paris.
  • The 11 (mostly Pacific) nations which are party to the Tokelau Arrangement have called for a 40% cut to the catch of southern albacore tuna stocks, following alarming new evidence that the species’ numbers are down to 40 per cent of pre-fishing levels. The ABC’s Jemima Garrett reports
  • The prime ministers of both Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands averted votes of no confidence that were mooted to be moved against them last week. Jenny Hayward-Jones looks at the corruption allegations that continue to threaten the stability of the Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s government.
  • Human Rights Watch Australia launched its new report on family violence in Papua New Guinea today and called on the PNG government to expedite the implementation of its Family Protection Act throughout the country.
  • Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten joins in some local dancing during his trip to Kiribati.


Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O'Neill comprehensively headed off a motion of no confidence in parliament yesterday over corruption allegations. O'Neill's assertion that his government is stable and will 'continue to provide stability' ahead of handing down a difficult budget next week is convincing, particularly as he yesterday won a vote of confidence 78 votes to two. But doubts remain about his government's commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.

I wrote about the O'Neill Government's apparent lack of respect for the rule of law in June 2014 ('PNG: O'Neill Survives, Rule of Law Suffers'). At that time, Prime Minister O'Neill had avoided an arrest warrant issued relating to his alleged connections to fraudulent payments from the Papua New Guinea Finance Department to Paraka Lawyers.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill at the Lowy Institute, 2012. (Peter Morris.)

This matter has continued to reverberate. In July this year former Police Commissioner Geoffrey Vaki was found guilty of contempt of court for failing to execute the2014 arrest warrant against the Prime Minister and sentenced to three years in jail. In August, two PNG detectives with the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate, Chief Superintendent Mathew Damaru and Chief Inspector Timothy Gitua, brought contempt charges against new Police Commissioner Gari Baki for alleged interference with an arrest warrant that had been issued for Treasury Secretary Dairi Vele on charges of official corruption relating to decisions of the Prime Minister. Vele won a stay against the warrant in July, pending a court decision on setting aside the warrant.

Commissioner Baki then began an investigation into Damaru and Gitua and issued an arrest warrant against them.

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Two Australian lawyers, Greg Egan and Terence Lambert, who were joining the legal team acting for Damaru and Gitua, were denied entry to Papua New Guinea in late September. They believed this to be politically motivated. A week later the National Court of Justice overturned the ban imposed by the PNG Department of Immigration and the two lawyers were permitted entry. The arrest warrant against Damaru and Gitua was stayed by the National Court in October and Baki was restrained from further investigating the detectives and their lawyer in a case which cast doubt on Baki's commitment to police impartiality.

The Government also sought to suspend Chief Magistrate Nerrie Eliakim in early October. Eliakim is the magistrate who issued the arrest warrant against the Prime Minister. The Government insists its move to suspect Eliakim is related to complaints received about her performance rather than her involvement in the Prime Minister's case.

In a further twist this week, Supreme Court Judge George Manahu dismissed the application of Attorney-General Ano Pala to have an arrest warrant against him stayed. Pala is alleged to have conspired with Finance Minister James Marape, Prime Minister O'Neill and others to defeat the course of justice in relation to the investigations into the Paraka Lawyers payments. Importantly, the judge said the power of police to investigate and arrest should not be interfered with, that criminal matters do not recognise the status of a person in the community, and that being a minister and the chief legal adviser to the government is irrelevant. In other words: no-one is above the law. Assistant Police Commissioner Thomas Eluh, perhaps fearing another lawsuit, has called for Pala to  hand himself in for questioning at the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate office, declaring 'we cannot be going around looking to arrest a national leader'. But Pala doesn't have time to hand himself in this week – he is busy attending parliament.

This convoluted web of legal processes which the Government has woven has created a public perception that it has something to hide. The Prime Minister has encouraged this perception through his unwillingness to engage with critics. His government has cracked down on 'improper use' of the internet, with new laws imposing fines and jail sentences for placing 'offensive' or 'false' information online – apparently targeting social media activists who have been very critical of the government. The Prime Minister decided in August that Australian journalist John Garnaut and former Treasury official Paul Flanagan were no longer welcome in Papua New Guinea because of their criticism of his government's budget management. A peaceful public protest against the Prime Minister at the beginning of this week in Port Moresby which drew only small numbers provoked a disproportionate reaction from the police.

Why a leader with a parliamentary majority that would be the envy of prime ministers the world over should be sensitive about a few critics on social media, an Australian economist and a journalist is curious.

Prime Minister O'Neill's ability to maintain his dominance is not as easy now as it was at this time last year. The dramatic fall in commodity prices, consequent budgetary challenges and the El Nino drought threaten his capacity to deliver promised nationally significant reforms such as free education and healthcare, and maintain the District Services Improvement Program under which MPs receive grants to administer services and development initiatives in their electorates and which secure their loyalty to the Prime Minister. O'Neill is also clearly concerned about his legal battles, which ultimately may present the greatest threat to his leadership.

Nevertheless, for the moment O'Neill remains in a strong position with few realistic competitors for his job. O'Neill is right that Papua New Guinea needs a stable government to deal with the challenges facing the nation. But the people of Papua New Guinea also need a government that respects the rule of law and is confident enough to engage with its critics about the best way to deal with those challenges.


The saga over bribery and pardons in Vanuatu has brought out the worst and the best in the Pacific island nation's political-legal class.

Vanuatu's Supreme Court found 14 members of parliament guilty of the criminal charge of bribery on 9 October. Later that day, in flagrant disregard for the rule of law, Speaker Marcellino Pipite, one of those convicted and  who happened also to be Acting President that day, used a provision in the Constitution to pardon himself and the other MPs convicted of bribery charges.

The Vanuatu parliament, Port Vila. (Flickr/Phillip Capper.)

Baldwin Lonsdale, the President of Vanuatu who had earlier declared no-one was above the law, revoked the Speaker's pardons a few days after he returned from his visit to Samoa. This decision, which served to restore some public confidence in the rule of law, was challenged in the courts but Justice Oliver Saksak ruled on 21 October in favour of the President's revocations of the Speaker's pardons.

The sentencing yesterday of the 14 MPs to custodial jail terms of more than two years means they will lose their seats, destroying Prime Minister Sato Kilman's parliamentary majority. By-elections need to be held to replace the MPs but with elections due next year, one Opposition MP has speculated it might be more efficient to dissolve parliament and hold early elections. The convicted MPs will no doubt appeal their sentences so the saga is not quite over yet. Veteran MP and Finance Minister Willie Jimmy received a suspended sentence because he pleaded guilty at the beginning of the hearing.

The bribery charges and convictions exposed on a grand scale the weaknesses in Vanuatu's political system and the flaws of many of its elected politicians.

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It is not the first time Vanuatu MPs (including some of those sentenced on 22 October) have been caught up in corruption, fraud or other financial scandals, nor the first time politicians have been convicted and jailed. This has, however, been the largest political corruption case in Vanuatu's history and according to Justice Mary Sey, the MPs are 'the first in Vanuatu to be prosecuted for this offence in your capacity as members of parliament at the time of the offending'.

Vanuatu has a long history of political instability. It is not uncommon for the position of prime minister and most cabinet positions to change hands three or four times during a parliamentary term (elections are held every four years). Indeed, Vanuatu is probably the only country in the region to rival Australia's turnover rate of prime ministers in recent years.

Although Vanuatu has historically had one of the strongest party systems in Melanesia, many voters elect the candidates they believe most capable of delivering cargo to the local community rather than those most capable of doing good for the nation. Opposition MPs keen to occupy the government benches and assume valuable ministerial portfolios regularly move no-confidence motions against the prime minister. Holding cabinet positions offers a much surer way of directing resources to constituents and supporters than trying to influence policy-making or hold the government to account from the opposition backbench.

To Vanuatu's credit, regular changes of government have rarely provoked strong public reactions or the kind of violence seen in neighbouring Solomon Islands. Politicians who lose power in motions of no-confidence almost always launch court challenges and have a very good record of abiding by the court's decisions. As a junior Australian diplomat covering Vanuatu politics in the late 1990s, I quickly gained a good knowledge of Vanuatu's constitution while beating the well-trodden path between the parliament and the Supreme Court buildings. I was frequently in awe of the Chief Justice's patient approach to teaching MPs something they did not know about the constitution or parliamentary standing orders every time they appeared before him.

The developments over the last few weeks have been stunning, even for the jaded citizens of Vanuatu used to their unpredictable national politics. The criminal convictions of a quarter of the nation's parliament and the Speaker's attempts to pardon them are a disaster for the government and damaging for Vanuatu's international image.

But the conviction and sentencing of 14 MPs on bribery charges, the President's statement that no-one is above the law, Justice Mary Sey's statement that bribery is a cancer, and the strong demonstration of the independence of the judiciary are positive signs for Vanuatu over the long term. The rule of law has been upheld and politicians who sought not only personal advantage but to mock Vanuatu's laws are being punished.

The people of Vanuatu have been given a clear message that it is not acceptable for their politicians to cheat them and undermine the rule of law, and that there are serious consequences for those who do. If this helps voters to question the integrity of candidates and demand better behaviour from the people that represent them in parliament, and if it reminds MPs of their duty to uphold the rule of law and to respect the trust placed in them, this is unquestionably a good thing.


Pacific Islands Forum leaders met in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea last week. The meeting was highly anticipated for a few reasons. It is the first Forum hosted by PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who has clear regional leadership ambitions. PNG is celebrating 40 years of independence from Australia this week and hosted the Pacific Games in July. It is also preparing to host APEC in 2018, and needed to demonstrate its credentials in hosting regional meetings.

Leaders at the 46th Pacific Islands Forum, Post Moresby, Papua New Guinea (Facebook/Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat)

It was the first time the Fiji Government has been invited to attend the leaders’ summit since Fiji was suspended from the Forum in 2009. The now elected Prime Minister Bainimarama followed through on his promise to boycott the meeting, but was represented by his Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

The meeting was billed as an opportunity for Forum leaders to seek a common position to take to COP21 negotiations in Paris – 'seek' being the operative word.

In a break from past procedures and under the stewardship of new Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor, leaders had five priority issues on their agenda instead of the usual 35 or so they have previously been expected to discuss. Derived in part from public consulations, these issues were: fisheries and maritime surveillance, climate change and disaster risk management, West Papua, information and communications technology and cervical cancer.

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Anyone expecting more succinct outcomes from a focus on five rather than 35 issues, however, would have been disappointed. The meeting produced a 41 paragraph communiqué and two annexes: an 11 paragraph Declaration  on Climate Change Action and a 21 paragraph Hiri Declaration, 'Strengthening connections to enhance Pacific regionalism'.

The reporting of the summit focused on the split between Australia/New Zealand and the island states on climate change. Neither Tony Abbott nor John Key agreed to the island states' demand for a position that would restrict global warming to 1.5 C°. This enabled leaders such as the Kiribati President Anote Tong and the Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minister Tony de Brum to join Fiji’s Prime Minister in portraying Australia and New Zealand as out of step with the region. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who made an insensitive joke about Pacific islands affected by climate change last Friday, reinforced that notion.

But there was much more to the discussion on climate change than reaching agreement on the temperature goal, which in itself offers no guarantees for a global agreement in Paris. The leaders did reach agreement on a number of significant issues that they would seek for inclusion in the outcome of the Paris negotiations. The language in the Declaration on Climate Change Action was as good as it could be given the attitudes of Australia and New Zealand, and presents a number of common substantial arguments Forum members can take to Paris. But the acrimony that spilled out from the Forum and Peter Dutton’s damaging intervention have already overshadowed the positive outcomes, and may constrain any further united action. 

The inability of the leaders to communicate effectively the totality of their position on climate change also obscured the fact that they botched discussion on three of the five issues on which they should have reached decisions.

On cervical cancer, leaders 'noted the substantial burden that cervical cancer places on women and girls in the Pacific region as well as the insufficient response to address it across the region' and put off any action until there was 'further consultation' with relevant authorities. Cervical cancer is one the most preventable cancers, yet kills nearly twice as many women in Melanesia as in Australia and New Zealand. For a disease that can be prevented in many cases by a vaccine and regular screening, this was a poor effort by the Forum.

The Pacific Islands region lags behind the rest of the world in access to and use of information and communication technology (ICT), which puts island states at further economic disadvantage in a world increasingly dependent on connectivity. Regional cooperation in this sector could deliver increased access and savings and more importantly education and employment opportunities for young people. All leaders could agree on, however, was asking the Forum Secretariat and USP to 'consider the merit of a regional ICT Advisory Council.'  In a statement Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud of, leaders instructed that such a Council (which may not ever even exist) 'must deliver real deliverables.'  

Forum leaders noted concerns about human rights in West Papua, but appeared to defer to PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill who has developed a strategy for dealing with the situation and wants to manage it himself.

On fisheries and maritime surveillance, leaders were bolder. They agreed that a joint task force of regional agencies with fishery responsibilities should lead a program to increase sustainable economic returns, and tasked ministers to evaluate regional monitoring, surveillance and compliance, with an emphasis on sharing technology. While not yet an outcome to celebrate, the value of fisheries to all island states cannot be underestimated and better regional cooperation could have real benefits.

Public divisions on climate change hurt all members of the Pacific Islands Forum. Island states need to work harder to have their voice heard internationally, and the reputation of Australia and New Zealand in the region is impaired. Just as troubling, though, these divisions obscure and jeopardise coordinated action on many other significant challenges the region faces. Leaders would better serve their people and build confidence in the region by acting cooperatively and decisively on issues they do agree on, rather than emphasising their differences.

  • John Garnaut continued his commentary on PNG's looming fiscal crisis, while Liam Cochrane revealed some questionable expenditure items in the recent Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
  • The PNG Advantage investment summit will take place on 27 and 28 August.
  • Journalist Ellen Whinnett documents the week-long journey of five federal Australian MPs (3 Labor and 2 Coalition) to rural PNG.
  • James Batley at ANU takes a look at PNG's budding aid program, showing that 'aid is now a significant feature of its regional diplomacy'.
  • Terence Wood has painstakingly compiled a database of almost 50 years of Solomon Islands election results.
  • Up to 60 people face sedition charges in three separate cases in Fiji as Prime Minister Bainimarama vows to 'crush' possible insurrection.
  • On a more cheerful note, the National Gallery of Australia has launched its 'Myth and Magic – art of the Sepik River, PNG' exhibit in Canberra. It closes 1 November and is not to be missed.