Papua New Guinea's political leaders are putting their system through a slow but diabolical stress test:

  • The struggle of wills between two strong leaders who both claim to be the rightful prime minister.
  • A short-lived military mutiny in January that aspired to coup but quickly fell to farce.
  • A series of legal struggles that have morphed into a direct contest of wills between the politicians and the judges – not least the move to suspend the Chief Justice.
  • Parliament's vote last week to delay mid-year elections by six months, met by a public display of anger that may have faced down the parliament (see Danielle's two fine posts on the people of PNG speaking directly to power in the age of the mobile phone).

The tourism slogan about PNG as 'Land of the unexpected' has evolved into 'Extraordinary one day, bizarre the next.' PNG politics has an ability to go close to disaster and yet, at the last moment, to skip past calamity. The show makes great viewing but it is hard on the nerves.

For much of this current stress test, Australia must stand on the sidelines, urging due process and restraint, hoping for the best, but acknowledging its lack of direct power.

Indeed, sometimes Australian interventions can push things in the wrong direction. A heavy-handed warning from Australia contributed to the drama surrounding last week's vote by the PNG parliament to crack the constitution's stipulation of five-yearly elections, shifting the scheduled vote out from June to December. Such a deferral would always get plenty of votes in a PNG parliament because so many MPs lose their seats at any election. But one other reason the manoeuvre seemed so attractive was that Australia's new Foreign Minister had told them not to do it. Giving a bit of biffo to Oz is always joyous politics in the Pacific.

Having blown a giant bird at Bob Carr with the parliamentary vote, the PNG Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, almost immediately turned around and said the elections will go ahead as scheduled. Ah, from unexpected to extraordinary to whatever happens next.

The role Australia can play in PNG is both driven and limited by interest and history. Australia's deep involvement does not always translate into power; sometimes it doesn't even reach the level of understanding. In his memoir, Philip Flood did the maths on one dimension of the relationship. In the 60 years since 1951, Australia has spent a total of $110 billion on overseas aid — $40 billion of this went to PNG. That amounts to a huge and continuing effort.

Getting PNG right is always a challenge for Canberra because our extraordinary neighbour merits sustained attention, and too often our polity drifts into periods of Pacific amnesia. The Australian discussion of Papua New Guinea is often shaped by those who have forgotten too much history and those who can't move on from their version of history. If we paid consistent attention we might remember more of what we have done in the past, and understand why we're not always greeted with open arms when we turn up in PNG and announce that we're from Oz and we've come to fix it – preferably this week.

The need to pay attention, to listen lots and to stay engaged all link to the reality that whatever Australia does or says in PNG and the Islands is going to be seen as wrong – well, attacked, anyway. Australian comments are subject to minute inspection; often they're greeted with the familiar lines about colonialism, ignorance, big brother bullying, arrogance...and so it goes. 

Consistent, positive and constructive attention can get beyond a lot of the stuff about the ignorant big brother. Bob Carr has already had some of these lessons about dealing with PNG driven deep into his consciousness, reading direct from Bill Hayden's book of maxims: in diplomacy, words are bullets. The first couple of times I heard Hayden spray the words=bullets line in the 1980s, I thought he was merely giving the Canberra hacks one of his regular backhanders. Eventually, though, I decided that the Foreign Minister was chanting a mantra that flashed the amber light in the traffic between his own sharp brain and sharp tongue.
 
For an Australian, it always pays to be careful in offering any comment or forming any definite conclusion about PNG, not least because of the ever-active amazement factor.

Photo by Flickr user ThePaperboy.com