The PNG-Australia relationship has had a pretty rough year. Comparisons can be made with the fragility of our relationship with Indonesia – seemingly small issues can trigger a large backlash. Despite the breadth and depth of the relationship and our shared history, there is a new tension in the air that I'm not sure has been there before.
Trawling through 2012 official releases from our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister is akin to watching a rolling set of orange traffic lights. Our senior leaders have paid scant attention to PNG this year but when they have, it hasn't been to charm or congratulate our nearest neighbour. Statement after statement has been used to send warnings. All warranted, mind you, but they stack up, and with little positive news in between, they paint a rather pessimistic picture.
In April, Prime Minister Gillard was concerned at PNG's election delay. In May, Foreign Minister Carr was forced to explain that Australia would not 'take action' against PNG after all. This admission stemmed from the glaring red light which appeared from nowhere, forcing the relationship to a screeching halt: Carr's threat of sanctions if PNG did not keep to its election timetable.
I assume swift diplomacy resulted in forgiveness from Papua New Guinea's top officials and leaders. Unfortunately for Australia, the same can't be said for PNG's general public. This is evident in PNG's social media spaces. Since Carr's remarks in mid-March, a anti-Australia discussion has emerged, one that has risen in intensity over these past few weeks.
It's hard to say exactly what is behind this mentality and whether this is a real shift or simply a below the surface irritant which has forced its way up. However, one thing is certain: this frustration can now be channeled into a growing range of online platforms. On the upside, this gives Australia access to huge amounts of information and the ability to understand how Papua New Guineans view their southern neighbour. On the downside, discovering what people think of you is not always so pretty.
This aversion to Australia was on display last night after MP (and former Deputy Prime Minister) Belden Namah released a press statement accusing Australia's High Commissioner, Ian Kemish, of interfering PNG's sovereignty. Kemish attended a state ceremony where Peter O'Neill was invited to form PNG's new government. PNG's The National newspaper quoted Kemish as saying: "If there is anyone who can take it that far (five years), it is him". Kemish denied making this comment.
Namah's statement demanded Kemish be recalled and an apology issued by Foreign Minister Carr. In usual Namah style, the press release was whimsical and nonsensical but it was widely dispersed. It hit social media like a white squall and, mixed in with rumours of an imminent military coup (also spread through text message), it created digital chaos for a few hours.
Two developments were particularly troubling. First, how quickly hundreds of people (through PNG Facebook group Sharp Talk) were demanding Australia's High Commissioner be immediately deported. Ian Kemish is nearing the end of his time in Port Moresby and seems to be liked and respected in PNG. From our interview with Kemish earlier this year, you can see that he has a great love for the country. But it isn't Kemish that people want removed, it was the 'Australian High Commissioner'. It likely doesn't matter who the individual is sitting in the chair. If the PNG-Australia relationship were in a better place, it is hard to imagine so many cries of 'off with his head'.
Second, it was baffling to watch this unfold last night on social media being aware of how easily the hysteria could have been quelled by effective ediplomacy. In fact, it's downright scandalous that our diplomatic corps has not yet equipped itself with the most basic online tools to engage with the public. I acknowledge that, as of last week, DFAT has launched two ambassadors into the twittersphere. It's unfortunate that the PNG High Commissioner wasn't one of them.
Had Ian Kemish tweeted an explanation of why he was at PNG Government House (invited? normal protocol?) and what he did or didn't say to The National he could have cleared up Belden Namah's accusations in 140 characters (or allowed himself to spill into 280). It really can be that simple.
PNG's entrepreneurial bloggers would have copied, cropped and pasted Kemish's tweet onto Sharp Talk and on a half-dozen blogs in a few minutes. This would have clarified misinformation and speculation. Instead, the Australian Government's unwillingness to embrace ediplomacy unnecessarily cost the PNG-Australia relationship last night.
The Australian Government's inability to connect with the public online is likely interpreted as 'radio silence' by the more than 100,000 people in PNG accessing social media (a rapidly growing number of Papua New Guineans also access social media from their mobile phones and this growth cannot always be tracked).
Last night, in the heat of the online debate, a number of PNG Facebook users requested that, if there was an Australian official in the group, could they please come forward to clarify what had occurred, many believing that the diplomatic stoush was likely a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, Australian officials didn't engage to clarify. The Australian Government doesn't have a Facebook account in PNG, nor did it use its generic Twitter account, @dfat. A shame, given the obvious need for quick ediplomacy in this confused situation.
There is an enormous difference between engaging with the officials of a country and engaging with its general public. I don't believe the warm feelings that Australians have for Papua New Guinea, which have increased since 2007, are necessarily reciprocated. A restorative visit by Prime Minister Gillard (who has yet to visit Papua New Guinea) may get this important relationship back on track. Fast-tracking an effective ediplomacy strategy that engages with PNG's increasingly influential 'digital generation' is another.
Photo by Flickr user Commonwealth Secretariat.