Establishing good relations with our nearest neighbour should be a priority for any incoming Australian government. Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has already done the right thing and telephoned Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill (pictured) just days after his election victory. Although Mr Abbott may have been motivated by the asylum seekers issue, he did talk about strengthening bilateral relations, which is a good start.
If the experience of Opposition is any guide, however, it seems likely that Foreign Minister-designate Julie Bishop will do the heavy lifting on Australia's relations with PNG. Bishop's first trip overseas as foreign minister is likely to take in Papua New Guinea.
As shadow minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop distinguished herself by her focus on Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea and by her understanding of Australia's nearest neighbour. She visited PNG twice and participated in several meetings of the Australian and PNG business communities. She is on the record as saying the relationship with PNG should be one of the Australian government's highest foreign policy priorities.
Bishop has also engaged with Papua New Guineans on social media, whether by responding to questions from Papua New Guineans on Twitter or crowd-sourcing foreign policy ideas and feedback on blogs.
She did all of this before the Rudd Government's controversial Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG or her own party's announcement of substantial aid cuts just prior to the election. Both of these policies make her job more difficult. Nevertheless, Julie Bishop has every reason to expect her first visit to PNG to be friendly and productive. Making a good impression as minister and distinguishing herself from the previous Australian Government will be important. She should focus on five main tasks in her first visit:
- Reaffirming to the O'Neill Government the priority she attaches to broadening and deepening the relationship.
- Reassuring the PNG Government and people that effective aid remains a priority for Australia that will not be affected by projected cuts to aid.
- Reaching out to PNG's emerging youthful, informed and increasingly influential middle class, perhaps in an address at the University of PNG.
- Connecting with the Australia-PNG business community, using her links with the Australia-PNG Business Council and PNG companies.
- Meeting and listening to women working in civil society organisations, health, education, agriculture and government, both in Port Moresby and a provincial centre (Lae, Goroka or Mount Hagen).
Bishop has already outlined ideas for broadening and deepening the relationship. It's time now to engage in a bigger conversation with Peter O'Neill's government and the PNG people about that. Cooperating to make the most of new opportunities emerging from the rise of Asian economies could be one priority.
Quarantining the now largest recipient of Australian aid from the $656 million in savings which have to be found in this financial year will be difficult, but there are very good reasons to do just that. Apart from national interest reasons for giving aid to PNG, 40% of Papua New Guinea's 7 million people live in poverty and aid helps them access better health and education services.
Governments tend to concentrate on relationships with partner governments in the conduct of foreign affairs. Australia's relationship with PNG should be an exception to this rule. By building on her good relationship with the Australia-PNG business community and reaching out to a young and politically engaged middle class on a regular basis, she will add ballast to the relationship. If both these communities feel they have the attention of the Australian foreign minister, there will be much deeper trust in PNG that Australia is its 'partner of choice', helping to protect the relationship from the political shocks that have harmed it in the past.
The Coalition's foreign policy election statement says the Abbott Government will engage with female leaders in our region through a second-tier dialogue of prominent women and by establishing networks of mentors to work with younger female leaders. Women in Papua New Guinea face very serious challenges but they are certainly capable of telling Australia's first female foreign minister what their priorities are and how she can help them. Bishop has an opportunity, like Julia Gillard before her, to be a champion for PNG women. If she is serious about resetting our relationship with PNG, she should seize it.
While the foreign minister should manage bilateral relations, the depth of the relationship demands that other Australian ministers administer their portfolio interests in PNG too. The disaffection of the population of Manus and local businesses around the implementation of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement has the potential to be an early irritant for the Abbott Government's relations with PNG, even if Prime Minister O'Neill ignores it. An early visit by the new minister for immigration, which includes meetings with the people and business community of Manus, would help.
Unusually for an incoming Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has a genuine and informed interest in PNG. Her familiarity with PNG, the contacts she has established and her instincts augur well for a successful broadening and deepening of bilateral relations.