Jenny Hayward-Jones is Director of the Lowy Institute's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program, and Danielle Romanes is a Lowy Institute research associate.
In her 2011 address at the Lowy Institute, then shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop remarked that 'As each year passes, Australia loses part of a generation of people with a deep knowledge and connection to PNG from its pre-independence days.'
In 2013 this statement has unfortunately never been more true.
The relationship subsists off sporadic government meetings and fading historical links, and as the recent PNG Solution furore amply demonstrated, Australian understandings of PNG are as distorted as they are negative.
Today the Lowy Institute, in concert with DFAT, is doing its bit to broaden and reinvigorate the relationship with the inaugural Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue, which brings together 20 rising stars from either side of the Torres Strait to share ideas and discuss national priority issues for both Australia and Papua New Guinea.
For while many Australians are accustomed to thinking of PNG as a distant country with a distinct set of problems, a range of mutual challenges are on the agenda. Both countries are facing the onset of declining government revenues from large mining sectors, in addition to rising public health bills from non-communicable diseases, ongoing challenges in remote service delivery, and increasing pressures on infrastructure in the wake of mass urbanisation.
Though borne of a previous government’s initiative, the Dialogue represents an opportunity for Julie Bishop, who is delivering an address at the closing reception, to begin consolidating on the vision outlined in her 2011 speech at the Lowy Institute.
There, Bishop stated that a Coalition government would reset the relationship, making Papua New Guinea 'one of our highest foreign policy priorities.' Of course, the Coalition has named a number of other diplomatic top priorities and best friends, and once in power, parties on both sides of the house have historically struggled to sustain their proclaimed intent to re-prioritise Pacific relationships.
Keeping PNG at the forefront when it’s out of the headlines has the potential to be a critical point of distinction between Foreign Minister Bishop and her predecessors.