While the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship is currently strong, we need only look at the Indonesia spy scandal to understand how vulnerable Australia’s official relationships in the neighbourhood are to shocks.

The Australia-PNG relationship went through its own difficulties during the era that John Howard and Sir Michael Somare were in power. It is during such times that people-to-people and business relationships come to the fore, helping to alleviate the damage of official rows.

Earlier this week, the Lowy Institute convened the inaugural Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue. It brought together young leaders from business, civil society, government and the media in an effort to improve people-to-people links between the two neighbours. The group shared experiences in areas ranging from growing the economy and attracting investment to the impact of social media on political accountability. A summary of the outcomes can be found at this link.

Dialogues such as these, particularly if they are convened regularly, can help expand people-to-people links if the participants continue to engage with each other and drive new initiatives forward. There are already a number of close business and non-government ties between Australia and Papua New Guinea so it’s important that new initiatives build on and not replicate existing activities.

The discussion at the Dialogue revealed that Australia and PNG have a lot more in common that might be obvious to the casual observer, including in the ways our economies are structured, difficulties in distributing the benefits of the resources boom and our approaches to engaging with new investors from Asia.

The development of infrastructure to meet growing populations and private sector demand is important in both countries. Even though our health and education systems are vastly different, Australia faces similar challenges to PNG in delivering health and education services to remote indigenous communities. Young people in both Australia and Papua New Guinea are frustrated with the political system but finding other ways, including through social media, to get involved in policy discussions.

Some of the most interesting recommendations were around initiatives to improve perceptions of PNG in Australia. The participants had innovative ideas about using film, television and children’s literature as well as professional journalism exchanges to help Australians gain a better understanding of their nearest neighbour.

Concluding the inaugural Dialogue, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivered a great account of her own longstanding personal interest in Papua New Guinea and her confidence that improved links between young people would further enhance Australia’s relations with PNG. She foreshadowed a visit from Papua New Guinea ministers to Australia for the annual Ministerial Forum in December and her own visit to Papua New Guinea.

So far Bishop has maintained the passion for Papua New Guinea we have seen from her previous visits to the Lowy Institute, which bodes well for the bilateral relationship.