On her first visit to Papua New Guinea as Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop has reconfirmed the high priority the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship has for Australian foreign policy and declared her deep affection for the country. 

A frequent visitor to PNG as shadow minister, Bishop was a familiar face to Papua New Guinea government ministers, business and media on the first day of her visit in Port Moresby. Her decision to visit PNG three times for extended trips while in opposition was smart. She appeared instantly at ease in her press conference with PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato at Parliament House in Port Moresby and has been treated as an old friend rather than a new kid on the block.

I wrote in September last year that one of the tasks Bishop should focus on during her first visit to PNG should be meeting and listening to women working in civil society organisations, health, education, agriculture and government.  She did just that yesterday at a roundtable with 18 high powered Papua New Guinea women working in senior positions in business, government, law and justice and civil society.

Led by PNG Minister for Community Development, Youth and Religion Loujaya Kouza, these inspiring women spoke about their priorities for the advancement of women in their fields as well as noting some important achievements. Bishop spoke of her desire to use Australia's political assets to promote economic empowerment for women, encourage leadership potential and address violence against women. 

Bishop's use of the term 'political assets' is notable.

It speaks to Bishop's objectives to unite the aid program with foreign and trade policy priorities, to pursue broader economic development, and also to her appointment of Natasha Stott Despoja as Ambassador for Women and Girls.

Bishop's tribute to popular National Council of Women President Scholar Kakas, who passed away last week, at the beginning of the meeting was but one indication of the genuine empathy the Minister has with PNG women. She listened carefully to the comments of all the women before acknowledging and responding to their remarks and suggestions in a humble, almost Melanesian, manner.

Discussion focused on the usefulness of leadership and election training, financial literacy, micro-finance arrangements, assisting women with export-oriented businesses, building the next generation of women leaders in schools and universities, enabling connections between young leaders in Australia and PNG, gender-based violence, the importance of public defenders in the justice system, and the difficulties of helping women start businesses in rural area where there is little or no cash-based economic activity.

Despite the Minister's familiarity with Papua New Guinea, she may not have fully appreciated until yesterday the important role she plays as a role model for Papua New Guinea women. In response to a question seeking Bishop's advice on how she herself advanced in politics to become the Foreign Minister, Bishop joked that an answer would take three days, but then added that mentors were very valuable.

It is obviously not lost on PNG women that Julie Bishop is the only woman in the federal cabinet and that her rise to foreign minister and deputy leader of the Liberal Party is an achievement from which PNG women can draw lessons. 

Julie Bishop has a significant agenda as foreign minister. If she can keep PNG near the top of this agenda and ensure there is real substance to the new economic and strategic status of the bilateral partnership, this will be a major achievement. But her biggest achievement could be the influence she exerts to change the future for women in PNG. Bishop has an obvious love for the country that endears her to Papua New Guineans used to Australian ministers who have tended to prioritise the relationship with Papua New Guinea only when there was a problem. 

The trust she has built with PNG ministers will permit her to speak frankly about their responsibilities to create more opportunities for women and address gender violence; her empathy with senior PNG women will give her entrée and an interested audience; her appointment of Natasha Stott Despoja and the review of the aid program in PNG will enable her to enhance Australia's diplomatic and aid focus on women's equality.

Bishop herself is Australia's chief 'political asset' in PNG. She should focus on deploying herself as well as Australia's other political assets effectively in PNG.

Photo courtesy of the Foreign Minister's office.