Foreign Minister Julie Bishop believes PNG is one of Australia's highest foreign policy priorities and is committed to strengthening ties with PNG.
Australia's merchandise trade with our nearest neighbour totals $5.7 billion and Australia's investments in PNG are as high as $18.6 billion. PNG is also Australia's largest recipient of aid, a constructive ally in the Pacific region and a security partner. The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby is one of the largest Australian missions in the world, managing a complex political relationship and coordinating the activities of multiple federal government agencies. Bishop has proposed a range of new initiatives to broaden and deepen the relationship.
But just as with Indonesia, Australia's obsession with asylum seekers now threatens to weaken the positive momentum in Australia-PNG relations.
The 17 February riots and the tensions within the detention centre they exposed, the negative sentiment of prominent figures on Manus towards the detention centre and resettlement of refugees, the growing opposition to the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement as revealed through various social media forums in PNG, and concerns like those expressed by the influential Catholic Bishops Conference in PNG about the asylum seeker centre are all potential triggers for generating deep resentment towards Australia in PNG.
The situation is not aided by irresponsible and offensive descriptions of Manus by senior Australian politicians and members of the media, who have paid scant attention to the impact of Australia's policy on the people of Manus.
Politicians including former House of Representatives Speaker Anna Burke, independent MP Andrew Wilkie and Greens Senator Sarah-Hanson Young have described Manus Island as a 'gulag' and a 'hell-hole'. Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition described Manus Island as an 'inherently dangerous place'. Waleed Aly went further, writing that PNG is a 'deeply unliveable country, racked by lawlessness and violence'.
These opinions have been countered by better informed writers such as David Bridie and Rowan Callick. But it is the negative descriptions which play in Papua New Guinea where, unlike in Indonesia, Australia's media is followed avidly, not least through Australian television stations broadcast in PNG.
The Australian and PNG governments are alert to the risk that the asylum seeker issue poses to their interests in enhancing the relationship. The announcement of a new monthly Joint Ministerial Forum involving Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Papua New Guinea Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration Rimbink Pato and Attorney General Kerenga Kua will 'provide clear direction and oversight to the implementation of the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) and provide a timely and accountable process to ensure that the arrangement is being converted into tangible and practical outcomes.'
The early focus of the forum will be on investigating this month's violence, but it will also deal with processing claims, resettlement, and delivering the $420 million of projects that are part of the resettlement deal. While Julie Bishop's focus in these meetings will be on delivering the sweeteners of the RRA, her participation alongside her PNG counterpart will enable her to maintain a wider focus on enhancements to the relationship and ensure the asylum seeker issue does not undermine these.
The challenge is significant. Lowy Institute Fellow Khalid Koser warned of the dangers of dressing up the Refugee Resttlement Arrangement as a benefit to PNG. He said a similar approach by the EU in making Greece the outer wall of Europe has seen rising Greek resentment against the EU and more violence against migrants.
Manus has an enviable reputation in PNG as a peaceful province, with high education levels and literacy rates which have seen Manusians prominent in senior levels of the public and private sectors. If the violence we saw during the 17 February riots was indeed triggered, even in part, by the racial vilification of local residents by some asylum seekers, as Sean Dorney suggests, then Australia has cause to be concerned.
It is not lost on the people of Manus, even if it is on Australians, that a number of the asylum seekers come from countries (namely Iran) which are both richer than PNG and have more employment opportunities than exist on Manus. If they are found to be refugees and then are able to enjoy more privileges than the citizens of Manus themselves, thanks to Australian assistance, there is likely to be resentment and further unrest in a province which has little experience of violence. Some of the anger may even be directed at Australian interests, be it government, businesses or nationals.
Even with both governments working on calming tensions, there are limits to the powers of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's government. His authority may not be accepted by the people of Manus if they continue to feel they are not being heard.
The question of whether or not Papua New Guinea will resettle any asylum seeker determined to be refugees also remains open. Prominent PNG blogger Deni Tokunai has pointed to likely difficulties in resettling refugees in PNG. Processing and resettlement will be the stumbling blocks. Rural resettlement of refugees would need the consent of complicated customary landowner groups; urban solutions would need to take into account urban growth, constituent perceptions, and the questionable nature of many state-owned land titles, some of which already house significant settlements of Papua New Guineans.
Despite the commitment under the Regional Resettlement Arrangement to resettle asylum seekers recognised as genuine refugees in PNG, Peter O'Neill has been inconsistent in his reassurances on this issue. His resolve will be tested by strong local opposition to resettlement. This uncertainty is likely to frustrate an Australian Government under pressure to make the policy work.
The decision to house asylum seekers on Manus may well stop the boats, but if it also stops or even hinders the development of a closer relationship with PNG, will it be worth it?
Photo by Flickr user DIBP Images.