By Jenny Hayward-Jones, Director of the Melanesia Program, and Mark Tamsitt, Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.

Last weekend's clash between the PNDGF and police, which led to four soldiers being shot and sparked days of rioting and looting in Port Moresby, is a serious incident that needs immediate political attention in Papua New Guinea. Karl Claxton says that despite the troubling nature of the incident, 'a really, dangerous, politically driven crisis doesn't seem imminent.'

He is right. This incident is not a crisis in itself and will likely be forgotten in a few weeks as the leadership of the defence and police forces move on to the next dramatic incident of tribal violence, robbery or sorcery-related murder and the news cycle moves on to the next political intrigue (all of this in a country that will next year record the fastest GDP growth of any nation in the world).

Papua New Guinea has a history of muddling through in times of apparent crisis. This has made both Papua New Guineans and Australian policy makers complacent.

Similar incidences of violence in other countries in the region have shocked governments and forced them to act. For example, riots in Solomon Islands and in Tonga in 2006 led to the immediate deployment of Australian and New Zealand soldiers and police. In Papua New Guinea, however, little seems to shock, let alone lead to meaningful action.

The security forces are viewed by the public as either incapable of responding to violence or as instigators of public unrest. This latest incident was not the first involving the security forces this year. After a police officer was killed in Mount Hagen last week, the local police, as well as detaining the perpetrators, went on a rampage in the town, creating even more tension in the community. In Kirakira, Port Moresby, soldiers burnt nine dwellings and assaulted a number of residents after a soldier was killed in an altercation with locals in June.

Earlier this week we sought the views of former PNGDF Commander, Brigadier General (Rtd) Jerry Singirok, on the increasing violence involving the security forces. Gen Singirok condemned the situation. He considered it totally unacceptable. 'If we lose the trust of the police and Defence Force we have nothing to trust anymore. The public confidence in both organisations has been thrown out the window.'

Singirok identified clear inter-service tensions and a lack of mutual respect between the security forces. He argued morale was a problem in both the Defence Force and police:

A 2004 review identified problems affecting morale and discipline in the police force. They live in sub-standard accommodation that is essentially not fit for human habitation. This has a very big bearing on the way they conduct themselves. In the case of the Defence Force, all soldiers made redundant through downsizing need to be repatriated with their families in order to free up barracks accommodation for new soldiers. Bored soldiers outside of the barracks are more likely to run into problems, similar to that we have seen in the last week.

Senior PNGDF and police officers have initiated a joint investigation into the latest incident. But Singirok is sceptical of efforts by the hierarchy of either organisation to take effective action: 'I am yet to see the past recommendations be implemented. Previous commitments have not come to anything. This may just result in a slap on the wrist.'

Beyond the investigative stage, there must be more that can be done to address ill-discipline and restore public confidence in the vital role security forces play in Papua New Guinea. Singirok had some suggestions:

Continuous training and dialogue is needed. An ongoing relationship should be based on combined training and social interactions to break down barriers and rebuild communication. Sports and effective mentoring are important. There is a lack of effective command and leadership at all levels in the police and Defence Force. It is incumbent on the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and police to demand that those who have offended face harsher punishments. The constitutional responsibilities of the security forces to maintain law and order mean a clear and credible deterrent has to be in place to prevent personnel engaging in lawless behaviour.

While this issue is fundamentally one for the Papua New Guinea Government to resolve, there are ways Australia can help. Singirok identified a number of shortfalls in Australia's support for the PNGDF and police. He said Australia needed to invest more in collective training, of as many soldiers as possible, rather than focusing on senior ranks. The revival of large-scale exercises and exchanges with the ADF would enhance the professionalism of PNG's junior soldiers.

Singirok was complimentary of the Australian Federal Police assistance in Port Moresby and Lae. 'However, it should be taken to a higher level. PNG police should be given experience in policing remote settlements in Northern Australia where, for example, issues with indigenous communities have similarities to community policing in PNG. We should be exposing more and more PNG police to what Australian police do in Australia, rather than investing solely in AFP advisory positions in PNG.'

Rather than see this incident as the inevitable result of youthful drunkenness and an early start the to annual Christmas looting season, policy makers should use it to restart a serious debate about addressing law and order in PNG. There are a number of risk factors which make this urgent. The most pressing is the growing youth bulge, particularly in urban areas. Forty percent of PNG's population is aged under 15 years and there are few prospects of employment for a generation with limited skills but high expectations brought about by the resource boom.

Papua New Guinea will be in the international spotlight next year as it celebrates 40 years of independence, registers record GDP growth and plans to host major regional and international events. It is time the PNG Government and its partner Australia address the country's most crippling challenge, law and order.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.