BOB CARR has sparked a diplomatic crisis in his first days as Minister for Foreign Affairs after Papua New Guinea dressed down Australia's top envoy in the country over his threat of sanctions.
The Gillard government was scrambling yesterday to contain the fallout after its star recruit warned any delay to midyear elections in PNG would leave Australia ''no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea''.
The comments were met with dismay in Port Moresby. The PNG Foreign Minister, Ano Pala, took the rare and serious step of calling in the acting Australian high commissioner, Margaret Adamson, to complain about the threat.
Senator Carr made the comments in a Wednesday night interview with long-time friend and former Labor numbers man Graham Richardson.
He warned any delay to the elections after months of political turmoil would be a ''shocking model'' in the Pacific.
''We'd be in a position of having to consider sanctions. So I take this opportunity to urge the government to see that those elections take place, keeping Papua New Guinea in the cycle of five-yearly elections,'' he said.
The PNG high commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, yesterday told the Herald the tone of Senator Carr's comments had caught him by surprise.
''When you talk about sanctions, it is a serious international weapon,'' he said.
The opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, condemned Senator Carr for ''jeopardising'' one of Australia's key relationships by ''grandstanding in the media''.
Mr Lepani said while he believed Senator Carr was speaking hypothetically, the comments unfairly likened PNG to Fiji, which is subject to Australian and international sanctions following a 2006 coup.
He said the breakdown in ties had not reached the depths of the last years of the Howard government and the so-called Moti affair - when ministers were banned from visits to Australia after then wanted fugitive Julian Moti escaped to the Solomon Islands on board a PNG military plane.
Mr Lepani spent the morning seeking clarification of Senator Carr's comments from the Foreign Affairs Department and the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, Richard Marles.
Mr Lepani said Mr Marles was in Port Moresby last week as part of a large delegation of Australia officials and business investors, and been assured by the PNG Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, the elections would go ahead.
''It is in fact what Papua New Guineans want, because of the impasse - the sooner it comes, the better for the country's internal political situation,'' he said.
The PNG Deputy Prime Minister, Belden Namah, has said in recent weeks the poll should be pushed back for a year.
But Mr O'Neill has repeatedly said the elections will go ahead and Australia recently struck a deal to provide assistance.
Pacific expert Jenny Heyward-Jones said it was not a good start for Senator Carr. ''I think we were looking forward to a new foreign minister who would bring a fresh perspective to the relationship [with PNG] and gee it along a bit,'' she said.
''Coming out with this strong and unnecessary statement … was a little misguided. He will have to do a lot more work to build that personal relationship which is so important with Papua New Guinea.''
Senator Carr tried to call Mr Pala yesterday morning to explain the comments but he was in a cabinet meeting. A spokeswoman for Senator Carr said last night the two men had spoken later in the day.