Monday, August 13, 2012

Mandate to change

By SANJAY BHOSALE

PRIME Minister Peter O’Neill deserves to be congratulated for putting together a coalition of unprecedented proportions in the aftermath of the recent elections. Any questions of legitimacy and credibility have now been emphatically answered. And the new government enjoys a level of acceptance around the country and abroad than perhaps any other before it.

The challenge for O’Neill lies in keeping his grand coalition together for the duration. They say a week is a long time in politics, and five years is an absolute eternity.
To use an Olympic analogy, holding the government together for five years is like running a marathon. The runners know that only one of them will win gold. Still, it won’t stop them from trying to breast the tape first.

Those who had ambitions for the top post have been kept at bay. But for how long? It would be wishful thinking to hope that O’Neill will not face any challenges to his leadership until 2017.
And as has been pointed out on this page recently, the lack of a credible opposition in parliament is worrying. It means there will be no checks and balances to rein in the government in case its power goes to its head.

There can be no doubt that the euphoria of the last few weeks will provide the new government with a ‘‘honeymoon’’ period of a few months at least. The goodwill and positive vibes prevailing will cocoon the government from initial trials and tempests. But as surely as day follows night, the challenges will come. Perhaps O’Neill and his new cabinet colleagues can take comfort in the fact that none of the tasks before it are new.

Aside from the expected revenues from the PNG LNG project – which will constitute a huge challenge in terms of judicious use of the windfall funds – all the usual priority items on the agenda for the new government will remain the same: health, education, law and order, infrastructure, corruption and good governance, among many others.

In simple terms: how will the new government’s policies and management of its finances result in improved livelihoods for its people? There is no denying that the tasks before the new government are of mammoth proportions. Delivering services to a country with PNG’s geographic and demographic difficulties is not easy at the best of times.

But there is a freshness about the new government, despite the return of some old warriors, that holds tremendous promise for the future. With a majority of 94 seats, PM O’Neill can genuinely claim to have the people’s mandate to push through reforms across the board and tackle the country’s myriad problems head-on. And he does appear to have an appetite for change. During the protracted stand-off of the past 12 months, O’Neill has more than amply demonstrated that he has the ability to dig in for a long battle.

That is precisely the kind of quality PNG will need from O’Neill over the next five years. But unlike the past year, hopefully the battle from now on will be to provide services, improve law and order, restore the authority and legitimacy of the judiciary, improve the frayed relationship with Indonesia, and importantly, take the relationship with Australia to a whole new level. PNG-Australia ties have been on the back-burner for a long time now, not least in the last 12 months. The momentum generated by former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s visit fizzled out in the intervening years and PNG definitely does not appear to be a priority item on Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s foreign policy agenda.

Since the start of the year, neither Gillard nor Foreign Minister Bob Carr have given much attention to the relationship with PNG, at least not publicly. Their statements and press releases relating to PNG in 2012 can be counted on the fingers on one hand.
After the controversy caused by his sanctions threat earlier this year, Senator Carr seems to have gone into a shell, as far as PNG is concerned, and has engaged more with Fiji.
Gillard, for her part, has admitted that foreign policy is not her forte and she is more comfortable dealing with issues like education (her one-time portfolio).

It hasn’t helped that she has been battling consistently poor opinion polls and a sustained campaign by the opposition Liberal-National Coalition against her carbon tax, which came into effect on July 1.
The only senior Australian politician who has maintained an interest in and engagement with PNG is deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop.

Bishop writes regular opinion pieces on the Australia-PNG relationship in the Australian media and in this newspaper as well, talking passionately about issues relating to PNG.
She has also expressed her support for a review into the current visa requirements for PNG citizens wishing to travel to Australia.

One cannot be certain her interest is a function of her being in Opposition and whether her interest would continue if the Coalition won the next election, but one certainly hopes this will be the case.
Now that the new government is in place, perhaps Prime Minister Gillard will make it a priority to visit PNG and provide a new spark to the relationship.

Such a visit would go a long way to paper over some of the cracks that have appeared of late, and signal to the region the importance that Canberra attaches to its relationship with PNG.
It would also provide an opportunity for O’Neill to raise important bilateral issues, like the visa difficulties, the effectiveness of AusAID programs, the seasonal guest worker scheme, assistance on law and order and regional co-operation, including on issues such as Fiji, with whom Australia and New Zealand have recently eased sanctions – an indication of a thawing of ties with the regime of Commodore Frank Bainimarama.