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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bob Carr has a foreign affair



Bob Carr's threat of sanctions against PNG if it dared to delay the scheduled election was an important moment in the education of Bob.

Not the least problem with Carr's short-lived thought balloon in his first days as foreign minister, as it was explained by his new department, was the reality that Australia would have a lot of trouble getting the rest of the South Pacific to embrace any action against PNG.

To follow that thought, come back down the time tunnel to the day after Carr had been sworn in, his first full day as foreign minister. What was virtually Carr's maiden interview was with that old-Labor-mate-turned-TV-interviewer Graham Richardson. Everything was so new the transcript never got posted on the DFAT website; the maiden effort was not kept for posterity because its sentiments were so quickly shredded.

Surveying the array of issues about to confront the new minister, Richardson asked about the speculation then coming out of Port Moresby of some delay in PNG's scheduled election. Carr replied that any delay in the constitutionally-decreed timing of the PNG poll would be a 'shocking model' in the Pacific and Australia would have to respond (see 6:12 above): '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.'

In using the word 'sanctions', Carr stepped well beyond gaffe to enter blunder territory. The Kinsley definition of a gaffe is when a politician blurts out 'some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say.' So this wasn't a gaffe, it was wrong in the sense that Carr was musing out loud about something Australia probably couldn't get done. This was a mistake, not a mis-statement.

Carr was working from the obvious truth that Australia has deep and abiding interests in PNG. But by talking about sanctions he was fast-forwarding towards a policy approach that would isolate Australia, not PNG, in the Pacific Islands Forum. It took the Forum a long time to expel Fiji; the coup was in December, 2006, the Forum final expelled Fiji in May 2009. Sanctions against PNG for delaying an election would be an even harder ask.

If the debate had actually happened, then as with Fiji and the RAMSI intervention in Solomon Islands, Australia would invoke the Forum's Biketawa Declaration, which stresses the need to uphold democratic processes and institutions. The Declaration sets out how the Forum will creep towards sanctions by explicitly setting out some dozen steps available to the Forum chairman in responding to any 'crisis' in a member country, building from a simple statement of concern through a Ministerial Action Group towards Third party mediation or a special summit.

All that would probably fall at the first hurdle because PNG saw no 'crisis'. The PNG parliament did vote in favour of delaying the election if the government decreed it necessary and that vote, as much as anything, was a giant raspberry aimed at Senator Bob.

Having given Australia a parliamentary 'up yours', Port Moresby then went ahead and held the election on time. Problem solved before it became a problem. Senator Car learnt a few things from that first big mistake on the first full day on the job. The next column will look at how that gig has unfolded.

Lowy Interpreter

This article was first publushed by the Lowy Interpreter