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A DESPERATE TURNBULL STANDS BY A WEAK DESPOT

by PETER J RICKETS

April is proving to be the most disastrous month in the history of Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea, with yet another crisis in Malcolm Turnbull’s concentration camp on Manus Island, to the north of the PNG mainland. At a time when the West is struggling to win the hearts and minds of Papua New Guinea in the face of a concerted Chinese diplomatic effort to do the same, Manus has once again blown up in Australia’s face.
This week’s riot during which PNG Defence Force personnel fired approximately 100 rounds from military weapons into the refugee compound has created even more animosity towards Turnbull’s Australia. The compound is supposed to be officially closed, but still houses hundreds of refugees, with Turnbull and his Immigration Minister washing their hands of any responsibility for it and its occupants. Infuriated by the continuing Turnbull-Dutton deceptions and their attempts to slither away from Australia’s responsibilities, Papua New Guineans have taken to social media in no uncertain terms, led by the Manus MP, Mr Ron Knight, MP. Knight has long been a critic of the deal between the Abbot-Turnbull Government and the Government of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. Knight tweeted: “Foreigners must realise by now we are not Australia and not subservient in any way to that country. We have our own imperfect way of doing shit.” And “Manus People thought Australia was their friend … now we know better. Own country and province! This is compounded by OUR government that sees us as secondary to their Australian masters.” The Manus arrangement, part of the Abbot-Turnbull Pacific Solution, came about through Australia recognising the O’Neill Government needed cash and bullying its way to an agreement heedless of the fact that it was dealing with one of the most corrupt regimes in the world, according to Transparency International. Now neither Turnbull nor O’Neill can keep a lid on the violence and crime - including multiple cases of rape of and drug-dealing - caused by the conditions in which the refugees are deliberately kept as a deterrence to others, preferring instead to facilitate the breakdown of Manus society. And the standard Turnbull-Dutton non-responses to media inquiries about Manus have not gone down well in PNG. While the subservient Australian mainstream media (the exception is the ABC) and the PNG print media have fallen into line, not so many other local journalists. For example leading National Broadcasting Corporation reporter Rebecca Passingan posted on Facebook: “Is this supposed to be a joke? I sent my questions on the two Australians implicated in the Raza Berati Murder and the three Wilson Security guards implicated in the rape case involving a local woman in Manus to Aussie High Comm and they forwarded my questions to the people at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection … and they responded and there are no answers to all my questions.” Handing over more cash to the O’Neill Government in exchange for continuing the operation of the Manus concentration camp was a major reason behind Turnbull’s official visit to Papua New Guinea earlier this month. Despite the PNG Supreme Court declaring the camp illegal, Turnbull and O’Neill have conspired to keep it operating in effect, and that may yet play an important role in the forthcoming PNG elections - the camp and the Turnbull-O’Neill deal are widely condemned by Papua New Guineans. The Turnbull visit itself may go down in history as the most disastrous by any Australian Prime Minister. Turnbull crashed from one public relations catastrophe to another. In only a day and a half he managed to get the entire domestic media offside, to offend many influential politicians by interfering in domestic politics, to insult Kokoda Track veterans of both nations and to leave Papua New Guinea suspecting his Government is utterly clueless and utterly ineffective. Turnbull arrived in Port Moresby at 8.00pm on Friday April 7, and by first thing next morning, at a media conference at Bomana War Cemetery just outside the national capital, the Prime Minister, his office and the Australian High Commission had put their collective boots in it. Nothing symbolises the unity of the Papua New Guinea-Australia relationship than the heroism and sacrifice of the Kokoda Track, yet Turnbull and the Australian High Commission managed to shred any bi-partisan good will on the day, by banning the PNG media from attending. It is impossible to understand how such an arrogant and offensive decision could have been arrived at. Even worse, what was running through the mind of the AHC official who described the Bomana media conference as “an Australian thing” when the PNG media protested? “An Australian thing”, within sight of the places where many thousands of Papua New Guineans – carriers, soldiers, village men women and children – worked and fought, died and suffered, in a war that wasn’t theirs? The ABC understood the full disgrace of Turnbull’s action, and its well respected correspondent Eric Tlojek personally protested to the Australian High Commission. The Pacific Freedom Forum, which has wide readership amongst the PNG media said: "Standing on sacred ground is no place to deny freedoms that many died defending." But more of the same neo-colonialist rubbish was to come. At a general media conference later that day, Papua New Guinean journalists were told not to ask questions! Senior PNG media figures and others have registered strong public protests on social media. Dulciana Somare-Brash, a former ABC journalist, daughter of former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, and a candidate in the forthcoming PNG elections, called out the Australian High Commission for its hypocrisy – it coordinates media ethics programs in PNG in which journalists are taught how and why to hold politicians to account. Opposition Leader Don Polye, Pangu Party Leader Sam Basil MP and former Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta all slammed the visit as interfering in domestic politics, coming as it did shortly before this week’s issue of election writs. The Abbott-Turnbull Government is know to strongly support the O’Neill Government despite its reputation for grand corruption and economic incompetence. Authoritative international economic analysis confirms that the nation is essentially bankrupt, with public servants, government contractors and suppliers not being paid, medical supplies exhausted in hospitals, health clinics and aid posts all over the country, schools closing because the government can no longer fund them, and government systems and processes at a standstill. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sir Mekere called out Turnbull for his blatant interference in domestic politics. “It is insensitive and interfering for Mr Turnbull to pay homage to Mr O’Neill at this point in time” he said. “Papua New Guineans will naturally see the visit as an endorsement of the current Prime Minister and his regime. That is a very dangerous position for the Australian Prime Minister to put himself in, especially with the prospect of a new Government just around the corner. Papua New Guineans will not thank Mr Turnbull for this visit. “It will be seen as Mr Turnbull interfering in our national elections. It will be seen as Mr Turnbull setting back our nation’s prospects of economic, financial and social recovery by supporting the very Government that has caused our current crisis. Public opinion is firmly against the O’Neill Government, and Mr Turnbull’s endorsement of it would be a slap in the face for the vast majority of Papua New Guineans. It also threatens to be a major setback for future Papua New Guinea-Australia relations.” Sir Mekere, whose comments were endorsed by Pangu Party Leader Basil, said the caretaker period is so close that any undertakings or agreements made during the visit would be virtually impossible for any new government to adhere to. Opposition Leader Polye reminded Turnbull that PNG was no longer a colony of Australia and was an independent state and as such must be treated with respect, and took particular issue with Turnbull’s treatment of the PNG media. “It’s a slap to the face of Papua New Guinea as an independent people and independent nation to have a Prime Minister of Australia not allow Papua New Guinea’s own journalists to report on his visit to Papua New Guinea,” he said. “Prime Minister Turnbull needs to tell the world that he is supporting suppression, that he is supporting subjugation, that he is supporting undemocratic ways of not allowing freedom of speech and freedom of movement by the People of Papua New Guinea,” As if insulting the PNG media wasn’t enough, Turnbull then went on to announce that this year’s Kokoda Remembrance – the 75th - is to be held in Australia rather than in PNG as in past years. The descendants of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and PNG soldiers rightly took Turnbull’s praise for their fathers, mothers and grandparents at Bomana as crocodile words. Kokoda veterans and their families were likewise insulted, with Veteran George Palmer telling SBS how upset he was that the official Australian commemoration will not be held in PNG. “It’s wrong, just wrong. You must never forget the sacrifices my mates made,” he said. Historian Patrick Lindsay, the chair of the Kokoda Track Foundation, said he has been asking the Government since last year about when the PNG commemoration would be held. “I’m dismayed and disgusted,” he said. “It’s the second time we’ve done this to these diggers, they didn’t get the credit they deserved at the time and after the war.” The final straw came when representatives of the national daily the Post-Courier paid to attend the Australia-PNG Business Council breakfast the next day, and were refused food and drink. PNG social media commentators also remarked on the neo-colonialist look of the event, with a handful of Papua New Guineans scattered around the room swamped in a sea of white male businessmen. “It was like something out of an apartheid handbook,” one high-profile businessman commented. Turnbull’s arrogance, insensitivity and ignorance was also on display through his support for Papua New Guinea’s hosting of APEC next year, and Mr O’Neill’s outlay of approximately $1 billion (K3 billion) on the event itself, lead-up meetings, related infrastructure projects and other government commitments. Mr O’Neill’s APEC profligacy at a time of intense economic and financial stress and all the impacts on service delivery and the general populace, has been widely condemned. Turnbull has committed Australia to at least $100 million for APEC security arrangements, money which, as Sir Mekere and many others have pointed out, would be much better spent on productive aid projects. The APEC spending has taken place while critical sectors such as health, education and transport have had their annual budgets slashed by O’Neill. Spending in these sectors has fallen by 45% for health from K1.7 billion in 2015 to K1.2 billion in the 2017 Budget. Education spending over the same period has been cut by O’Neill by 45% to K1.6 billion in 2017, and Transport by 52% to K897 billion. Meanwhile, wasteful commercial borrowing, facilitated by Australian interests, has caused debt servicing to triple in the past five years to K1.4 billion in the 2017 Budget. Debt as a percentage of GDP is now 32%, well above the legally stipulated 30% set by the Fiscal Responsibility Act. The real ratio is considerably worse as the GDP numbers have been manipulated downwards by the National Statistical Office, without providing any supporting data. GDP growth itself has plummeted from a predicted 21% at the start of 2015 to an actual 2% today. With population growth at over 3%, Papua New Guineans are getting poorer by the day, with no relief in sight. Inflation is increasing, with the latest official estimate at 7.5%, and unemployment is growing from about 2.5% in 2014 to almost 3% in 2017. While this is not apparently a large increase to developed world eyes, the effect in the tiny formal PNG market is immense, and confirms anecdotal evidence of widespread job losses. Although no official figures are available, crime and social dislocation has increased dramatically across the country, with the worst effects in the major centres such as Port Moresby and Lae. The Lutheran Church and the head of the corruption-busting Task Force Sweep, Sam Koim, have both publicly joined the dots between O’Neill’s economic and financial waste, corruption and mismanagement and rapidly growing social dislocation. As Papua New Guinea’s predicament goes from bad to worse to catastrophic, Turnbull, his office and the Australian High Commission are standing by their man, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, despite all the evidence that he will make things a whole lot worse if he wins.
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