LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED


How do a former Townsville radio journalist and a Melbourne-born television gardener come to be running one of the world’s most influential global summits?

It’s not such a far-fetched scenario in Papua New Guinea, also known as “the land of the unexpected”, where you can make just about anything happen if you know the right people.

Last year’s APEC summit was marked by the assertiveness of China, the muscular pushback of the US and its Western allies, and the spectacle of the forum’s poorest nation dropping tens of millions of dollars on fleets of luxury cars and giant cruise ships anchored in Port Moresby harbour.

But the behind-the-scenes story of how PNG hosted some of the world’s most powerful leaders is also a remarkable one.

Its central characters are two Australian expats, Christopher Hawkins and Justin Tkatchenko, who, with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, formed the nation’s APEC2018 troika.

Hawkins, an Australian Army reservist and ex-radio producer at Townsville’s 4RR and Cooma’s 2XL in NSW, has for two years been the chief executive of PNG’s APEC co-ordination authority, charged with delivering the 21-leader summit in a nation that struggles to stock medical clinics with drugs and pay electricity bills for its police force.

Hawkins also has a second job as O’Neill’s right-hand man — a political fixer and media minder who local journalists say is the one on the phone to their bosses late at night killing any critical stories about the O’Neill government.

Tkatchenko came to PNG in the late 90s, as gardener to then-Port Moresby governor Bill Skate, who went on to become prime minister in a tenure dogged by corruption allegations.

A fanatical orchid-lover with a theatrical streak, Tkatchenko got himself a show on PNG’s EMTV, where he became the “Happy Gardener”, and a household name.

He was elected as the member for Moresby South in 2012 — handing out groceries and “Justin” T-shirts to help secure votes — ­entering cabinet and delivering last year’s Pacific Games as sports minister before becoming the minister for APEC.

Hawkins, who met Tkatchenko while working as Skate’s communications chief, got his first taste of APEC in 2002, going to work for the forum’s secretariat in Singapore, where he provided communications advice for host nations Australia, Chile, South Korea, Peru, Thailand and Vietnam.

In 2007, his thirst for adventure took him to Afghanistan, where he served as an army captain and military public affairs officer in the International Security Assistance Force headquarters.

Hawkins returned to PNG as a “consultant”, going to work for O’Neill — a former accountant who is rumoured to be one of the nation’s richest men — after he ­became Prime Minister in 2011.

O’Neill has consolidated his powerbase over time, using the ­nation’s District Services Improvement Program funds, which provide millions of kina directly to District MPs, ostensibly for health clinics and roads, but found by the nation’s auditor general to be unaccountable and ineffective.

On coming to power, the Southern Highlands businessman, who has interests in construction and security firms, to name a few, went on a well-publicised anti-corruption drive, creating a new graft-fighting unit, Taskforce Sweep.

But by 2014, after the unit’s chief, Sam Koim, raised corruption allegations against the Prime Minister and issued a warrant for his arrest, O’Neill controversially disbanded the taskforce.

Hawkins quickly became the PM’s most trusted adviser, applying modern spin and PNG-style heavy handedness to the role.

As one PNG journalist told The Australian: “Since this government came to power, there is no more freedom of the press. If there is an anti-government story coming, Christopher Hawkins rings up and stops the story.”

Tkatchenko kept up his gardening business and his contract with the National Capital District Commission, which was revealed in 2015 to be worth 27 million kina, or about $10 million.

The minster’s PNG Gardener trucks have been seen tending to wilting plants outside just-completed APEC venues in the weeks before the weekend’s leaders’ forum.

Tkatchenko, who usually flies under the radar during his frequent trips to Australia, came to public attention in Brisbane earlier this year, during a dispute involving his wife Catherine, who had lodged plans to build an aviary big enough to house 600 finches alongside her $1.77m property at Brookfield, in the city’s west.

Nearly 180 residents lodged ­objections, raising concerns about noise and odours from the aviaries and stables, and described the buildings as an “eyesore”.

Meanwhile, Chinese contractors were at work across the city resurfacing roads and putting the finishing touches on APEC venues that PNG will have to maintain and find a use for long after the summit is forgotten. PNG was ­announced as the 2018 APEC host in Jakarta in 2013, with the support of, among others, Indonesia and China.

It was always an ambitious play for the nation of 8.5 million, where 90 per cent of people live in rural areas and the average per capita income is put at just $2400 a year, but in realty is much less, due to huge inequality.

The O’Neill government has sold the event domestically as an opportunity to showcase the ­nation’s abundant natural resources and investment opportunities, and the event has brought money and global interest to PNG.

It has also allowed PNG, which was under Australian administration until independence in 1975, to reap the benefits of the global strategic battle under way between China and the US.

O’Neill has flirted with China, signing up to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative and hosting a lavish state visit for the ­Chinese President during his APEC trip.

For the everyday people of PNG, APEC has largely been an extravagance that has sucked up public funds — while the country struggles to provide basic healthcare and educate its children.

In recent months, community anger had been building. Local ­activists staged two “national strikes” — a token gesture in a ­nation of 60 per cent unemployment — but many Papua New Guineans were too frightened to speak out due to special APEC legislation that gives police the power to use “lethal force” to deal with troublemakers.

“If you want to do something ridiculous or stupid, security personnel will retaliate if necessary,” Tkatchenko told local media last month.

“If a leader is threatened by someone trying to attack, they (the attacker) can be shot,” he explained.

As world leaders departed PNG, Tkatchenko was preparing for his next challenge — cleaning up Port Moresby’s ubiquitous settlements as Minister for Lands — while Hawkins was readying to ­return to his core role of keeping O’Neill in office.


Article by BEN PACKHAM of The Australian

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