Monday, June 20, 2016

Corruption crisis in Papua New Guinea catches Australia out

Papua New Guinea is our nearest neighbour, our former colony and the biggest recipient of our overseas aid – $5 billion in the past decade. The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says we have a "unique responsibility" towards the country because of our shared history.

So if democracy in Papua New Guinea is struggling, it's Australia's problem too. And if, because of the Manus Island detention centre, Australia is seen as participating in a culture of police violence, disregarding the rule of law, and distributing aid based on domestic political objectives rather than need, it's a very serious problem indeed.

Shortly after Peter O'Neill was elected prime minister in 2011, succeeding Michael Somare with a thumping majority, a memorandum of understanding with Australia was signed to re-establish the Manus Island detention centre, which had been dormant since 2004.

Mr O'Neill at first seemed intent on tackling systemic political corruption. But when the country's anti-corruption squad issued a warrant for Mr O'Neill's arrest in June 2014 for allegedly authorising $30 million in fraudulent payments to a law firm, Paraka, a different picture emerged.

Mr O'Neill has used every means at his disposal to avoid facing the corruption charges, which both he and the law firm deny. Within a week of the warrant being issued he sacked the attorney-general and the police commissioner. Their replacements were later charged with corruption for conspiring with him to put an end to the Paraka investigations. Neither has been convicted.

Things came to a new head earlier this month when police in the capital Port Moresby fired on unarmed student protesters who have been boycotting their classes in a campaign to pressure Mr O'Neill to step aside and submit himself to the corruption investigation. No students were killed but scores were injured in the protests. Julie Bishop called for calm. She said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called Prime Minister O'Neill to offer help but the offer had not been taken up.

Since then Internal Affairs officers have arrested Chief Superintendent Matthew Damaru, the head of the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate, the unit that has been pursuing the arrest warrant against Mr O'Neill. Mr Damaru's alleged crime is abuse of office and deprivation of liberty in relation to his arrest in April of Supreme Court Judge Bernard Sakora. Judicial corruption charges against Justice Sakora were dismissed on technical grounds.

PNG has been hit hard by lower gas and commodity prices as well as a severe El-Nino-related drought. It is an understatement to say government finances are under pressure. Spending on health and education has been slashed by about 35 per cent. Meanwhile, Mr O'Neill has used his overwhelming majority to adjourn parliament until August to protect himself from facing a no-confidence vote before elections are due in a year's time. With this political safety valve removed, the risk is that opposition will be played out in the streets.

Australia purports to exercise its "unique responsibility" to PNG through aid to support economic and social development and democratic institutions. This includes 56 Australian Federal Police officers in PNG to help train its police force, and a new School of Governance to train public servants in transparency and accountability. A dedicated band of Australian public servants, aid workers, volunteers and others work long and hard.

But a Senate Select Committee report in May called the effectiveness of our aid to PNG into question. On the evidence, the aid program has been compromised by the existence of the Manus Island detention centre.

The committee report quoted expert views that our interest in Manus has cost us leverage in the program and created "the risk that Australia will not say no when it should". Tensions over the burden of processing asylum seekers have damaged co-operation and contacts at the highest level, the committee heard, and aid is targeted at Manus Island "on the basis of Australia's domestic considerations rather than considerations of need".

All the more shameful, then, that the Australian government is choosing not to disband the Manus centre despite a clear judgment from the PNG Supreme Court in April that the centre contravenes human rights provisions in the PNG constitution and should be closed "forthwith".

Australia's moral failure in the humanitarian treatment of asylum seekers extends to the failure to appropriately exercise our acknowledged responsibility towards our closest neighbour. Our calls for calm and offers of help are hollow indeed if we fail to uphold PNG's rule of law when it doesn't suit us.



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