Corruption and other stumbling blocks to PNG solution

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Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer graph for Papua New Guinea. Graph shows that 46 per cent of respondents from Papua New Guinea believe government corruption has increased 'a lot'The anti-corruption movement Transparency International reports that 70 per cent of respondents from Papua New Guinea believe the level of corruption in the country has increased over the past two years, including 46 per cent who said it has increased 'a lot'. Without wishing to join any 'PNG bashing', it is worth trying to gain a clearer understanding of what Kevin Rudd has promised and whether it is in the interests of either Australia or PNG.

The Regional Resettlement Arrangement Between Australia and Papua New Guinea consists of 11 paragraphs of text. Although it is labelled a 'regional' arrangement, it is actually a bilateral deal with no other signatories. Under the arrangement, for a period of 12 months PNG agrees 'to accept unauthorised maritime arrivals for processing and, if successful in their application for refugee status, resettlement'.

The implication is that PNG is liable to resettle all those deemed by it to be refugees, though the document refers to other unnamed (and uncommitted) Pacific nations sharing this burden. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has since used the word 'quota' to imply a limited PNG resettlement commitment, without explaining further. The agreement bears all the marks of a hastily conceived, ill thought out plan — unlike the blockbuster taxpayer-funded advertising campaign that has accompanied it.

The agreement asserts that both countries are abiding by the 'non-refoulement' obligation under the Refugee Convention. It means they must not put refugees in harms way by sending them to a third country. Some commentators have suggested that PNG — for cultural, religious and economic reasons — is not a destination Australia can genuinely say meets this concern, notwithstanding that PNG is a signatory to the convention.

In this regard, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea stated on 21 July: 'This country [PNG] does not have the capacity at this time in its history to welcome a sizeable influx of refugees and provide for their immediate needs and a reasonable hope for a new and prosperous beginning. The leaders of Papua New Guinea and Australia surely know this and therefore appear to be making a very unwise decision.'

The agreement says all necessary arrangements will be paid for by Australia. Since, under international rules, the money cannot come out of the existing aid budget it must necessarily be new spending. No estimate has been offered of the amount of money likely to be involved. In addition to the costs of moving, housing and processing asylum seekers on Manus Island (and elsewhere), the deal reportedly has been sweetened by Australian promises of additional infrastructure aid. It is in this context that the issue of governance in the country is hotly debated.

Australia's assistance program to PNG is its biggest overseas aid commitment, worth almost $500 million this year. Prime Minister O'Neill said the benefits of the new deal for PNG are 'very, very clear. For the first time we are realigning our aid program ... with the Australians, where we, the Papua New Guinean government, will now set all the priorities under which Australian aid program will be now directed towards [sic]'. By 'realigning' he means taking back control, which has been a major ambition since his government seized office in 2011.

In October last year an analysis by Task Force Sweep, a national corruption watchdog, found that up to half of PNG's 7.6 billion kina (about $3.5 billion) development budget from 2009 through 2011 was lost to corrupt practices or mismanagement by public officials and government departments. The Transparency International report quoted above suggests the situation has got worse.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade states, concerning PNG: 'Poverty is pervasive and income disparity is growing, despite several years of macro-economic improvement.' Law and order problems and the highest prevalence of HIV infections in the Pacific are cited as serious threats to development. These, of course, are compelling reasons for Australian aid. How the money is really used, however, is also pertinent. Graham Teskey, an AusAid specialist, wrote about PNG on the Development Policy Centre blog in January:

Politics is shaped by the 'big man' culture, where elites and politicians provide benefits to clients and supporters. MPs spend big to win office and are expected to reward family and supporters appropriately. There is no constraining authority at the political centre to discipline this system of rent management ... More aid may make the problem worse by weakening the incentives to raise revenue domestically and undermining domestic accountability.

O'Neill has made it clear that, flowing from this new deal, he expects Australian funding for a wish list of roads, airports, hospitals and schools. While infrastructure projects are top of the agenda, according to some with first-hand experience of these schemes, poor implementation is a major issue. Philip Hughes, writing for the ANU's 'State, Society and Governance in Melanesia' project, warned:

The state's ability to exercise its functions in this area must be improved dramatically. This undoubtedly would require a suite of major interrelated administrative and legislative reforms ... In reality, in the present economic, political and social climate in PNG it is unlikely that there will be a rapid change in the situation.

A constitutional challenge in PNG to the resettlement agreement could quickly destroy any disincentive value as far as people smugglers are concerned. Under the country's constitution, foreigners may not be detained unless they have broken the law in entering the country. Since the asylum seekers are being sent there against their will they cannot be held to have entered illegally. This may be surmountable in the longer term, but it suggests — as does the commentary quoted above — that the agreement will go the way of Labor's other 'solutions' to border security.


 

Walter Hamilton headshotWalter Hamilton is a former ABC foreign correspondent and author of Children of the Occupation: Japan's Untold Story.

Topic tags: Walter Hamilton, PNG, asylum seekers, refugees

 

 

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Existing comments

It is not about people smugglers. It is about the right of everyone to seek asylum from persecution, there is no law in the world that can be used to criminalise that the way Australia is doing it. It is none of our business who people pay to be safe or how they travel. Day in and day out people serve up the same stupid lie. People smugglers are supposed to be evil scum of the earth remember, why on earth would they care if we torture people just as long as they get their money. Try and think outside the lies please.
Marilyn | 25 July 2013


...and how will Australian primary school children feel when they find out about Kevin Rudd's decision to send women and children to PNG? Parental guidance suggested.
Annoying Orange | 25 July 2013


What about Darwin? In 100 or 150 years time, Darwin could be the most populous city in Australia and the center of the Darwin Metropolitan Area could be one of the most populous urban agglomerations in the world. The city could be referred to as New Darwin or the City of New Darwin. As a global power city, New Darwin could exert a significant impact upon commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and entertainment. New Darwin could became a sister city to New York City, home of the United Nations Headquarters important center for international diplomacy. In 100 years time New Darwin could be described as the new cultural capital of the world.
Wellington | 26 July 2013


What say you, Mr Rudd? Such a good article that should be put to the Prime Minister immediately. Well written.
Phil | 26 July 2013


I believe that the so called 'people smugglers' who are helping people to escape persecution are being overly demonized to avoid our own moral responsibilities as a nation.
John Whitehead | 26 July 2013


why should Australia warehouse refugees in a failed state like PNG? Our $20 billion dollar deficit will quickly mushroom if we're expected to provide all the infrastructure plus all the bribes of all the corrupt pollies there - and here. If we don't solve this problem with humanity and compassion, it may be our financial undoing in decades to come, as well as our unending moral disgrace - that we had the capacity to be compassionate, but failed at every small hurdle.
walter p komarnicki | 26 July 2013


Will Australia have to say SORRY again in 5 years time?. LOVE shown towards refugees, means not ever having to say SORRY (again) neither now, nor in the future.
Monica | 26 July 2013


I agree with Marylin and John Whitehead- it's not about people smugglers at the core of the issue. The focus on the "evil" people smugglers is just a term used by politicians to divert away from other terms previously used to characterise it in a way that panders to certain parts of the electorate. So "terrorists" will no longer do, neither will "people who throw their children overboard" - let's focus on the people smugglers! I am greatly disturbed by Mr Rudd's failure to consult Indonesia here, as it seems on the face of it a great deal could be done if Australia and Indonesia could co-operatively tackle both the people smugglers and the corrupt officials that allow their trade to work, with a set-up to progress orderly processing in Indonesia, and settlement in Australia- and yes put great effort into Darwin, as Wellington suggests, to the ultimate benefit to both Australia and the asylum seekers.
Dennis Green | 26 July 2013


Australia cannot take all the world's refugees.There is plenty of criticism of the policies of both major parties but nowhere have I read a solution. Why do we never hear of not true refugees being returned? And why the silence about the delay in processing let's hear some valid explanations. I agree asylum seekers are not illegal and blame Howard and Abott for poisoning the national debate predicament
Mac | 26 July 2013


Dennis Green 26 July 2013. "a great deal could be done if Australia and Indonesia could co-operatively tackle both the people smugglers and the corrupt officials that allow their trade to work, with a set-up to progress orderly processing in Indonesia, and settlement in Australia- and yes put great effort into Darwin, as Wellington suggests, to the ultimate benefit to both Australia , and the asylum seekers.".... Bravo! Malcolm Frazer's great suggestion of cooperation does not seems to be getting- anywhere -anything like the recognition it deserves, . I wonder why? Dennis Green 26 July 2013
Robert Liddy | 27 July 2013


PM Rudd just shut our gates to the most vulnerable people in the world. He is sending people seeking safety in our country to Papua New Guinea to toughen up Labor's image before the election. Let's tell him we support compassion and decency, not cruelty. The new plan relegates families that arrive by boat to a life of uncertainty in offshore detention centres with horrific human rights records. It will send genuine refugees to a dangerous country that even SmartTraveler, a government website, advises "a high degree of caution" for travelers, highlighting cases of sexual assault. We have a chance now to shame him and show him this cruel plan has backfired -- Rudd thinks an inhumane hard line policy will win him votes ahead of the election. But we can show him otherwise and build a massive campaign with one simple message: "Not in my name". Add your name to the petition now and when we get 50,000 of us to speak out Avaaz will put up a giant billboard with every name in Kevin Rudd's Brisbane constituency. Sign now! https://secure.avaaz.org/en/seeking_asylum_is_a_human_right_locb/?copy
William | 29 July 2013


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