The Australian Government is making a push to re-establish itself as the dominant nation in the South Pacific, with fresh aid spending and official visits.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is using a trip to Papua New Guinea and Tonga to remind Pacific nations that Australia’s neighbours are its biggest beneficiaries.
“We are the partner of choice, along with New Zealand, for the islands of the Pacific and that’s demonstrated here in PNG where we work across a whole range of areas,” she said on a trip to PNG’s remote New Ireland province.
The move comes as Australia’s regional role is challenged by the rise of China, and increasing investment from across Asia.
In PNG, the Pacific’s largest economy, Australian investment has stagnated while China’s is rapidly rising.
The Governor of New Ireland, former prime minister Julius Chan, told Ms Bishop that the shine was coming off Australia and PNG’s relationship.
“I actually told Australia that it is very, crucially important that we keep the lustre between our friendship, which was established during the war years and thereafter, but now we’re losing that lustre,” he said.
Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato disagrees.
“Australia has not lost its focus,” he said.
“It’s true there may be some issues in terms of where the focus has been, but the world is globalising, there’s a greater need for focus, greater need for partnership and we’re working together as we always have.”
Extra earthquake aid, building programs announced
PNG earthquake victim Manu Tony (centre) waits for treatment. Australia has announced extra aid for affected communities. (Supplied: James Mepham)
Ms Bishop used her trip to announce an extra $3.4 million for earthquake relief efforts in the PNG highlands, and also launched an aid program in New Ireland to build wells and toilets for women and girls in isolated villages and improve the province’s disaster readiness.
But that is the type of aid Australia has been moving away from as it focuses more on programs that promote economic growth.
In PNG, Australia has invested heavily in governance training, building a public service training complex and creating a Papua New Guinea Governance Facility.
“We want to ensure that we continue to see good governance, accountability and transparency in the relationship,” Ms Bishop said.
Australia has preferred to focus on “governance” in preference to calling out the PNG Government on its more egregious failings, such as last year’s national elections, marred by a deficient electoral roll, voting irregularities and at times blatant manipulation.
Ms Bishop said Australia did not ignore serious allegations and had regular discussions with the PNG Government.
“We raise our concerns and work through issues together,” she said.