The King's Peace in PNG


Alexander Downer, Foreign Minister, Australia: The reason some countries are poorer than others is in the main, with a few environmental exceptions as a result of poor internal governance, whatever the cause of that. Maybe in some cases there’s corruption, there’s a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability in other cases, the middle class may be too small, there may not be enough educated people to be able to fill the necessary positions in the bureaucracy, all sorts of reasons. In the case of Papua New Guinea it’s no exception. (Sunday Profile, ABC Radio, 28 November 2004: view transcript here)

The nation states in which we now live arose from something called the King’s Peace. The King’s Peace was the Dark Age dress code for those on the guest list of Civilisation. No jeans, no thongs, no spears, no six-foot-long broadswords. It was enforced by the King’s henchmen, and the price for breaking it was somewhat higher than being denied entry to a Club.

Like Theoden’s Hall in The Lord of the Rings, or Big Whiskey in Unforgiven, weaponry was for leaving outside. As chaos reigned outside, in the absence of any other moral force, the King’s law stepped in to control the state of affairs on the inside.

Now Australia has been called upon to enforce the King’s peace in its own part of the world. That’s what 300 Australian policemen and women have been asked to do on the streets of Port Moresby, PNG. They will be building a space for the rule of law in a place where the King’s Peace has never really been enforced before. Port Moresby is one of the nastiest, most crime ridden places in the world, so who could argue that it needs some kind of King’s Peace.

An Australian administered, Australian financed, Australian manned peace, perhaps. And that peace will be the basis of the state. And the police are the forceful arm of the state. Back in the Dark Ages they would have been the king’s retainers. A handful of gold bought you a battle-axe, an army, and a police force. Today, it buys some high tech surveillance equipment, some serious training, and a bunch of boots on the ground.

PNG, like the Solomon Islands, is representative of Australia’s new deputy sheriff status. America can only rescue so many failed states. Its southern hemisphere neighbourhood representative “ Australia “ will have to shoulder its burden, and Port Moresby is part of that. This is not a cynical statement. Peace does have to be established. Minibuses can’t be held up, people shouldn’t be robbed and murdered. Poor PNG: a country the size of California, with more natural resources and a constitutional democracy is in fact a basket case.

But at the same time it might be interesting to look into the causes of the country’s current malaise. Remember Bougainville Island? Bougainvilleans were embittered by the environmental destruction caused by the giant Australian-owned Panguna copper mine. They were pissed that revenue from the mine filled a third of Papua New Guinea’s treasury but didn’t find its way back to their island. They weren’t happy to be lumped together with their PNG mainland partners and formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), shutting the mine down in 1989. This act of bloody-minded self-denial sparked a dirty little war, including the notorious St Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1990 when Australian-supplied gunships were ‘deployed’ by the PNG security forces.

Peace talks hovered tentatively, but in 1992, then Prime Minister Wingti launched another major offensive against the rebels, further exacerbating the situation. The conflict claimed the scalp of the next prime minister, Sir Julius Chan, in early 1997 when the PNG security forces refused to co-operate with a multi-million dollar mercenary operation to re-take Bougainville by force. The hired soldiers were sent home and Sir Julius resigned. Elections in mid-1997 saw Bill Skate take up the office, and the next year the Bougainville war officially ended.

A decade of war had left 20 000 islanders dead, and twice as many homeless. Skate got caught up in a corruption scandal, denying him his seemingly inevitable knighthood, and a catastrophic drought, caused by El Niño, brought hunger, disease and death to more than half a million people.

And so this year, in his third term as prime minister, Sir Michael Somare invited Australia to return and send 300 police and bureaucrats to help restore the King’s Peace to his embattled country.

But if we go in to restore the King’s Peace, which King will we be restoring? PNG gets most of its cash from gold, oil, and copper. Mining still accounts for about a third of PNG’s gross domestic product but it tends to be foreign-owned and financed, and foreign investors like to be able to get their money out without too much of it being siphoned off “ by officials wanting backhanders, by environmentalists wanting damage repaired, by locals wanting investment. Hoping for more mining investment, PNG is abolishing levees on imported goods “ most mining equipment is shipped in as the country has little domestic manufacturing “ and extending foreigners’ work visas to ten years from two.

And right now, PNG’s rulers want a 3000 km pipeline to eastern Australia to give them a market for their natural gas. It would inject nearly US$300 million a year into their economy but the decision lies with the board of ExxonMobil Corporation.

Perhaps we should be sending Australian police to a few boardrooms before we start sending them to the rough tough streets of Port Moresby and the Highlands.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.