Why the Australian police are not welcome in PNG


On 13 May the PNG Supreme Court ruled that Australia’s Enhanced Cooperation Agreement with PNG was unconstitutional because it included an immunity clause for Australian police.

In a joint press conference explaining the withdrawal of the Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP), Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer quipped ‘If we had 20/20 foresight, rather than 20/20 hindsight, no doubt we’d have taken Mr Wenge out to lunch and explained to him what a great idea this was.’ Luther Wenge is the controversial Morobe governor who mounted the Supreme Court case against Australia.

Soon after the ruling, Australian police were stood down and began flying home.

The ECP, which originally planned to send 300 Aussie police and up to 60 bureaucrats to PNG, was aimed at stamping out corruption and instituting good governance. Downer’s remark is indicative of the condescension and duplicity with which Australia has approached the intervention, and lies at the core of its failure. To suggest good governance on one hand, and then an Adelaide Gentleman’s way of resolving this problem on the other, does not reflect Australia’s stated aims in the program.

The court ruling was undoubtedly a dramatic catalyst, but problems with the ECP arose long before that, and are something the Australian Government should be working hard to reconcile if they are serious about resurrecting the program – or indeed addressing the rift that has developed between the two countries in recent years.

A rare meeting of over 300 police took place in Port Moresby on 5 May. Some of the key concerns voiced at the meeting were: why are crime rates in Moresby rising? Why are PNG police getting so little of the available money? And why do PNG police have to continue to put themselves on the line while the Australians sit around in their 4WDs?

Clearly resentment had been building for some time. Robert Ali, head of the PNG Police Association that organised the meeting, was also concerned about the massive inequality that existed between the rates of pay of the Australians and what the local PNG police were receiving.

The ECP budget figures certainly suggest there were grounds for concern. Of the $790 million budgeted for the five-year program, $340 million was for wages and accommodation of Australian Federal Police (AFP), $395 million was for logistics and operational costs of the AFP and just $55 million was dedicated to the Royal Papua New Guinean Constabulary (RPNGC).

This is despite the fact that the recent Australian Senate inquiry into Australia’s relations with PNG and the broader South West Pacific found that problems in the RPNGC could be significantly addressed by supplying the force with more resources. A report by the PNG Institute for National Affairs found similar problems: police were poorly paid, if paid at all; their patrols were rationed to just 25 litres of fuel per day; and of the 735 police vehicles only 537 were operational. As a consequence, morale was breaking down and further perpetuating a downward spiral.

The ECP is commensurate with the boomerang nature with which much of our aid is delivered, but also points to a more fundamental problem: it’s a clear example of policy making on the run. While Downer denied Australia had any responsibility for the failure of the program to meet the requirements of the PNG constitution, this claim is pure petty politics.

The ECP was designed solely in Australia and was forced on PNG with little concern for the realities of the situation on the ground there. Downer et al were cock a hoop with the effectiveness of the RAMSI intervention in the Solomon Islands, and the ECP came soon after. Senior PNG politicians, including Prime Minister Micheal Somare and Foreign Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu, were hostile to the idea from the start. The ECP was top-down and while many, including AID/WATCH, suggested that there was support for a renewed approach by Australia in PNG, this was the wrong way to go.

The PNG Foreign Minister has continued to emphasise that there is support for the ECP but also refutes comments by Downer and Prime Minister Howard that PNG will have to change its constitution to ensure the program is re-implemented.

If Australia had the political will to assist PNG, and advance the human security of Papua New Guineans instead of focusing on its own national security, much of the $200 million that was announced in this year’s budget for the ECP and will now no longer be spent, could be easily redistributed – and make a real difference.

As is evident, the RPNGC is sorely in need of funds and the health and education sectors, both of which have suffered due to the focus on law and order through the Australian aid program, could also be reinvigorated. Such measures by Australia may go a long way to healing the diplomatic rift that has developed over the last few years between the two long-time friends. Putting money directly into the PNG economy, instead of boomeranging back to Australia, is likely to emphasise a new era in partnership and cooperation that will bode well for the people of both countries into the future.

The Australian foreign minister would do well to respect the people of PNG and their leaders and leave his private school practices aside in favour of the good governance he so loudly preaches.

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