Pacific Politics: Somare Bites Back

By: Maryann Keady
Wednesday 28 February 2007


Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare has now disbanded the Defence Force Board of Inquiry looking into the escape of Australian fugitive Julian Moti from PNG last year.

The Board had earlier found [LINK: http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/news/stories/s1856146.htm] that the PNG Prime Minister must have known about the clandestine military flight that helped Moti avoid extradition to Australia. But under charges by Somare that it was biased and a political witch hunt, PNG’s Defence Minister Martin Aini was forced to scuttle its work. And in a further dramatic move, the Defence Minister has now been sacked.

In an interview with me last week, Somare stated that he believed there was a political motive behind the charges that he helped Moti escape PNG, despite the latter being arrested by Australian Federal Police on child sex charges:

These are allegations. You have to understand there are people in this country … including some Australians too, who don't want to see me be the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea because it is going to be difficult for them to get anything they want.

And all I want to say is that I never helped Moti in this particular case. I did my best, I had the advice, and I allowed the process of court to take its course, and that is where it stops. I don't give directions. I only give directions to the Chief Secretary. He is the Chief Advisor to government. He then directs his public servants, and that is where the buck stops.

… there are people around who are pushing that particular issue because there are elections coming up — I am not that stupid.

Somare is running for re-election in national elections, expected to take place in June. In the last few days, Moti himself has claimed that he will sue the Howard Government over the child sex allegations, which were thrown out of a Vanuatu court in 1999.

The affair reveals much about relations between Australia and our northern neighbors. Take the Solomon Islands, for example. The Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare recently claimed that Canberra was operating a ‘parallel government’ in his country — hitting back after Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Sogavare was trying to destroy the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), and after Downer took out ads in local papers, calling on Solomon Islanders to stand by RAMSI and reject attempts to re-arm the police. Sogavare accused Canberra of dirty tactics, and circumventing correct diplomatic procedure in writing to the local papers.

Is this the way Pacific relations are to be played out? Has Australia decided to strong arm Pacific Island nations, and to hell with the consequences? Or could it be, as some suggest, that Moti was going to point the finger of blame at Australian police for the riots in Honiara?

Speaking from the coastal town of Wewak in PNG last week, Prime Minister Somare did little to dispel the accusation that Australia has taken on a colonial attitude to our Pacific neighbours.

Speaking passionately about the need for Pacific countries to be run by their own people, Somare launched a scathing attack on Canberra:

We are running a country, we are a government, we are an institution that is established, and we have run those institutions from the beginning … and now 32 years after independence, we’re running things the way we believe it can be run, and it is our society. We know the problems associated with our people, and we believe if we have an Australian there as an advisor, we will accept him there as an advisor …

But to come in and tell us we are weak and we cannot perform … you are not giving us a challenge to try and see the education that you have instilled in the minds of the Papua New Guineans. You are not allowing us to make that work. And suddenly you are coming up and telling us that you know better, that you can do better than us … Work side by side. And help Papua New Guineans to progress … Allow the independent sovereign people decide for themselves what they need for their country.

As to Downer’s claims that, as PNG’s biggest contributor of aid, Australia had a right to a say in PNG’s affairs, Somare raised serious questions about the intent and effectiveness of Australian aid:

That 800 million [dollars in Australian aid], if you work it out, if you look at the consultancies you pay the Australians, if you break that down … 300 million is actually the grant in aid. The rest is Australian-paid, Australian-controlled programs. They pay their highly paid consultants, they put them in big compounds with high salaries and after six minutes past four everyone goes out of their office and doesn’t stay and collect all the routine matters that need to be tidied up …

But I think that ‘Australian aid song’ that Australian voters are being told is not correct. You can work out that almost half of the money, almost two thirds of the money goes back to Australian pockets …

As the first leader of PNG after independence, Somare has a long political memory. He is vocal about Australia’s treatment of his people after World War II, during the fight for independence, and today.

If I go back to my experience on how we were treated, people talk about South Africa. But young people of Papua New Guinea really don’t know — when we had former Australian expatriates who settled in our plantations, the race relationship was worse …

But in PNG, we will sit over these things … The racism that was practised in this country, Papua New Guineans never talk about it. We want to leave these bad things — these bad deeds of others — behind, and progress on.

Historically, PNG has always had a role in Australia’s defence, and the depiction of the Pacific as ‘failed states’ for the last few years must be read in this context. While the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and other so-called ‘independent’ think tanks continue to depict Pacific Island nations as on the verge of collapse and overrun by criminals, this can also be read as diplomatic talk that camouflages not just ‘strategic’ but defence rationale.

As Hugh White, one time Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence in Australia’s Defence Department, and former head of ASPI, said of Australia’s Pacific policy in 2004:

I think this is more than a passing fad. It has deep roots in Australia’s basic strategic instincts — going back to Alfred Deakin and other early Australian strategists — about the importance of these islands to Australia’s security. And it reflects important long term changes in Australian perceptions of our interests and responsibilities in the region.

The Australian Government’s rhetoric about failed States and ‘the arc of instability’ comes from a security agenda that requires these nations to be depicted as constantly on the brink of chaos.

John Howard has referred to ‘an inherently unstable situation’ in PNG — but the cry in the region is: Who is creating the instability, and who benefits?

There has been a coup in Fiji, unrest, ‘outside influences’ and ‘shadowy forces’ in East Timor, riots in the Solomons and in Tonga.

And this is not just a Liberal Party pre-occupation. Robert McLelland, Shadow Defence Minister indicated in 2006 that Labor under Kevin Rudd would maintain the current direction of ‘hands on’ administration of the Pacific. [LINK: http://www.aspi.org.au/events/recentEventDetail.aspx?eid=234]

Recent comments from the leader of both PNG and the Solomon Islands indicate, however, that they are not happy about the intrusive nature of the Australian ‘Pacific Policy.’

Somare talks of ‘the West, maybe fearing China,’ in reference to the new economic player in the region. PNG, has inked a $1billion dollar agreement with Chinese company Metallurgical Group Corp (MCC) for the Ramu nickel project — the largest such project with the Chinese in the region. Despite disquiet over labour conditions at the mine, as well as allegations that his former Ambassador to China facilitated illegal entry of Chinese citizens into the country, Somare says they are small problems of ‘public relations’ and unsubstantiated allegations:

China has been a good partner to us. Since we established our diplomatic relations they have not been very forceful. They do not tell us ‘because we have a big investment in PNG, you should follow our laws and regulations.’ No. We have a better understanding. There is proper dialogue, and in a South East Asian context it’s understanding each other that counts most.

As to concerns that cosy bilateral relations with a country the USA calls their ‘peer competitor’ might lead to further unwanted scrutiny from Canberra, Somare maintains it is simply about business:

We want to stay a neutral country. We do not want the ideologies of West and East, even though it has died out. And China becoming powerful, very powerful economically, they will create it into an economic ideology. And we don’t want to fight the war. We are friends and I said before ‘We want to be friends — and enemy to none’ …

I think that all the countries of the world … fear China, but I personally don’t see any reason why we should. If we control ourselves, and maintain and sustain ourselves well, I don’t see a reason why we should be fearful of Chinese control.

Whether or not Somare is returned in the PNG elections, the current machinations in the Pacific will continue. Attempts by Australia to discredit those that challenge Canberra’s heavy-handed tactics will only further tarnish our image in the region. Sir Michael Somare fought for PNG’s independence 32 years ago. At 70, he should not have to remind Canberra to respect his country’s sovereignty — and his people.

The Australian Government must be careful to respect the sovereignty of our nearest neighbours or risk the charge of ‘colonial interference’ being leveled at every Australian action in the region.

About the author

Maryann Keady is a freelance radio journalist. Her interview with Sir Michael Somare can be heard at www.asia2025.net.

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