Of Manus and megaphones (or how I learned to stop worrying and love a bit of M.A.D)

Stephen Howes makes a strong case in Friday’s Australian that ‘there’s a price to pay (paywalled) for our indebtedness to Papua New Guinea’ for helping out with our Asylum-seeker obsession: he worries Canberra’s gratitude and anxiety hobbles our leverage in the relationship.

To summarise, he identifies four examples of areas where our inability to speak out frankly could hurt Papua New Guineans: Port Moresby’s instinct to spend revenue now (and indeed future gas income) rather than invest in the sovereign wealth fund Australia helped establish; its misprocurement of medical supplies and selection of a non-certified and expensive bidder for a major pharmaceutical contract; backsliding on university reform, including the mistreatment of Lae UniTech’s Vice Chancellor Schram; and Prime Minister O’Neill’s seizure of control of (fast-ebbing) revenue from the Ok Tedi Sustainable Development Program.

Writing in Friday’s Australian Financial Review, the Lowy Institute’s Jenny-Hayward Jones has similar concerns that our being hostage to Port Moresby’s continuing willingness to bear a growing price for helping Canberra, as negative public sentiment rises in PNG, ‘restricts Australia’s ability to speak frankly when problems arise’ (paywalled).

But I’d suggest there are some real advantages, as well as downsides, to greater motivation to pull our punches a bit. International relations scholars might refer to added ‘ballast’ in the bilateral relationship—whereby webs of shared interests and habits of mutual back-scratching provide added incentives to keep ties between close but dissimilar partner countries on an even keel during periodic quarrels. For those with more gothic tastes, strategists might describe the introduction of a degree of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (M.A.D) as stabilizing. The implicit link between our growing aid to Port Moresby and its assistance with a major Australian policy priority affords extra motivation to avoid damaging rows; not just a new arena for friction. The opportunity for PNG to ‘help a friend’, rather than only ever be helped, has also contributed to a sense of a more equal partnership among some Papua New Guineans for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, though those benefits have declined since Reza Berati was killed on Manus last month.

Of course, being able to discuss disagreements openly is vital to any healthy relationship. And publicly voicing sharp criticism of other countries—even via ‘megaphone diplomacy’—is occasionally warranted. (I’ve argued it was important for countries to strongly and visibly register unease at the aggressive way Beijing announced its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea last November, and to use symbolic sanctions to help delegitimise the 2006 Fiji coup until Suva made significant and credible progress toward elections, for example). But I wouldn’t see any of the four challenges Stephen raises as areas where Canberra feeling more constrained than usual from jumping-up-and-down is likely to lead to a worse outcome.

To me, Port Moresby’s choice of companies to supply medicines to hospitals and aid posts comes closest to a line-call whether official public criticism might be valuable. Children will die and there will be much unnecessary suffering if the successful tenderer supplies fake drugs. And even if the company sources effective drugs from now on, Waigani won’t be able to buy as many of them as it would had a credible lower-cost provider been selected. Yet even here, the limited publicly-available evidence doesn’t show Canberra has been inhibited from quietly making its position quite clear. Nor does it suggest backing Waigani into even more of a corner would have kept communications channels open or left room to maneuver in the sort of discussions Prime Minister Abbott had with O’Neill last week. Loudly berating Port Moresby might have felt satisfying but refraining from doing so was the better course where keeping PNG leaders and officials squirming would likely only have entrenched the mistake and hardened attitudes against ensuring better future outcomes.

On the other three matters, I’d guess my personal views are probably pretty close to Stephen’s but I’m not so confident I share fundamental economic assumptions with O’Neill. Well, Tony Abbott’s hardly likely to have been a slouch warning about the risks of economic nationalism and sovereign risk to growth but, again, I’d expect a respectful exchange of prime ministerial views behind closed doors, once they established good relations, provided the best hope of being persuasive on such points.

Although no one’s suggesting we should be overbearing about lecturing Port Moresby in public or private, it’s all too easy to think of times when initially fairly mild expressions of irritation have quickly led to indignant bellowing and protracted sulking on one side or other of the relationship. With tonnes of historical baggage and some exasperating national quirks, as well mutual good-will in both Canberra and Port Moresby, it may be helpful for there to be some additional costs to consider when either side’s tempted to reach for the loud-hailer.

Karl Claxton is an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.  

Karl Claxton

Karl Klaxton is an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.


  • The discussion here is stimulating. Two brief notes I may add. First, the recent experience of the Nauru rule of law crisis has important bearing in this discussion. The Nauru crisis saw the sacking and suspension of Australian born Chief Magistrate and Chief Justice respectively. It was an assault on constitutional democracy. Yet, Australia was relatively silent, dismissing it as an ‘internal issue,’ of what was a serious constitutional upheaval. It was described as ‘extraordinary’ by the then Chief Justice. It clearly demonstrated the extent to which the asylum seeker issue can compromise Australia’s objectivity and leverage on issues of democratic governance in the region. It supports the view here that the potential for PNG is no different with the Manus deal in sight. I have projected that in my article late last month on the Nauru case on ANU Pacific Institute: http://pacificinstitute.anu.edu.au/outrigger/2014/03/21/australias-blind-eye-while-rule-of-law-under-siege-in-the-pacific/

    Second, and pointing to Michelle’s brief but clear assessment on PNG’s political maneuverings, O’Neill may or may not be around to see the Manus deal through till 2017. PNG political landscape is unpredictable as its cliché – the land of the unexpected. A genuine threat to the Manus deal would be the Opposition Leader Belden Namah should he form a new government. One would assume Australia is very much aware of that. But with its extensive connections and historical ties, it would be difficult for PNG, under a new leadership, to completely throw out the Manus deal.
    Instead drastic changes could be made to the terms of the agreement such as the resettlement arrangements and the right for asylum seekers to seek redress in PNG courts. In any case, one may argue that Australia’s leverage would continue to be undermined. The recent public plea by both O’Neill and Abbott for a Pacific wide asylum seeker resettlement scheme may only have the effect of escalating this dilemma. I think the last thing the people of Pacific would like to see is for Australia, an establish democracy and an emblem of good governance, to back down and be ‘silent’ when their institutions of justice and democracy are tampered with by their political elites.

  • Thanks Karl, Stephen and all. A very interesting conversation. If I may add my two toeas worth.
    A member of parliament Paul Tienstein was sentenced to prison this week for misappropriation of public funds. Other prominent PNGians who colluded with him are also likely to face the same fate. These outcomes are occurring over five years since the allegations were first uncovered. O’Neill himself has a shadow in the past and a more recent allegation related to the Paraka lawyers payment scandal. He is currently facing a fair bit of scrutiny on the domestic front in relation to the issues that Stephen highlights but also in reference to the Paraka issue. Yet he is emboldened enough to sack several senior members of his cabinet – and while on the surface the reasons relate to the UBS loan I am sure many are asking what else is happening behind the scenes. Recently he reaffirmed his partnership with the National Alliance party – the very actors that he fought so hard to remove in 2011 and 2012. What is behind ONeill’s stronghold on PNG politics today? And how long can he hold on to this power before PNG’s political chess game catches up? What’s the binding factor with all these relationships of same players and teams with different names and uniforms? – money? Policy? Friendship?
    Whatever is really happening beneath the tables where the megaphones on bilateral relations blare, Australia’s asylum seeker policy is certainly dependent on O’Neill’s support. If this means O’Neill and others in power have one less but very important scrutinising actor to contend with then the better for them.
    If Teinstein’s sentence and if the national task force on corruption headed by Sam Koim (although many question Koim’s independence from O’Neill) remain as adamant about their cause as they have shown, then ONeill’s time will come to reckon with his voters – even as marginal, remote, poor as most of them are. When this happens a big question will be whether Australia will take a stance beside the voiceless majority of Papua New Guineans on corruption and bad policy even if it means upsetting O’Neill.

    Unfortunately a key partner to the many silent and voiceless people of Papua New Guinea and one who they (used to) look to for support to critique bad decisions, bad policies and corruption – Australia – has compromised it’s ability to do so. What then of the millions of Australian dollars spent on well intended development? Just like its treatment of this issue on the domestic front, Australia’s international policy and strategy on the PNG front is narrow and shortsighted. Like Stephen and others I believe that the ultimate price will be high for Australia.

  • Very interesting post Karl on a fascinating area for discussion.

    But I can’t help but feel that mutually assured destruction is already happening. Not for the respective Prime Ministers or their governments. But for the people locked up on Manus whose already tattered lives are further damaged. For the PNGans who can’t access the drugs they need at health clinics. For the young people in PNG whose chance at leapfrogging out of poverty on the back of a carefully managed resource boom is being shot by relegating robust bilateral discussion of the serious public policy issues that affect their lives and futures to whispers behind closed doors (or perhaps to silence).

    Even on the person to person level of calling on a mate to help out, I think there’s a difference between asking someone to help you move house or asking them to help you bury a body. With Manus, PNG is helping Australia to do something that is very questionable from both a policy and moral standpoint. So how can Australia criticise next time the PNG government wants to make a questionable decision that is going to impact on the most vulnerable in its society? How can Australia criticise the next time PNG wants to formulate a policy based on convenience or political expediency that breaches the obligations that the government has to its people or its obligations under international agreements? Australia is not only giving up its leverage, but also any credibility it has when calling on other governments in the region to do the right thing.

    I don’t think we can disregard the nature of the favours in considering the impact on the PNG-Australia relationship. I agree with you that there may now be more ballast to keep the relationship on an even keel during squabbles, but if the squabbles don’t consider the human costs of policy decisions nor carve pathways for positive reform, does it matter?

    • Hi Tony, Stephen, and Ashlee.

      I agree there’s a tricky balance to be struck.

      My essentially bureaucratic instincts and experience lean toward pressing others (interlocutors!) to meet any mutual obligations with as little fuss as possible.

      I’d accept that only ever focusing on preserving relationships in pursuit of outcomes while totally disregarding behavior and intent (to the extent that’s fathomable) could lead to rationalizing the indefensible or the sort of perverse incentives you’re concerned about—one occasionally needs to jump up and down.

      My argument for not doing so in these four cases partly rests on an assessment—admittedly unscientific—that Peter O’Neill’s single-minded, unsentimental, focus on the national interest is good for Papua New Guinea and good for Australia’s partnership with PNG. His willingness to go along with helping PM Rudd from last July and later Mr Abbott seems to me a case in point.

      I’d no more choose the four paths O’Neill has than you would, Stephen, but PNG’s voters haven’t, in their wisdom, asked me to divine their national interest. I’m sympathetic to O’Neill being a person in a hurry given all he wants to achieve and the pressures stacked against him. I also think Jenny Hayward-Jones makes an important point in Friday’s Interpreter about O’Neill’s credo of giving all Papua New Guineans a stake in the resources boom. And although I’m worried PNG may abandon its sovereign wealth fund, I’m conscious even rich Australia found it irresistible to return much windfall resource rent straight to the public in the form of tax-cuts and middle class welfare (though we’ve preserved our own Future Fund). PNG’s investment of current and future revenue in social and physical infrastructure to try to prime the economy seems riskier, and possibly misconceived, but understandable.

      I think you’re right to be concerned that entangling PNG in our asylum-seeker issue has the potential to distort the relationship or harm public opinion. And as costs to O’Neill for helping us rise, there’s a risk it could distract him from other priorities. But the introduction of this element seems to me to have done the relationship as much good as harm so far. The press conference you mention is preoccupied with Manus but there’s a journalists-will-be-journalists aspect to that: they fixate on MH-370 too.

      Every reader will have a slightly different take on Canberra’s wisdom and rectitude in asking Port Moresby to help with this difficult and contentious issue, according to their judgment, conscience, and views on off-shore processing. I’m hopeful PNG will be able to maximize the advantages and minimize the risks of assisting.

  • Karl, It’s great to get your contribution, but I would invite you to read the transcript of one of the Abbott-O’Neill press conferences here. It is totally dominated by Manus Island and asylum seekers. Do you really think this is good for PNG? Whatever leverage we have over PNG (and we do still have some; for example, as Abbott mentions, PNG is hosting APEC in 2018 and will need lots of help from Australia to do that) we should be using to promote good policy in PNG, not to get what we want in relation to asylum seekers.

  • Karl,
    A fun read and great contribution to the blog! I’m sure the quality of diplomatic cables has declined since you’ve been out of the system. While I agree that M.A.D can add to political stability I also think that it can lead to political entrenchment – a brand new hospital or four-lane highway paid for by Australia lessens the likelihood that constituents in PNG hold their MP to account. From a strategic perspective I think the issue is not whether Australia jumps up and down to push a point but whether it pulls the support that helps keep MPs that have contributed to PNG’s woeful development record in a job. I have heard Julie Bishop mention the phrase “mutual obligation of partner governments” a few times. Hopefully these obligations are about partner governments pursuing good public policy in their own country and not just being there for Australia when we need help dealing with our domestic problems.

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