Interview with Eric Tlozek, ABC Papua New Guinea

  • Transcript, E&OE

ERIC TLOZEK: My first question. Why does Australia believe that providing governance training to public servants is a better way of addressing PNG's problems with corruption than the Australian Government publicly calling these out, the instances of corruption out from MPs or from the PNG Government, or taking it to task on these things?

JULIE BISHOP: We do a number of things to ensure that PNG can be governed as transparently and effectively and ethically as possible. One of those activities is the establishment of this Pacific Leadership and Governance Precinct whereby we are providing opportunities for current and future public servants of PNG to undertake education, training and mentoring based on values, ethics and principles and also to ensure that their skills are developed in a way that they can be the best possible public service supporting the PNG Government. It's one aspect of a range of activities that we undertake, but it's a very important one. It's essential for PNG to have an independent, fiercely independent, and skilled public service, and Australia is playing our part in investing in these programs to ensure that that can occur.

ERIC TLOZEK: But is that more effective than Australia using its considerable influence and muscle to actually call out and take PNG to task for some of these fairly glaring breaches and problems with transparency, accountability and governance?

JULIE BISHOP: We have discussions behind closed doors with PNG Ministers, Cabinet and the Prime Minister, and we raise our concerns in a way that we believe will deliver outcomes. That's why we are focussed on supporting the public service, that's one aspect of it, but we also raise our concerns. And in this year, 2018, when PNG will host APEC, the world will focus on Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and we want to ensure that this is a successful event for PNG and that means ensuring that the public service can operate effectively and also that PNG can withstand the scrutiny of the media from around the world that will be focussed on this country.

ERIC TLOZEK: One of those instances was last year's election, the conduct of which Australia supported quite extensively, but there were so many problems well-identified by the international observers who were present. But there wasn't much from Australia about those problems said publicly? Did Australia prefer an administration that it already worked with than one that was elected fairly?

JULIE BISHOP: Just because we don't make our comments through the ABC doesn't mean that those comments aren't being made, and we work with very closely with whomever the people of PNG choose as their leaders to ensure that PNG can be the most prosperous and stable as possible. And that's why we work closely with the Members of Parliament, with the leadership team –whomever the people of PNG elect – to fulfil the aims of the PNG people which is to live in a fair and prosperous society.

ERIC TLOZEK: But if there are questions on whether that election was correct, was fair, was properly conducted, can you still work with that leadership?

JULIE BISHOP: We certainly work with the Electoral Commission here. We provided electoral observers and our High Commissioner is very closely engaged, as are the High Commission staff, in ensuring that PNG conducts the best elections possible. And while they may not have been perfect, we recognise the concerns that were expressed, but the point is not to just criticise but to try and get better outcomes and that is the role that Australia plays and has played for a very long time. We are partners with PNG. We are not in the position of lecturing other countries. We share our experience, we share our expertise and hope that we can lead to better results and better outcomes.

ERIC TLOZEK: You mentioned APEC. PNG is broke, it is struggling to make payments on all sorts of things. How will it host APEC without even more support from Australia than it is already getting?

JULIE BISHOP: A number of countries are providing support, Australia among them. We are focussing on the security aspects of it - the physical and cyber security aspects, but other countries are also providing support, and that was expected when PNG took on the role of APEC Chair for 2018. The APEC countries knew that it would be a challenge. It's a challenge for any country. For a developing country like PNG, we knew it would be needing more support and that is what other economies are doing. Australia is playing its role but so are other nations, and PNG is a sovereign nation. It makes its decisions and if it requires support from Australia, where we can, we assist, given the close nature of our friendship going back many years.

ERIC TLOZEK: The Government of Papua New Guinea or certainly officials from the Immigration Department and the Immigration Minister are practically begging Australia to take the refugees off Manus Island. Can you say that most of them will go to the US and what will happen to those refugees, not the non-refugees, who do not, if a number do not?

JULIE BISHOP: The US arrangement is still to be fully implemented and the numbers are well known, around 1250, as part of the arrangement with the United States. There are opportunities for those deemed to be refugees to settle here in PNG. Many Australians live here in PNG. I think at any one time around 20,000 Australians live in PNG. So there are opportunities for people to be resettled here in PNG. And we have been having discussions with the PNG Government about that, and also for those who don't want to stay here what third-country settlement options might be available. We will continue to work with the Government to ensure that the case load at Manus can be cleared as soon as possible.

ERIC TLOZEK: But those who have tried to settle here, there is a tiny number, I mean I've looked into this. There is literally a handful who have what you might call successfully resettled and that's been over a number of years. Can you really say that resettlement in PNG is still a viable option?

JULIE BISHOP: Of course. PNG is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. I love coming here. I know many Australians have made their livelihoods here. There are many Australians who have jobs here. It would be an opportunity for people to start a new life here in PNG. I think the point you're getting to is will they be resettled in Australia and I can assure you they will not.

ERIC TLOZEK: You're going to Tonga next. The government there has just banned public schoolgirls from playing rugby. Given your promotion of women and girls in development and Australia actually funds some sports-related aid programs in Tonga, what do you think about this?

JULIE BISHOP: Obviously Tongan laws are a matter for the Tongan Government and the people of Tonga but I would be disappointed if girls were precluded from any activity anywhere based solely on their gender. We work closely with nations in the Pacific to promote sport as a bridge between cultures, as a bridge between nations, and also an opportunity for young women to take part in activities that are good for their social and healthy development. So while this is a matter for the Tongan Government, I wouldn't like to see girls excluded from any activity based solely on gender.

ERIC TLOZEK: Do you want to say anything more about Australia's role in the Pacific and the importance of this trip?

JULIE BISHOP: I have been delighted with the outcomes of this visit. It took place at a time when PNG is suffering the effects of this devastating earthquake in Southern Highlands and Hela provinces, and it was an opportunity for me to thank the Australian Defence Force personnel and the volunteers who have been working here to alleviate their suffering and provide humanitarian support. I was able to give our commitment to Prime Minister O'Neill that we will continue to support the reconstruction of the Highlands and those communities devastated by these earthquakes.

It was also a time to celebrate the partnership between PNG and Australia with the opening of the Pacific Leadership and Governance Precinct, the announcement of the new BRIDGE schools program where schools in PNG and schools in Australia will be twinned, and also to announce more support for PNG generally. And from my point of view it was a very successful visit. I was certainly delighted to hear Prime Minister O'Neill say that currently the PNG–Australia relationship is the strongest that it has ever been.

- Ends -

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