Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea must be one of the government’s highest foreign policy priorities. It is long past time for the relationship to mature and transition from aid donor and aid recipient status. Australia and PNG must now engage as full economic partners.
There is enormous good will between our two nations which I have observed during my extended visits and in regular meetings with officials. These visits have allowed me to see some of the challenges and opportunities in PNG and for our relationship.
As brothers and sisters in the Pacific region it is time for us to broaden, deepen and diversify our relationship. We must take it to a level that better reflects the contemporary reality of our nations.
One impediment to building closer links has been the difficulty faced by PNG businesspeople in obtaining visas to travel to Australia. This should be remedied. These unacceptable bureaucratic hurdles are standing in the way of greater trade and investment and need to be resolved immediately.
PNG is on the cusp of an economic transformation due to development of mining and resource projects, and particularly large liquefied natural gas projects currently either under way or on the drawing board. These projects will increase the role that PNG will take in the global economy, as its exports from the Southern Highland – and the Hides natural gas fields in particular – will be used to drive the engines of Asia’s industrial heartland.
One of the challenges for PNG will be to foster a skilled workforce to support these massive developments. Australia can play a role in providing education and training as we have faced a similar challenge for many years. We should explore the opportunities for greater workforce mobility between PNG and Australia as we support each other’s need for both skilled and unskilled labour in our respective workforces.
Recently I visited the Australia Pacific Technical College in Port Moresby. It has the potential to train a number of young people in PNG and the region more widely with Australian-standard trade qualifications.
This creates an opportunity for qualified people to work not only in the Southern Highlands, but also on mining and resource projects in Queensland and in Western Australia. The projected benefits from this mining and resource development is a once in a generation opportunity for PNG.
While there are current demands for health, education and infrastructure spending, it is vital that the government invest part of the revenues for the benefit of future generations. Australia has assisted in this effort by providing advice through the Treasury. The former head of our Future Fund, David Murray, recently visited PNG and spoke about the potential for a sovereign wealth fund.
This is an important issue and I am greatly encouraged by the discussions that I have held with officials about their plans for the future.
Australia and PNG share a passion for sport and this is an area where great strides can be taken in building closer relations. Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) competition is particularly of interest to many Papua New Guineans. I have held initial discussions with sports administrators in Australia about how to build closer links through sport.
Many people in PNG would love to have a team in the NRL competition. That is, of course, a long-term goal worth striving for, but there is much that can done in the interim. There are school team competitions and the Queensland Cup which may provide a launching pad for an eventual national PNG team in the NRL.
Another area of great potential is in the empowerment of women in PNG. There are many outstanding women located within the country. Their contribution will undoubtedly increase in the coming years as more of them take leadership roles.
Australia and PNG enjoy warm relations. There are strong foundations from which to build a closer relationship and a true economic and social partnership.
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