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Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Page: 48

Mr RUDD (GriffithMinister for Foreign Affairs) (17:01): by leave—This, the first sitting day of the parliament for this year, provides me with an opportunity to inform the House of recent developments in our neighbour Papua New Guinea. Australians were shocked to learn of the terrible loss of life that occurred on 2 February with the sinking of the Rabaul Queen. I offer to the government and to the people of Papua New Guinea our deepest sympathy as they deal with the trauma of this great national tragedy.

As might be expected of a close neighbour and friend, Australia has been heavily involved in support for the PNG-led response to this disaster. Australians can justifiably be proud of our rapid and effective response. Within minutes of the incident, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, AMSA, passed on the distress signal to transiting ships, which responded quickly, and played a key role in coordinating search assets. Within a few hours, two AMSA rescue aircraft were deployed, one from Cairns and the other from Darwin. The aircraft from Cairns was able to drop life rafts into the sea to assist survivors while they waited to be rescued by merchant vessels. They were joined in the search on the first day by a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion aircraft. An Australian Border Command Dash 8 also contributed to the search and rescue operation.

AMSA also engaged three helicopters and two civilian aircraft in the search, including a Queensland Careflight jet. These aircraft continued to search for several days after the sinking. AMSA also deployed several Australian rescue and recovery personnel to Lae to assist. The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby deployed a naval officer to the PNG Maritime Safety Authority. Another Defence member of the High Commission staff, based in Lae, coordinated with local agencies there and arranged refuelling of the search and rescue aircraft.

Not long after the first reports of this tragedy, I made clear to my counterpart, PNG Foreign Minister Ano Pala, that Australia will make all assistance available to PNG to deal with this disaster. I thank the Deputy Leader of the Opposition for her statement of support for this position on the same day. We are proud of the joint PNG-Australia effort in rescuing 246 survivors. But none of this can take away the awful fact that many did not survive.

The ferry tragedy came in addition to a large landslide in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea on Tuesday, 24 January. Australia immediately offered assistance to the PNG government following the landslide and has been in constant contact with authorities since the incident occurred. It appears from reports from the local community that at least 23 people are missing, presumed dead, from this incident. We mourn their passing, as we do those who have died tragic deaths in the ferry disaster, and we renew today our condolences to all their families.

Political Situation

PNG has been, and always will be, a key priority for Australian foreign policy. It has been a key focus of the Prime Minister, of mine, of the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and of the wider Australian government. Our engagement with PNG and its key government figures has been deep and close. I visited PNG from 30 September to 1 October 2011, the third visit that I have made to PNG over the last several years. I co-chaired with PNG Foreign Minister Pala the Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum on 12 October 2011 involving 19 ministers and parliamentary secretaries, including Parliamentary Secretary Marles, who visited PNG from 18 to 21 October on his fifth visit to that country. Of the many phone contacts I have had in recent months, I last spoke to my PNG counterpart, Minister Pala, on 2 February concerning the ferry disaster.

The Prime Minister also spoke to her counterpart, Prime Minister O'Neill, on 5 February. Prime Minister O'Neill was welcomed to Australia for official visits in October and again, of course, for CHOGM. He had a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Gillard at the Pacific Island Forum meeting on 8 September.

PNG is a proud nation with strong economic prospects underpinned by their rich endowments in natural resources. Nonetheless, it is a country that has recently faced constitutional, political and legal challenges. Papua New Guinea is a sovereign country. In its almost 37 years of independence, it has established a record of vigorous democracy. It is for Papua New Guineans to resolve, therefore, their political differences. The ultimate resolution of political differences in a democracy is through the constitutional and electoral processes of that country. Australia respects PNG's sovereignty.

As our closest neighbour, however, and with the historical and contemporary close links between our countries and our peoples, Australia has an abiding and strong interest in PNG's political stability and its economic development. Since the decision of the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea on 12 December, the political situation in Papua New Guinea has been highly contested. Legal action is being taken by both sides of politics in support of their claims.

During the first crisis in December, both the Prime Minister and I conveyed messages through diplomatic channels to the parties concerned on the fundamental importance of resolving constitutional, parliamentary and other political difficulties peacefully. At the same time, and again consistent with the advice of our high commissioner and as approved here in Canberra, both Australian Federal Police and Australian military personnel were actively engaged with their PNG counterparts in urging and in maintaining calm. The Papua New Guinea Defence Force remained in barracks. And, after some initial tensions, the internal divisions within the PNG police force were also resolved peacefully. Together with political communications through our high commissioner, these combined efforts contributed to the effective settlement of the situation in December.

The same approach was applied in the broad to the January crisis, which involved the temporary detention of the Commander of the PNG Defence Force. Once again, both the Prime Minister and I were in close contact with High Commissioner Kemish on the best response to the crisis. Both the high commissioner and the ADF once again engaged with PNG counterparts. Their efforts contributed to the progressive diffusion of the situation during the course of 26 and 27 January.

The engagement of our key officials in PNG was done in a calm, measured and respectful way, taking advantage of Australia's deep engagement with PNG across all arms of government. It was a dialogue of equals: Australian police spoke to Papua New Guinea police and soldiers spoke to soldiers. I would like to play particular tribute to our high commissioner in Port Moresby, High Commissioner Kemish, and the staff in the high commission for their effective work throughout this period. The calm and effective way they went about their business was a case study in quiet diplomacy.

I spoke to High Commissioner Kemish earlier today to get an update on developments in PNG over recent days. I reiterated to him the strong confidence that both the Prime Minister and I have in the high commission during what has been a sensitive and challenging time. I would emphasise that, throughout these incidents, both the Prime Minister and I have sought continued guidance on the most effective form of engagement with these incidents. The high commissioner's consistent advice, mindful of Australia's historical relationship with PNG as a former colonial power and mindful therefore of PNG's political sovereignty, has been for Australia to adopt a low-key public approach while working intensively behind the scenes.

At this time, the high commissioner has cautioned against high-profile political visits to the country or high-profile political communications with PNG political leaders—for fear that such actions would fuel rather than ease the situation. It is impossible to rule out further political turbulence in the lead-up to PNG's general elections, due in the middle of this year. Our diplomatic, AusAID, defence and police personnel and other government officials in Port Moresby remain vigilant. And, in the spirit of constructive dialogue with their PNG counterparts, they are doing whatever is necessary to support continued stability in what all analysts agree is a difficult, complex and evolving political environment.

The messages that we are sending to our friends in Papua New Guinea as they deal with the challenging issues that they face are as follows: we respect your sovereignty; as your friend and partner, we take a close interest in developments and are there to help in whatever way we can; and it is important that the issues are resolved with restraint and in a way that gives assurance to the international community about the stability of your country.

I want to be clear that the government has for some time now been working closely with PNG to support election preparations. The forthcoming elections are very important. We are providing election assistance and are ready to do more. We have provided support to the PNG Electoral Commission—including in logistics, operations support, voter awareness and twinning between the PNG Electoral Commission and the Australian Electoral Commission—and we are responding positively to a PNG government request for additional operational and logistical support. Australian police are supporting the role of PNG police in election security with communications, training and additional recruitment. Defence is funding the commercial lease of two helicopters for the PNGDF to support the elections process as well.

As PNG works through its current political challenges, we continue to pursue our deep and broad bilateral relationship with the country. Our development program in PNG is our second largest globally—some $482 million in 2011-12—focusing on PNG's greatest development challenges in education, health, transport infrastructure, and law and justice.

Two-way trade between our countries is now some $7 billion. Australia is providing technical assistance to support the establishment of a PNG sovereign wealth fund for its $15 billion liquefied gas project. Our police and defence forces have longstanding and productive partnerships. We have deep people-to-people links. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign and the Battle of Milne Bay. Australia will continue to stand by our friends in Papua New Guinea in managing the many challenges that lie ahead.

By leave—I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Ms J. I. Bishop (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) speaking in reply to the ministerial statement for a period not exceeding 10 minutes.

Question agreed to.