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Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Page: 51

Ms JULIE BISHOP (CurtinDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (17:12): Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour and one of our dearest friends. Our deep friendship stretches back particularly to the dark days of World War II, when the people of both of our countries came together in pursuit of a shared and noble end. The bonds that were forged have carried our two countries forward, bridging any and all differences that may have stood momentarily in our way. The coalition is deeply committed to building on the close ties that exist between Australia and Papua New Guinea as two nations with a shared interest in upholding peace and prosperity in the Pacific.

It is the enduring friendship that exists between our two countries that has made the past few months in Papua New Guinea so difficult and, in the case of recent tragedies, that much more distressing to watch. The coalition was deeply saddened to hear the news of the latest tragedy to strike the people of Papua New Guinea. The sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen in waters off Lae shocked not only a nation but all those who have spent time in Papua New Guinea and enjoyed the warm hospitality of its people. As of yesterday, 246 people had been rescued. Sadly, five people on board the ferry did not share their good fortune. Little hope is left for those still unaccounted for. The coalition offers its heartfelt sympathies to those who lost loved ones in the incident.

The people of Papua New Guinea can be assured that the thoughts and prayers of all Australians are with them at this difficult time. We wholeheartedly support the Australian government in its efforts to assist the government and people of PNG in the days and weeks that follow. I particularly pay tribute to the work of our High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and his staff, who have coordinated our efforts. That this tragedy followed so soon after a disaster in the Southern Highlands, where a landslide destroyed a small village community as it slept, makes it even more distressing.

These incidents have come at a time of heightened political instability in the country. The decision of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court on 12 December last year, that the removal of Sir Michael Somare from office in August was unlawful, continues to cause confusion and instability in a country that is in desperate need of stability. So complicated had the situation become that at one point the country had two governors-general, two prime ministers and two police chiefs. At that time Papua New Guinea's defence force was to be commended for remaining outside of the political street fight that was taking place all around it. However, this situation took a confronting turn on 26 January 2012 when 20 soldiers, led by Colonel Sasa, entered Murray Barracks in Port Moresby, taking the head of the military hostage in a desperate attempt to reinstate Sir Michael Somare as Prime Minister. Claiming that he had been duly appointed as commander by Sir Michael, Colonel Sasa ordered the Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, to step down from office or he would 'take all necessary actions to protect and uphold the integrity of the constitution'.

While this stand-off has largely been resolved, the broader issue of PNG's government remains hotly contested, with little prospect at the moment for compromise. The political situation must be resolved within their parliament, within their courts if necessary and ultimately at the ballot box. As Papua New Guinea's national election approaches, it is essential that political stability is restored as soon as possible so that free and fair elections can take place reflecting the will of the people of Papua New Guinea.

In all the confusion that has taken place, one policy before the Papua New Guinea parliament worthy of greater attention is a bill that will set aside 22 seats for female representatives. I congratulate the supporters of the bill, who have worked so tirelessly to get it before the parliament. I had the honour of meeting Dame Carol Kidu, the inspiration and driving force behind the bill, when I was in Port Moresby last year. Dame Carol is the Queensland-born wife of the late PNG Chief Justice, Sir Buri Kidu. As the only female representative in the PNG parliament, she faces challenges that women members of parliament in Australia can barely comprehend. Australia looks to the Papua New Guinea parliament in the hope that it can unite around this common good and deliver the change that is needed for this worthwhile bill to take effect. The women of Papua New Guinea have an enormous contribution to make to the peace, order and good government of PNG, and I look forward to their enhanced participation in PNG political life.

All this comes at a unique stage in Papua New Guinea's national history. The development of its oil and gas industry looks set to transform its economy, with the PNG LNG project alone expected to double the country's gross domestic product and triple its exports. According to an economic impact study by ACIL Tasman:

The project has the potential to transform the economy of Papua New Guinea, boosting GDP and export earnings, providing a major increase in government revenue, royalty payments to landowners, creating employment opportunities during construction and operation, and providing a catalyst to further gas-based industry development.

The project will hopefully help transform PNG and, as a consequence, I hope that the Australia and PNG relationship can move from that of donor-recipient to robust economic partners. It is an ambition that is shared by the government and the people of PNG.

The challenges that come with a booming resource sector are well known. In a country like Papua New Guinea, where the governance institutions are still developing, it can present significant problems as well as benefits. With revenues flooding in through foreign investment, there is also the concern that political will for further reform in other areas may falter. As Aaron Batten has written for the East Asia Forum, 'Those provinces which have recorded the largest earnings from resource extraction have been plagued by the weakest governance, the poorest levels of service delivery and in many cases violence.' It is therefore more important than ever that Australia broaden, deepen and diversify its relationship with PNG. For this to occur, however, greater leadership on Australia's part is needed.

Over the coming months and years ahead Australia will be judged for what it does, not what it says. I am of the view that PNG must be one of our highest foreign policy priorities, and I can state unequivocally that a coalition government will ensure that our relationship with Papua New Guinea is one of our country's highest foreign policy priorities. The coalition believes that Australia must stand alongside the PNG government and its people consistently and unequivocally in their efforts to fulfil the country's immense potential and lay claim to its rightful status as a natural leader in the Pacific Ocean region.

The coalition has been critical of the Australian government for neglecting our near neighbours as it pursues its grand adventure for votes for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. I have repeatedly called on the foreign minister to focus his efforts on our neighbourhood. While there are many pressing issues in the world, as we are seeing on a daily basis in the Middle East, it is within our immediate region that Australia has the greatest influence and can do the most good. As former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer wrote recently, the recent political events in PNG should serve as a wake-up call to Australia. Australia must work to develop a level of intimacy and goodwill in our bilateral relationship that can serve us during times such as these. As the current political crisis has shown us, it is essential that Australia's political leaders, particularly Australia's foreign minister, maintain the closest working relations with our colleagues in Port Moresby. This can only be achieved through close and consistent contact at the highest level.