Learning the Abbott way

ON paper it seems the election of the Abbott government in Australia may signal the start of a more abrasive relationship with the government of Papua New Guinea. By Wantok

That would be the expectation of those knowledgeable of the depths to which the bilateral relationship plunged during the term of the former Liberal prime minister, John Howard.

One of the reasons lay in the intransigent attitude of Howard towards the issue of climate change. Howard was a skeptic among the converted, consisting not just of Papua New Guinea, but other Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati.

Most of these countries believe they are already feeling the effects of climate change. People in a resettlement program from PNG's Carteret Islands, near Bougainville, have already been billed as the world's first climate change refugees. Over time, it is expected that these islanders - who believe their homeland is sinking because of rising sea levels (skeptics suggest the islands could be sinking) , to be relocated on the main island of Bougainville.

It is also well-known that Tony Abbott, a conservative who has been very close to Howard, is also a climate skeptic. One of his first actions in taking office on Monday was to declare an end to plans for a carbon tax.

PNG has not been looking to Australia for specific assistance on climate change issues, so debate on this topic may be mute or even completely avoided. Instead, much of the early negotiations will focus on the question of the PNG Solution to the refugee asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia in record numbers over the past year.

It is understood that in private talks, Abbott has already told PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill he still intends to pursue the previous Australian Labor government plan to utilise Manus Island as a refugee centre for processing of asylum seekers trying to get to Australia. Under the new policy, no one arriving by boats from Indonesia and elsewhere will be allowed to settle in Australia.

The incoming Australian Coalition government appears to have also signalled that Australian aid to PNG, which is the largest single recipient, may also not be adversely affected in spite of the new government's plan to cut $A4.5 billion from its overall aid budget in the next four years.

Building up the Manus refugee centre will, on its own, require several billion dollars for facilities to house up to 5000 refugees. As a quid pro quo for this, the Australian government is anticipated to offer PNG an additional aid package linked to the refugee plan.

Abbott has not been known to have taken a keen interest in international affairs, having previously held the important health portfolio.

However, Abbott can be anticipated to take a calculated approach to this issue. Only time will show if the abrasiveness brought to Pacific Island ties by Howard will re-emerge.

Clarity on this score is possibly only a matter of weeks away, given the urgency of the tasks at hand.


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