Strong At Home Means Strong Away: Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill and Foreign Policy

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s domestic reforms have strengthened Papua New Guinea both at home and abroad.

Sean Jacobs
Contributing Writer
September 20, 2015

‘We live in an age of official apologies for historic crimes,’ writes the American scholar Peter Berger. Saying ‘sorry’—from Barack Obama’s apology for the Christian Crusades to Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations—has clearly become a useful tool for modern leaders attempting to symbolically pacify past tensions.

In early 2014, although much less significant, Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill also delivered an apology. O’Neill’s ‘sorry’, however, was not for historic crimes but to PNG’s neglected diplomatic service, which he said had been ‘let down’ by past Foreign Ministers and successive Prime Ministers. ‘I also thank you for your tolerance,’ he told a gathering of diplomatic heads in Port Moresby – PNG’s capital. ‘We must do better – and I am confident we will,’ he added.

O’Neill clearly understands that stability at home is essential for credibility abroad. Political turbulence in PNG has been common since the South Pacific nation gained independence from Australia in 1975: it wasn’t until 2007 that a PNG government completed a full five-year term in office. The ever-looming, parliamentary vote-of-no-confidence has not only undermined decisive leadership and stability at a national level but also unsettled investors and prohibited PNG from forming a consistent foreign relations platform.

Yet under O’Neill, who has been Prime Minister since 2012, the fast-growing nation of seven million has shown progress at both home and abroad. Certainly, the hard metrics still paint a country in strife: corruption, infant mortality, crime and public health combine to land PNG a lowly ranking of 157 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. In the arena of non-tangibles, however, an unusual consistency has enlivened a sense of national momentum.

PNG, for example, recently hosted the 2015 South Pacific Games – a seismic event on the regional calendar – and is preparing to host APEC in 2018. ‘This,’ says O’Neill, ‘will be our most important international event since Independence. It reflects just how far we have grown and matured as a nation over what has been a relatively short period.’

O’Neill is also delivering on his government’s commitment to free education, which shows that some of the yawning ‘governance gap’ between Port Moresby and the remote parts of the country is closing. He has traversed the nation, more so than any other PNG leader, to see the delivery of frontline services. And when services aren’t delivered O’Neill, unlike any PNG prime minister, has used the leader’s pulpit (and his phone) to bluntly stoke action. ‘We are fed up with individuals sitting on things,’ he notably said in 2013 while assessing slow South Pacific Games preparations, ‘and I've now taken a deliberate and direct intervention on many occasions. It is not my job to do your job. We've got many challenges in this country. Now get off your backside and start, start getting this project off the ground.’

Infrastructure projects, such as Port Moresby’s Kumul Overpass, show even the most sceptical Papua New Guineans that O’Neill is working to put raw results in front of citizens. O’Neill has also given political consistency to, literally, cleaning up the streets. A ban on the chewing of betelnut – or what has been called the ‘buai ban’ – has visibly gentrified many public spaces.

Such persistence at home has delivered a sense of coherence to how PNG is seen beyond its borders. PNG is now sending foreign aid to regional neighbours. It has produced, for the first time, a national security strategy to lend coherence and alignment to a nation’s most fundamental task: law and order.

Many international observers do not know that over the past decade, PNG has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its exports are shored up by gold, copper, nickel, and colossal reserves in Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). LNG, in fact, has meant much more for PNG than ‘surrendering its bounty to international investors’. According to O’Neill it ‘puts PNG on the world stage as a country that can work with foreign investors to deliver projects on time. It instils confidence in this country – and that is something for all Papua New Guinea to be proud of.’

O’Neill, as a former businessman, understands the need for a stable regulatory environment with limited sovereign risk. ‘Let me reassure you that the goal posts have not been shifted and relocated,’ he told a gathering of international investors in 2011. ‘The playing field remains the same and shall be maintained that way for the foreseeable future. My government respects the principle of finders keep and finders share.’ He has not strayed from this commitment.

O’Neill has worked hard to build bilateral relationships with leaders of nations that have, for many years, simply avoided Port Moresby – Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. With neighbouring Indonesia, in particular, he has committed to working constructively on sensitive issues like the West Papuan independence movement. While his recent statements on the issue may appear to Indonesia as ‘a poke in the eye’ it’s clear that bilateral relations, in relative terms, are on much better terms than any time in history. In the 1980s, for example, former PNG Foreign Minister Rabbie Namaliu used to exchange table thumps over border skirmishes with his Indonesian counterpart. Today, however, leaders are likely to discuss commercial issues like flight routes and trade. The tricky issue of West Papua is now, thanks mainly to O’Neill, an issue for the Melanesian Spearhead Group rather than a raw bilateral talking point.

With Australia – the nation’s closest ally – PNG has agreed (again) to shoulder a commitment to regional stability by administering ‘the PNG solution’, which sees PNG process maritime asylum seekers to Australia. While many are eager to label the deal ‘colonial’ the reality is much more nuanced for O’Neill, who sees a chance to be both a responsible regional player and regulate PNG’s own porous borders. ‘We all have a responsibility to work together on regional security,’ says O’Neill. ‘Papua New Guinea has seen an increase in the number of illegal arrivals and visa breaches. My government is keen to work with the [previous Australian] Rudd government and our other regional neighbours to ensure border protection and regional security are managed the right way.’

While many remain cautious about O’Neill, it is difficult not to indulge in the optimism surrounding his performance over the past few years. PNG is a tantalizingly complex nation – 800-plus languages with 1000-plus cultural groups – and finding a unifying narrative has been challenging for many PNG leaders. However, by delivering on commitments, managing commercial opportunities, and developing a semi-coherent national performance strategy, O’Neill has given many Papua New Guineans a needed injection of national pride. ‘In my own opinion,’ says PNG commentator David Roape, ‘Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s leadership makes me feel that Papua New Guinea is ‘coming of age’ and entering into maturity as a nation.’

It may be some time before O’Neill’s ultimate performance can be weighed in full. Yet if he sustains his efforts, O’Neill will ultimately be apologising less, and not just to the diplomatic corps but also to increasing numbers of Papua New Guineans.

Sean Jacobs is a former Australian Institute of International Affairs Emerging Scholar. He holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Policing, Intelligence and Counterterrorism from Macquarie University (Sydney) and currently works for a security company in PNG.He can be reached at seangljacobs@gmail.com

image of Peter O’Neill by AK Rockefeller and is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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