Australia will soon start vaccinating Papua New Guinea's health workers to stem a major outbreak of COVID-19.
Scott Morrison's announcement on Wednesday is a welcome one. COVID is rampant across PNG, and, as pointed out by Australia's chief medical officer Paul Kelly, any number of infected people you read about will be a major underestimate.
This week's attention should encourage Australians to take a closer look at our relationship with our nearest neighbour. While the COVID crisis is the most visible manifestation of a nation in strife, there are others too - wider health problems as well as ongoing issues of insecurity and governance. These issues are complex, interrelated and compounding.
The Australian government's approach to date can be characterised as one based on equal doses of good intentions and hope, with little apparent hard analysis. Our aid programs are compartmentalised and officially disconnected from regional and global political agendas, which involve keeping the government in Port Moresby on-side and Beijing's influence at bay. If such an approach was ever advisable, it is increasingly problematic in today's uncertain times. Public health crises cascade into issues of food and human security; interventions made to achieve one public good may undermine efforts in achieving another.
As everywhere, leaders in PNG are confronting complex problems for which no previous experience prepared them. At the same time, a devil-may-care approach on the part of some complicates public health efforts. Last month, Prime Minister James Marape chartered a plane to Bougainville to meet with the region's president, Ishmael Toroama. The meeting became a super-spreader event. Some members of Marape and Toroama's cabinets fell ill. They were the lucky ones: two attendees are now dead. Mourning ceremonies and culturally important events held over the past two weeks for the late Sir Michael Somare will make the situation worse.
A significant sum has been made available already to address COVID in PNG - for example, the Asian Development Bank loaned $US250 million in November - and it is hard to know what all of it has been used for.
"The government haven't released any audited reports on the initial COVID funds, so that's creating mistrust and lack of confidence. Their efforts don't look genuine," says Ali Kasokason, an ICT professional and social media commentator in Port Moresby.
An alternate reality
Australia's official policy towards PNG sometimes feels like it takes place in an alternate reality, forever eulogising partnerships as well as announcing streams of new initiatives and programs opened with lavish ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Many of these initiatives are organised in terms of sectoral approaches, with issues tackled separately. One program works on health, another on infrastructure, another on roads - all managed and implemented separately, often without the strategic lens needed to facilitate a more joined-up approach. Much proceeds on the basis of clunky annual plans that read like recipes: do this first and this next and then something good will emerge. There is little official recognition of the complex, highly fluid, interconnected, always-changing environment in which they take place, one where there are limitations, uncertainties and mixed sets of incentives at play.
Diplomats, contractors and those working for NGOs know these challenges: they go on about them in private but get all coy about going on the record. Within the aid program, organisational incentives are yoked towards continual provision of unambiguously favourable information and not delving into more complex realities.
A survey last year presented at an ANU conference found 96 per cent of Australia's official words about its aid performance were positive. Right now, there is probably someone drafting a report extolling the achievements of Australian health programs in PNG in the year 2020, while the life expectancy differential between residents of the two countries is now almost 20 years.
We write as Australians who have a long relationship with PNG. We have close colleagues, friends and people we regard as family there and care deeply about this proud and hardy country. We have seen how Papua New Guineans show incredible resilience to overcome whatever is thrown their way. When the state doesn't work, which it often doesn't, people turn to each other, and to different sources of leadership. Those in charge of the daily miracle of making underfunded public institutions continue to operate do an amazing job - but how many more cuts can they bear before things completely collapse?
Community resilience has its limits. Repeated reliance on that resilience risks consuming reserves - of social and other forms of capital - at a rate faster than required to rebuild. This may lead to a tipping point where the system will not be able to bounce back, and instead flip to a new equilibrium. How do we know if PNG is approaching such a point of no return? Such a shift could permanently change the country's relationship with Australia. As these issues are discussed, the conversation should not be held only between elites.
The Prime Minister's announcement of the support package shows how quickly the bureaucracy can move to address a complex situation. The exponential pace of the spread of COVID has forced governments to respond in a more diverse, interconnected and nimble way. We need agility as well as open and - when necessary - critical dialogue, and a willingness to seek and incorporate multiple perspectives. Australia needs to build real relationships with PNG's leaders at all levels, not just between ministers and senior bureaucrats. Our assumptions about our future relationship with PNG politicians should be rigorously scrutinised. It may be no longer safe to rely upon them. Let's involve organisations beyond government too in the conversation, including churches, which play a central role many Papua New Guinean lives.
For sure, there is spin, hyperbole and blarney in all diplomatic relationships. But some semblance of candour is required, too. As Scott Morrison said, Papua New Guineans are our family and friends. The mark of true friendship is the ability to have difficult conversations and still stick together. This welcome response on COVID should not hide the need to have conversations about how Australia and Papua New Guinea will live side by side after this crisis has passed.
- Gordon Peake is a visitor, and Miranda Forsyth is an associate professor, at the ANU's School of Regulation and Global Governance.