The interconnections between Australia and Papua New Guinea can be explored through the lens of politics, which is inseparable from people. Discussed here is the relevance of the politics and the history of the Australia-PNG relationship, along with current developments in this relationship.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop with Prime Minister of PNG Peter O’Neill (Photo: Twitter/PM_GOV_PG)

The Importance of the Australia-PNG Political Relationship

The bilateral relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea is important for several reasons, including their geographical proximity and shared colonial history. Australia’s role as the former colonial administrator of PNG creates a deep and often problematic link between the two nations. Some argue that Australia did not effectively prepare PNG for independence, whether by beginning preparations too late or simply not putting in the required effort (Dorney, 2016: pp. 22).

Australia has 18.4 billion dollars directly invested in PNG, making it Australia’s 14th largest bilateral partner for investment (see Table 5). PNG is also Australia’s 19th largest export market – 1.7 billion dollars in 2015 (see Table 14a). Furthermore, PNG recently returned to being the single largestrecipient of Australian aid, the effectiveness of which is questionable. The importance of aid to the PNG budget has dramatically declined. According to the World Bank, in 1975, aid made up 24% of the Gross National Income, as opposed to 3.5% in 2014. These economic ties clearly forge a strong link between the two nations. This link is also mirrored in geopolitical strategic security interests. Australia’s 2013 Defence White paper states that “Our next most important strategic interest is the security, stability and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood, which we share with Papua New Guinea”. The 2016 Defence White Paper reiterated that “the security, stability and cohesion of Papua New Guinea contributes to a secure, resilient Australia with secure northern approaches”. Clearly, the security and prosperity of PNG is in the forefront of the minds of Australia’s Department of Defence. This is not lost on PNG, who realises that the functioning of the economy and democracy of PNG is critical for Australia (pp. 83).

Unfortunately, in Australia the importance of this relationship is often underestimated. PNG is both underrepresented and largely misunderstood in the Australian media and parliament. As a result, the general Australian populace regrettably lacks a deep understanding of their nation’s political relationship with PNG, or indeed, even basic general knowledge of Papua New Guinean politics. The 2015 Lowy Institute poll revealed that 61% of Australians could not recognise a photograph of Peter O’Neill, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, with Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull. Photo from Twitter @TurnbullMalcolm

The History of the Australia-PNG Political Relationship

The history of this political relationship cannot be separated from colonialism. This is explored in Sean Dorney’s provocatively titled paper “The Embarrassed Colonialist”, along with Australian attitudes towards PNG. Australian colonialism in PNG began when Britain declared a protectorate over south-east New Guinea in 1884, under pressure from the Queensland government, Australia eventually took control of the region in 1888. In 1906, control of British New Guinea was transferred to the newly federated Australia, and renamed Papua. During World War I Australian forces occupied German New Guinea. During World War II Japanese forces occupied PNG, inciting major battles such as the famous Kokoda Track campaign. After the end of WWII, PNG was administered as a single territory by Australia under a mandate from the League of Nations and United Nations Trust Territory.

The colonial administration continued until the end of 1973, when PNG became self-governing, achieving full independence on September 16th, 1975 (pp. 22). The new nation became a constitutional monarchy with membership in the British Commonwealth – like Australia. Gough Whitlam, the Australian Prime Minister at the time, commented “It should never be forgotten that in making our own former colony independent, we as Australians enhance our own independence. Australia was never truly free until Papua New Guinea became truly free”.

The Current Developments in the Australia-PNG Political Relationship

In the forty years since PNG achieved independence, there have been significant developments and changes in the relationship between the two nations. Currently, PNG has a high level of engagement with Australia through media, property, education, business, trade relations, and in particular, politicians. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has spoken on the importance of this relationship, inferring that Papua New Guineans have a deep engagement with and understanding of Australia. Among other areas, he notes the significance of shared geography, history, and economic opportunities for both nations (pp. 118 – 119).

Australia has continued to be involved with many aspects of domestic affairs in PNG. These include government capacity building, policing and security, health and education, industry and agriculture, resources and infrastructure, and even foreign affairs. The Australian people, however, have become increasingly disengaged from their closest neighbour, despite the potential for tourism due to the country’s natural beauty. Where 91% of Australians consider their national relationship with Indonesia to be important, PNG does not feature as significantly in the Australian national consciousness. While Australians have warmer feelings towards PNG than Indonesia (63 to 54, respectively, according to the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll), there is sadly still a lack of engagement in the mainstream Australian media. Perhaps the most pressing media topic in Australia which concerns PNG is the Manus Island offshore detention centre. However, growth in PNG’s population, resources sector, and economy, will surely bring PNG further into the public eye in the near future.

Fortunately, some in the Australian government recognise this unique relationship for the valuable place it holds – including current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has an ongoing interest in PNG, and played a key role in protecting the majority of aid to PNG from recent budget cuts (pp. 72). This is mirrored on the global stage, where there is an expectation in the international community that Australia would be best suited to respond to any crises in PNG. Political issues to consider in the future include Australia openly addressing the post-colonial aspects of the relationship, rethinking the aid relationship, and promoting exchange between the next generations of leaders from both nations.

The above gives a brief and generalised overview of the past and present political relationship between PNG and Australia. To explore the complexities of this further, begin with the relevant links below.

Australia-PNG Bilateral Relations” – DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)​

The Future of PNG: Old Challenges for New Leaders” – Jenny Hayward-Jones

The Embarrassed Colonialist” – Sean Dorney​

Dare to Dream” – Dulciana Somare-Brash​

Australia’s ignorance about Papua New Guinea is a loss for both nations” – Sean Dorney​

Australia-PNG Relations: Maintaining the Friendship” – Jenny Hayward-Jones​

Australia and PNG: A Partnership of Equals” – Julie Bishop, 2013

Papua New Guinea Country File, World Bank​

National Budget – PNG Department of Treasury​

“The Embarrassed Colonialist” author Sean Dorney interviews Prime Minister Peter O’Neill​


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About the Author

Harriet Smith - Research Associate, Lowy Institute - Lowy Institute

Harriet Smith

Research Associate, Lowy Institute

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Harriet Smith is a Research Associate in the Melanesia Program, where she works primarily on the Aus-PNG Network. She holds a Master of International Studies from the University of Queensland.