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2019 Emerging Leaders Dialogue

The Lowy Institute hosted the seventh Australia–Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue on 5 and 6 November 2019 in Wewak, Papua New Guinea.

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The Lowy Institute hosted the seventh Australia–Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue on 5 and 6 November 2019 in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. The Dialogue is the flagship annual event of the Australia–Papua New Guinea Network, a project of the Lowy Institute to build stronger connections between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The project is supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Dialogue reflects the importance of the Australia–PNG relationship. It brings together 20 emerging leaders from both countries to discuss common challenges and issues and to form new professional connections. The 2019 Dialogue was the first time the event was held in a regional centre in Papua New Guinea. Wewak and East Sepik Province illustrate many of the challenges and opportunities facing regional centres in Papua New Guinea. The region is home to a thriving agricultural industry, and has close links to Australia through the Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) between the PNG Defence Force and Australian Defence Force at Moem Barracks. Australia and Wewak are also linked via business, government and community connections.

The Dialogue, and associated events, offered opportunities for participants to engage with the local community through visits to local sites including agricultural facilities, villages, and tourist and historical sites. The Australia–PNG Network hosted a public reception in Wewak to enable participants to meet and connect with stakeholders in the local community. East Sepik Governor Allan Bird met with participants and outlined his thoughts on leadership and governance in the regional PNG context. Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea Bruce Davis participated in the Dialogue discussions.

The Dialogue agenda was broadly focused on:

  • sustainable regional and rural development
  • infrastructure, in particular communications and energy access
  • democracy, governance and leadership, and
  • contemporary PNG–Australia relations.

Participants developed a number of recommendations with the goal of improving links between the two countries and reflecting their perspectives on relevant public policy issues. Following the recommendations published in this report is a summary of the discussions held in each session. Notes have been provided on a non-attributable basis.

The Dialogue was chaired by Watna Mori, lawyer and human rights specialist, and Shane McLeod, Project Director of the Australia–PNG Network at the Lowy Institute.

Shane McLeod and Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, contributed to the compilation of this report.

The Lowy Institute acknowledges the continuing support of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the Australia–Papua New Guinea Network.


Rural and regional development

1.1 Review current regulatory bodies in the PNG agriculture sector and encourage a focus on smallholder agriculture development.

1.2 Encourage Australian counterpart agencies in agriculture to assist in knowledge building and sharing to develop capacity in Papua New Guinea.

1.3 Agencies in Papua New Guinea and Australia should work to support smallholders in Papua New Guinea to prepare products ready for export to Australia.

1.4 Develop structures within regulatory bodies to address supply issues for Papua New Guinea. Consider institutional partnerships between agencies in Papua New Guinea and Australia with an aim of addressing non-tariff barriers to trade.

1.5 Identify rural community champions in Australia and Papua New Guinea to share knowledge across all areas, including supporting cultural preservation while empowering economic development.

1.6 Australia and Papua New Guinea to ensure the Coral Sea Cable System will have widest possible reach in improving internet accessibility and affordability for all PNG communities.

1.7 Create a competitive grants scheme to focus Australian financial assistance. The program should be governed by Papua New Guinea and themed into different categories, e.g. research (health – infectious diseases), universities/institutions, climate change, health, education, cultural heritage/integrity. An online portal should be developed to provide transparency to this process — replicating the Indonesian exploration licence system.

1.8 Establish an annual arts, crafts and traditions fair for Papua New Guinea and Australia that alternates between Papua New Guinea and Australia — much like the Emerging Leaders Dialogue to promote cultural exchange and economic opportunities.

1.9 Encourage relevant bodies and agencies in Papua New Guinea to promote knowledge and skills on contending with climate change and its effects.

1.10 Encourage the efforts to facilitate labour mobility for PNG citizens to undertake semi-skilled roles in Australia. Continue improving ways of increasing the number of seasonal workers accessing the labour market in Australia.

1.11 evelop an accessible pathway for skilled and professional labour migration between Papua New Guinea and Australia. Over time, labour market programs should lead to more skilled and professional Papua New Guineans accessing the labour market in Australia.

Infrastructure, technology and energy

2.1 Highlight the importance of obtaining reliable data from Papua New Guinea’s 2020 Census to inform decision making. Explore opportunities to use the census data to inform major project developments such as electrification.

2.2 Ensure planning for Australia–PNG infrastructure projects is based on strong community engagement, priority setting and discussion of benefits. Projects should include support for communities to participate in construction and benefit from training and employment, as well as to support community adaptation and adoption.

2.3 Explore opportunities to increase business-to-business linkages between Papua New Guinea and Australia. This can support the business communities in both countries to adapt to and benefit from new technology and infrastructure.

2.4 There should be a focus on building business-to-business linkages between communities in the Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea.

2.5 New government projects in communities in Papua New Guinea must include electrification capacity or be connectable in the near future.

2.6 Infrastructure investment decisions should be tied to the decentralisation agenda and empower local leadership in the decision-making process.

2.7 Improve cooperation between governments, NGOs and business to reduce duplication of investment and effort and to improve efficiency in joint investments between Papua New Guinea and Australia.

2.8 Australia should strategically use its development budget in Papua New Guinea to target issues that are putting pressure on local infrastructure in the Torres Strait Islands.

2.9 Australia should place the PNG–Australia relationship on the agenda for local and state governments to broaden sub-national linkages.

2.10 Ensure outcomes of the Australia–PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue are shared with all levels of government across both countries to improve sub-national relationships.

Social and digital media; people-to-people links

Social Media and Journalism

3.1 Australia should consolidate and share guidance with Papua New Guinea on using social media for political and institutional purposes. Papua New Guinea government agencies should be supported to host and maintain active websites with accurate contact information.

3.2 Encourage the Australian Government to build its social media profile in Papua New Guinea, potentially through posts in Tok Pisin and other multimedia output, eg podcasts.

3.3 Government agencies in Papua New Guinea should be encouraged to establish reliable Facebook pages to encourage information dissemination to the public. Australia could provide capacity for development of government public information capacity through development partnerships or volunteer placements.

3.4 Papua New Guinea should be encouraged to develop a social media code of conduct, to combat the spread of fake news by the general public who may be uninformed on issues. This should include a social media education campaign. Australian experience in this area could be shared with Papua New Guinea as appropriate.

3.5 Encourage and support an appropriate organisation or entity to undertake research into the impact of social media in Papua New Guinea.

3.6 Partner with Facebook and/or other social media platforms to combat the spread of fake news in Papua New Guinea and to support best practice use of social media.

3.7 Support programs that enhance journalistic integrity in Papua New Guinea through the Media Development Initiative and other programs.


3.8 Build greater linkages between sporting institutions and organisations in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Continue to forge NRL and AFL partnerships and with other sports, especially looking for opportunities to build more gender inclusivity — eg netball, volleyball.

3.9 Encourage organisers of Australia’s Rugby League Koori Knockout and Island of Origin competitions to consider inviting PNG teams to participate in future events.

3.10 The PNG and Australian governments should consider supporting a PNG team to compete in the NRL in an effort to diversify perceptions of Papua New Guinea in popular culture in Australia, and to provide a focus for PNG national sport competition.


3.11 Increase sports engagement between Australia and Papua New Guinea at a secondary school level e.g. a variation of the Pacific School Games specific to Australia and Papua New Guinea.

3.12 Express support for the secondary school partnerships already initiated between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

3.13 Encourage research collaborations at the tertiary level between universities. Also consider institutional partnerships and twinning at the vocational and tertiary level.


3.14 Encourage and support social media influencers to engage with Papua New Guinea. Suggest a jointly funded exhibition trip to showcase PNG tourism opportunities.

3.15 Australia should encourage local adventure tourism companies to expand their operations to Papua New Guinea.

3.16 Encourage new digital platforms such as AirBnB to provide more support in Papua New Guinea to promote local ownership of tourism.

3.17 Provide support for Australian musicians (especially those with PNG heritage) to film music videos and promotions in Papua New Guinea.

3.18 Identify and support ongoing opportunities to increase visibility of Australian indigenous culture in Papua New Guinea, and PNG culture in Australia.

3.19 Use inductions and briefings to encourage staff of international organisations, governments, and other visitors to Papua New Guinea to reduce perpetuation of negative perceptions of Papua New Guinea.

Summary of key discussion areas

The bilateral relationship between Papua New Guinea and Australia is an enduring and important one for both nations. The relationship is built on shared history and extends through economics, politics and security to culture, sport, history and extensive people-to-people links. The agenda of the Dialogue allows for a wide-ranging discussion that reflects the breadth of the bilateral relationship. For the 2020 event the discussion focused on regional and rural development, infrastructure and digital media.

This report summarises the discussions and are not attributable to any one participant. The notes are grouped to collect topics in broad themes and do not directly reflect the chronology of the discussion.

State of the PNG–Australia relationship

There was extensive discussion of the state of the Australia–PNG relationship. There was reflection on political change in both countries, with Australia having had an election which saw the government of Scott Morrison re-elected and in Papua New Guinea the handover of power from Peter O’Neill to James Marape. Both new prime ministers had worked quickly to build a strong relationship, with the visit to Australia by Mr Marape showing a strong personal connection being forged. Australia’s increased focus on engagement with the Pacific region and Papua New Guinea in particular was noted, and there was discussion of the regional strategic context in which that was taking place.

The state of the modern PNG–Australia relationship was considered, with discussion of a shift away from seeing the relationship as a donor-recipient arrangement to one of partnership where the two countries work to identify priorities and develop appropriate responses. The PNG Electrification Partnership, which involves Australia along with New Zealand, the United States and Japan, was highlighted among recent developments. The proposed development of a joint military facility in Manus Island will be one where the partnership will further evolve. There are also efforts to work more closely in areas like security and maritime surveillance, and education including engagement with secondary schools beyond the existing strong engagement in tertiary education.

Papua New Guinea’s economic challenges were discussed and potential ways that Australia could help the Marape government to deal with them. Australia is providing short-term financial support for PNG’s budget but there was discussion of the need for further reform in some areas of policy. Pending decisions on a range of resource development projects will be a factor in the future direction of economic performance. Papua New Guinea’s new prime minister has made agricultural development a major focus of his government, and this priority should prompt Australia to align its support for PNG to this important policy.

The new Coral Sea Cable System between Papua New Guinea and Australia was also discussed, and its potential role in opening up new business opportunities was canvassed. There is also an opportunity for Australia to play a bigger day-to-day role in education in Papua New Guinea, and there is interest from a number of provincial governments in having more Australian teachers work in PNG schools. The two countries are working towards development of a new ‘comprehensive economic partnership’ agreement which will provide further impetus for a recalibration of the bilateral relationship.

Labour mobility was discussed, with interest from participants in expanded opportunities for professionals to move between the two countries. In some areas the possibilities are open for Australians to work in Papua New Guinea with relative ease (eg the legal profession) while reciprocal movement for Papua New Guineans to work in Australia is more difficult.

There was discussion of how Australia has built stronger relationships with other countries where the historical and geographic ties are not as strong — such as India. The PNG–Australia relationship should develop to emulate the types of exchanges Australia has with other such nations.

Regional and rural development

Rural and regional development was highlighted as a key issue for both Papua New Guinea and Australia. Eighty percent of PNG’s population lives outside urban centres. Australia’s population is increasingly urbanised, with major cities along the eastern coast growing quickly and struggling to adapt to demand for infrastructure and affordable housing. Participants noted the interest of both countries in fostering growth and opportunity in regional areas.

There were a number of observations about successes in regional and rural development. Reference was made to the way that arts and culture have provided economic opportunities, especially for Australian Indigenous communities. It was noted that it was important that cultural property is identified, managed and protected to avoid negative consequences from such economic development. The important role traditional culture plays in informing modern understanding in areas such as fire management was also discussed.

There was discussion about the difficulty of providing infrastructure in regional areas in both countries, with commentary that infrastructure gaps limit regional development opportunities.

The growing impact of climate change on both countries was discussed in the context of regional communities. Papua New Guinea has substantial experience dealing with major natural disasters and community resilience. This experience may be relevant in considering the impact of climate change in other countries, including Australia. Regional development opportunities may come from international climate mitigation funds.

There was discussion of how agricultural development has entered a new phase in Papua New Guinea. Recent examples of high-profile targeted investments were discussed, in cash cropping such as potatoes in Southern Highlands, and dairy products in Port Moresby. In both examples, outside investors had made direct investments with an impact on local communities. There remain issues about capacity to supply but there was a general view that Papua New Guinea should have the ambition to replace imported foodstuffs with local production capacity.

The role of mining and extractive industries was considered, and opportunities for transparency and accountability were highlighted in regard to exploration and licence development and approval. Views were expressed on the importance of communities having a say in economic development, with culture central in defining relationships between community members and economic opportunities.


Infrastructure was a major area of discussion, in particular the way that technologies like electricity and telecommunications can enable the development of regional economies.

In Papua New Guinea, policies and plans exist for large scale electrification but implementation has been difficult. The PNG Electrification Partnership — involving Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand in supporting greater access to electricity in Papua New Guinea — was a topic of some discussion, with further exploration of the issues and challenges in meeting the goal of supply for 70 per cent of the population by 2030.

There was discussion about the opportunity that Papua New Guinea has to develop its electricity capacity with renewable sources at its core. Papua New Guinea will be able to share its expertise with Australia and other countries as capacity develops. There was also discussion of the role of the private sector and NGOs in potentially supporting the expansion of electricity supply in Papua New Guinea, particularly in the context of major international donors proposing to assist the expansion of the network. The financial difficulties of PNG Power Limited were also canvassed.

Australia’s experience in providing electricity infrastructure to remote and rural communities was discussed, and note was also made of Australia’s challenges in reducing carbon emissions and increasing the role of renewables in its grid. Australia’s federal system of government has led to legal and political challenges as it works to achieve these outcomes. Parts of the industry have been privatised and government does not necessarily have direct control over all aspects of electricity supply in all states. Some jurisdictions have realised the need for an ongoing role for government in provision of essential infrastructure, and this may provide some guidance for Papua New Guinea.

There was discussion of the importance of making supplies financially sustainable — so that potential customers see the value of, and are capable of paying for electricity supply. The example was given of the development of mobile telephone networks in Papua New Guinea — initially these were pitched as a service for elites, and it was only when these were seen as a service for all people that they became widespread and widely adopted, and provided massive benefits in access to communications.

There was broad agreement on the importance of lifting energy access in Papua New Guinea, for economic opportunity, quality of life and improved health outcomes in communities. An example was given of the importance of electricity in being able to provide better health outcomes in remote communities, for example in making oxygen available for treatments. There was also discussion of how electricity can help empower communities and contribute to lifting people out of education and opportunity traps. There was discussion of how financial resources will need to be found within communities to sustain connections to these supplies.

The relationship of electricity to agriculture was also discussed, through its role in boosting economic returns by reducing labour requirements and improving quality of produce. There was discussion of the aspiration of agricultural producers to access such infrastructure, with a desire to move from ‘aid’ and ‘handouts’ to being able to develop real economic opportunities.

There was discussion too of Papua New Guinea needing to evaluate all potential technologies for itself; for example, whether options such as nuclear generation have been fully considered and evaluated as part of the country’s energy thinking.

There are substantial opportunities through Papua New Guinea and Australia working closely in their experience of these developments. Australia may be able to gain expertise and experience from implementation in Papua New Guinea, and may be able to provide capital for investment in some new technology, for example, utilising blockchain in renewable generation through to retail. Developing and implementing small scale renewables and microgrids may be a greenfield investment opportunity for Papua New Guinea to develop and export its expertise without the legacy of 1950s-style infrastructure.

One area that must be considered is the state of PNG’s state-owned enterprises, such as PNG Power Limited. Questions were raised over whether the current structure and operation of the sector is working — and whether existing corporate entities are viable. Politics continues to be a factor in the rollout of infrastructure. Governance generally is a challenge and must be factored into any infrastructure developments. Communities in both countries have a right to be informed and to have a say on developments that can affect, empower or change them.

Digital technology — society, governance and opportunity

The impact of digital technologies on society was a topic of significant discussion throughout the Dialogue. There were a range of experiences and perspectives shared: from the benefits of access to communications, to economic opportunities, through to negative consequences and social impact, as well as questions of national security. There was also discussion of the broader issue of perceptions and portrayals of each country in media and the impact it has on the PNG–Australia relationship.

There was a view that on balance, social media has been a positive force in both nations, and has provided a degree of access to information, government accountability and economic opportunity that has benefited citizens in both countries. Participants noted the role of social media in holding elected leaders to account through direct interaction. Some government agencies and leaders in both countries have used social platforms effectively to maintain channels of communication to communities and to interact positively. Other government bodies have struggled to understand the power of communication tools now available to citizens and the ability of information to be shared quickly and outside formal channels.

The recent issue of political violence in West Papua highlighted the role of social media as an activator of political awareness and connecting communities of interest, particularly in Papua New Guinea. This showed the uniting power of digital media and increased political engagement and empowerment.

However, there was concern expressed about the negative role of social media in both countries, with misinformation leading to poor outcomes, unrest and even violence.

The smaller scale of PNG’s formal media sector means social media has become prominent in public discourse. This led to concerns from some national leaders who called for platforms like Facebook to be regulated or censored to deal with misinformation. In Australia, national security concerns are driving a push for greater accountability for social platforms.

Concern was expressed about the role of social media algorithms in conjunction with a preponderance of sharing graphic and violent images, with fears this is having a detrimental effect on culture, particularly in Papua New Guinea. This concern extends to a loss of culture around reading and information. Issues like cyber bullying are also a challenge, along with the ‘right to be forgotten’. In Australia, Indigenous communities are dealing with direct digital communications undermining traditional communication protocols, such as on the death of a community member.

Participants discussed the role of education in encouraging social media users to understand the impact of the platforms and to manage the way they interact and share information, and the role of algorithms in shaping what they see.

Education can also be an important part of leveraging the potential social and economic benefits of digital platforms. Some participants had direct experience of using social and digital media as an economic enabler. Through social platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, small and medium scale enterprises had been developed which provided real economic opportunity and outcomes for individuals and communities.

This led to a discussion about the role of influencers in shaping perceptions of both countries.

Social media is also a potential enabler for knowledge sharing and market opportunities in agriculture. Simple Facebook groups and support pages have connected developing specialists in fields of agriculture despite the challenges of distance and lack of infrastructure.

Digital resources can also be substantial supports for the development of tourism opportunities. New digital platforms mean things like village-based tourism are now easier to develop and can be realised without major infrastructure requirements and expensive advertising.

There was also discussion about the portrayal of Papua New Guinea in Australia and its media. There is a view that coverage is often negative and undermines the potential for a better bilateral relationship. Australian participants noted that they had been personally trying to highlight positive aspects in their social media relationships. There was agreement that better examples will lead to a stronger and more understanding relationship between the two countries.

The point was made that despite its prominence in modern society, telecommunications access and participation is not ubiquitous, and debates about social media don’t represent reality for most people. In many parts of Papua New Guinea, low bandwidth (2G mobile) connections are the primary mode of access. As little as 10 per cent of PNG’s population uses services beyond text messaging.

Site visits and guest participants

The Dialogue discussions were informed by site visits to locations around Wewak and the participation of guest speakers during the event.

At Suanum village outside Wewak, participants saw first-hand examples of how cash-crop economies can help deliver opportunities in regional areas, and that there is also an important role for government as an enabler of these opportunities. There was discussion of the importance of agricultural research in developing crops that are resistant to insect pests and diseases — for example the development of varieties of cocoa that are resistant to borer infestation. Vanilla’s role as a cash crop for villages was also highlighted, as well as the critical role for government in providing and maintaining roads and infrastructure.

East Sepik Governor Allan Bird provided thoughts on leadership, governance and rural and regional development during a dinner and speech. He provided examples of his focus on government revenue and service delivery, and delivering infrastructure that enables economic development. He highlighted new projects coming online in the province over coming years that will provide more support for community-based agriculture and economic development.

Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea Bruce Davis interacted with participants during the Dialogue and provided perspectives on the modern PNG–Australia relationship. He highlighted the partnership between the two countries. Mr Davis was also the guest speaker at a community reception in Wewak that involved members of local community and government organisations.

Commanding officer of PNG Defence Force Moem, Lieutenant Colonel Nelson Rapola hosted participants for a briefing on the PNG–Australia Defence Co-operation Program, which connects personnel from the Australian Defence Force with the PNG Defence Force base in East Sepik Province.

A tour of Wewak and surrounds enabled participants to visit the Commonwealth War Memorial site at Cape Wom Memorial Park, Japan War Memorial site at Mission Hill, PNG Cocoa Board’s Hawain Cocoa Nursery, and the Network of Callan Services for Persons with Disabilities.