Anglicare started here in PNG in order to help people with HIV/AIDS in the days when it wasn’t just a deadly illness but a devastating stigma too. Thanks to Anglicare, people who could easily have become “untouchable” – suffering not just from disease, but from ostracism – are both better treated and better understood. I can’t think of a better way to live out the Gospel instruction to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”.
Obviously, this is a night to acknowledge Anglicare’s work; but it’s also a night to admit that, for all the good they try to do, governments don’t make it easier when they reduce funding or fail to pay on time. Like all the great charities, Anglicare is expert at making do. Governments often disappoint but organisations like Anglicare almost never do – which is why governments use them. Governments, as our greatest Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies once observed, do not actually have “ministries of loving kindness”. So tonight, especially, I salute all those who do!
We are here, though, not just as supporters of Anglicare but as citizens and friends of PNG. Anglicare is but one of the hundreds of organisations here in this country, mobilising countless numbers of people to do what they can for a stronger, safer, better PNG and a safer, better world.
This country, my country, indeed, all countries are the product of these countless acts of cooperation. As Margaret Mead famously said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the word. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
And for all that’s going wrong in the world – and we should never be complacent about fixable ills – much is going right. In 1980, fewer than 50 per cent of the world’s people had access to safe drinking water; now it’s over 90 per cent. In 1990, 37 per cent of the world’s people lived in absolute poverty; now it’s just nine per cent. And more wealth has been created in the past quarter century than in the previous 25000 years! None of this happened by accident; it happened because good people were determined to make a difference.
These statistics are a good antidote to pessimism. It’s true that, here in PNG, policing can be an issue, development is uneven and infrastructure patchy. Things are often done differently here than in Australia, for instance – but that doesn’t mean that nothing much is happening. If you asked someone like the Indian businessman Gautam Adani, where he’d now choose to develop a fossil fuel energy project, I suspect he might prefer your country to mine! PNG has cut 20 per cent from its budget over the past three years: again, a lesson is fiscal responsibility for Australia.
As someone who first visited PNG in 1980 to walk the Kokoda Track; and who came back in 1988 to repeat it, before coming three times in two years as prime minister, I can testify to this country’s transformation. Port Moresby is no sleepy outpost – it’s the metropolis of the Melanesian world and a worthy host of the 2018 APEC summit. This can only be the result of a people and a government that has mostly got the big decisions right. Yes, Port Moresby residents have mugging stories – as they did 30 years ago – but it’s undeniable that most people’s lives are better.
In the lead-up to the 2013 Australian election, asked to describe an Abbott government’s approach to foreign policy, I said that it would be “more Jakarta and less Geneva”. I meant that we would be less interested in striking a pose than in making a difference; that we would focus more on getting things done ourselves than urging others to act; and that, while Australia had global interests and some global reach, we would concentrate on the places and the problems where we could be most effective.
Early on, the Abbott government was much exercised by the need to stop the boats. No country can be sure of its sovereignty if it surrenders control of its borders. But the influx of 50,000 boat people in the Rudd-Gillard years wasn’t just a border control disaster; it was a humanitarian disaster too – with more than a thousand men, women and children dying at sea.
By assigning border protection operations to an inter-agency task force under military leadership, by imposing a news blackout on operational matters, by transferring people who’d scuttled their own boats to big orange life rafts that went back to Indonesia, and by our readiness to assert our own national interests against those of any other country, we did indeed stop the boats – and there have now been none in more than two years.
I should pay tribute to Prime Minister Peter O’Neill for his unswerving readiness to help Australia. Everyone knows about the processing centre on Manus. It’s good that the refugee transit centre is to remain open, despite the court ruling; and, of course, Australia will honour all its commitments: including the financial ones to PNG, and the one that no boat people will ever come to Australia. It’s good that the Turnbull government has just made this crystal clear.
But few know that very early in the time of the Abbott government, two West Papuan activists claimed asylum in the Torres Strait as a way to embarrass the Indonesian government and to discredit Australian border protection policies. Thanks to Prime Minister O’Neill, they swiftly ended up in PNG and a needless incident was averted.
All of us have people who are never forgotten. For me, one of them was a former editor, Frank Devine, who would often begin news conferences with the admonition: how can we improve the world today? As I learned on the job, it turned out that there was actually quite a lot that Australia could do.
In my time, we committed the lion’s share of ships and aircraft to the search for missing aircraft MH370 because it came down in Australia’s search and rescue zone and we owed it to the 239 people on board – to the 154 Chinese, no less than the six Australians – to do all we humanly could to resolve this horrible mystery.
We called out the Russian strongman when his proxies killed 39 innocent Australians by shooting down MH17 over the eastern Ukraine.
We dropped humanitarian supplies to civilians besieged on Mt Sinjar, ferried weapons into the Kurdish capital, flew hundreds of bombing missions, and sent into Iraq the largest advise, assist and train force (after the Americans) to contain and destroy the Jihadist death cult – and would have expanded that commitment commensurate with US efforts.
I don’t say that nothing could have been done better. Some of you would be aware that Australia has been working to renew our highly capable but small and ageing submarine force. It’s good that the Turnbull government has made the long overdue decision on the next generation of Australian sub.
I do regret, though, that my own government did not give more consideration to “off-the-shelf” nuclear-propelled options – as this might have provided a more capable submarine more quickly. In an uncertain world, where countries look to Australia for help, it would have been good to have these new subs much sooner than the middle of the 2030s.
As a former journalist, I don’t underestimate the power of words. Words are what we live by – words that we say and mean. Still, I’ve always thought that leaders should be judged more on their deeds than their words. After all, saying the right thing is usually so much easier than actually doing it.
As prime minister, I said that I hoped PNG would not see Australia as its big brother but as its best friend. I hoped you would never feel the need to ask another country for something that is in our power to give; I hoped you would never feel that Australia treats you as a foreign country.
For me, a law and order problem in PNG was scarcely less serious than one at home. Hence the 70 Australian police that my government committed and whom, I hope, could still become operational police rather than mere advisers.
For me, Australians should be just as interested and involved with the peoples of our region as you, historically, have been with us. Hence the New Colombo plan, that my government began, will have thousands of Australia’s best and brightest studying in our region to complement the tens of thousands that our region sends to us.
I remain acutely aware that PNG is our nearest neighbour, our only former colony, and home to at least 10,000 dual citizens. In 1975, our flag was lowered in friendship, not torn down in anger. PNG is one of only two countries in the whole world with Australia as its biggest trading partner. It’s the only country anywhere that’s more passionate than we are about rugby league – hence the urgent need for a PNG team in the NRL!
At least in the South Pacific, Australia is a superpower; while PNG is the Melanesian superpower. It’s necessity, not nostalgia that makes our partnership so vital; it’s the future, not the past that we must focus on; and it’s mutual appreciation, not one-sided duty that should drive us if both our countries and our region are to flourish.
As you know, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a response to the question: who is my neighbour? When we consider all that Australia has done and continues to do for the people of PNG and all that PNG has done and continues to do for the people of Australia, only one conclusion is possible: that we have truly understood what being a neighbour really means.