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PNG expects minimal change to relationship with Australia

Staff Reporter 9/08/2013 | |
Papua New Guinea is not expecting any major changes to its existing agreements with Australia under a Tony Abbott-led government.
PNG government sources have told AAP Saturday's election of Mr Abbott as prime minister will result in tinkering around the margins of existing aid and asylum-seeker processing agreements.
As part if its policy costings, the coalition on Thursday announced $A4.5 billion in cuts from the foreign aid budget over the forward estimates.
PNG receives about $A500 million in aid annually from Australia, its former colonial master.
The Pacific island is also looking to reap the potential economic benefits flowing from the Manus island arrangements.
In a policy statement, the coalition said PNG, historically the largest recipient of Australian aid, will remain a priority.
One PNG government source who declined to be named said he expected an Abbott government to only tinker around the margins of existing agreements, but keep the core intact.
"The foreign policy statement sounds like a platform to build on," he said.
"We are not expecting too much to change. Core things will remain the same."
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is understood to have a friendly relationship with Julie Bishop, who is expected to become foreign minister.
Ms Bishop has visited PNG while in opposition and told the Lowy Institute in a speech last year she supported the current aid focus.
"The coalition supports the current focus of Australia's development assistance on the crucial areas of health and education," Ms Bishop said.
"We believe that as the PNG government takes on a larger role in the delivery of services and conditions improve, Australian assistance should progressively be directed towards areas that will help facilitate economic growth."
PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is focused on three main challenges - upgrading the nation's teetering infrastructure, battling endemic corruption, and improving delivery of basic services to the country's seven million people.
Most Australian aid goes to education, health and infrastructure initiatives. It is also aimed at promoting good governance.
Under Julia Gillard, PNG and Australia signed enhanced trade, and law and order arrangements - issues expanded on by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd two months ago.
Part of the payoff for the Manus deal under Mr Rudd was that 50 Australian police officers would be sent to Port Moresby and PNG's second largest city, Lae, to improve law and order.
Mr O'Neill is keen to see this scheme up and running, and wants Australia to help PNG secure the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in 2018.
Early indications are the Manus plan is working to slow people smuggling, but the rushed nature of the expanded processing scheme has caused ructions on Manus Island.
Local MP and vice minister in the O'Neill government Ron Knight has all but withdrawn his support for the deal amid ongoing disputes with camp operators G4S over employment contracts for locals and use of sites, such a local dump.
But with 101 MPs backing him in PNG's 111-seat parliament, local opposition to the plan is unlikely to change Mr O'Neill's mind.
His government is also preparing to pass legislation to block legal challenges to the Manus arrangement.
Another government spokesman, who also declined to be named, said any decisions Australia makes on Manus island is unlikely to alter the longstanding relationship between the two countries.
"(O'Neill) will look at it as agreements between two governments, it doesn't matter who is in charge," the spokesman said.
"Anyway, Manus is Australia's call."


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