Having Tea for Your Country

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Last week Friday I had the pleasure of attending afternoon tea with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Turned out also that our own PM, Peter O’Neill was attending as well so we had both of them there at the Australian High Commissioner’s (Barbara Stokes) residence up on Paga Hill.

It was a sweltering 3pm afternoon and every single person that walked in strode past the delicately laid rows of tea cups and headed straight for the Esky to ask for a glass of water. Thank goodness there were ceiling fans at the poolside cover where we all stood waiting for him. The invite had also stated in small writing that the dress code was to be business attire, I had just rocked up in jeans and a short sleeved shirt because I thought, well we’re in the Pacific, I’m sure were not going to over do it. I started feeling a little under dressed when a couple of our Emerging Leaders emerged from the entrance after me with jackets on, but thank goodness when the PM’s turned up, they too had obviously discarded their jackets in the heat.

So after the introductions by the Australian High Commissioner Barbara Stokes, Tony Abbott gave his short and sweet speech:

“…I’ve only been the Prime Minister of Australia for just over 6 months, I’m pleased that I’ve managed to put into a fairly busy schedule over that initial period this trip to PNG because while PNG is not Australia’s largest partner and while PNG is certainly not our most difficult partner, it is a very important partner. I think Australians have thought quite abit about PNG…in the era between World War II and Independence in 1975. I fear that many Australians have tended to rather be oblivious to PNG in that post Independence era, well as far as I’m concerned that should change because PNG is our closest neighbour, its more than a friend, its family and I’m here relatively early into my Prime Ministership because I want all Australians to know that PNG matters and I want all PNG people to know that as far as I am concerned this is a personal relationship its not just a business relationship, its friends and family and not just people that we want to have transactions with. So as long as I’m the Prime Minister I will be a regular visitor to PNG, Prime Minister O’Neill and myself agreed this morning that there would be an annual Prime Ministerial summit, one year in Australia, the other year in PNG and certainly I want the people of PNG to know that they are taken seriously and appreciated by Australia and I hope that might be one of the hallmarks if you like of my Prime Ministership…”

You can guess which words struck my heart!? ‘Were not just friends, were Family’

This is a huge framework to put around our long and complicated history with Australia and lets not kid each other our countries are so intertwined we forget easily the influence each has had on the other over the years.

So the first obvious question that popped into my mind was, if we’re family why do we get treated like strangers? But we won’t go into that one question just yet because, several days earlier, I inquired on Sharp Talk what people would ask Tony Abbott if they had one question and as predicted a flood of questions came in. This surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly) prompted an Australian High Commission officer to remark to me before Abbott arrived that the comments had caused a stir in Canberra and that they were concerned that we may jump Tony Abbott with some sharp topics and hot issues. Unfortunately even if I wanted to there were so many people lining up to talk to Abbott and definitely no time to have any in depth conversations. But I guess I’m thankful that in some way we were heard, even if Canberra may not do anything about our concerns.

I’ve placed all the Sharp Talk posts in full below in the comments section for this blog post, so the main issues raised revolved around West Papua, Visa Reciprocity, Asylum Seeker Resettlement in PNG, being Stricter on the PNG Government with Australian Aid and Corruption.

Peter O’Neill spoke after and then two representatives from the Emerging Leaders group were chosen to speak on behalf of us. The first was the wonderful Serena Sasingian from youth organisation, The Voice Inc., followed by Anthony Smare, the only Pacific Islander voted as a Young Global Leader for 2014 by the World Economic Forum (as of just 2 weeks ago).

Image by Belinda Kora, PNG Village
Image by Belinda Kora, PNG Village

Anthony Smare spoke warmly of a handful of us just to illustrate to Tony Abbott the type of young people that he was here to meet, (thanks Anthony for mentioning me). But Serena’s speech┬ádove tailed really well with Tony Abbotts speech on ‘Family’ as she drew from thoughts from various youth associated with her organisation from high school children to university students. She summed up the aspirations of the youth of PNG and what they expected to show by way of leadership tomorrow, she talked about how she had talked to the future, seen the future and listened to the future, but to wrap it up she said ultimately leadership should be about ‘Love’. Love of country and your fellow citizen.

Combining Tony Abbotts ideal of us all being ‘Family’ and ‘Serena’s’ leadership with ‘Love’ it was hard to throw any verbal daggers, but again, this creates a high road for frameworks within which Australia and PNG’s existing policies of politics and practicalities currently operate.

Sometimes ‘Family’ find it hard to reprimand each other, could that be happening as suggested by Tony Walker in the AFR where he states, ‘Among various consequences of the Manus Island agreement is that Australian officials will be less likely to call PNG to account over actions that might be inimical to our interests.’ Or can it mean a more balanced relationship such as the announcement by Tony Abbott on Friday (before our afternoon tea), that Australia will now work towards better processes to ensure that the PNG Visa system and the Australian Visa system can interoperate to have the level of information sharing that exists between Australia and New Zealand and which facilitates what is effectively visas on arrival for New Zealanders.

If we are to be ‘Family’ then I would strongly suggest that the purported annual PNG/Australia Prime Ministerial summit be supported by direct debates and panel discussions with the same Emerging Leaders he met on Friday and/or other levels of society. We have some hard issues to talk about and politically flowery language while useful in some ways must be met by hard factual discussion devoid of political influences that skew policy to ridiculous outcomes.

For example as Chey Scovell from the PNG Manufacturers Council put it, ‘What would we need for Australia to take a stiff and proactive stance on poor governance and corruption (hard and soft) throughout the Pacific by not rigorously monitoring financial exchanges between their economy and ours and continued questionable spending of donor dollars. Or if Australia is prepared to take their national interest (commercial) off the table and focus on the complete interest of national development of Pacific countries or when will Australia stop saying private sector is important and start engaging and supporting us in development directly rather then through ineffective bureaucracy’

Its nice that I can have tea for my country and have a meet and greet with Tony Abbott, but when I run through the over 100 comments on what people want for their country I feel guilty not having had the appropriate platform at this tea party to raise some frank discussions.

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Image by Belinda Kora, PNG Village