Security, visas and rugby league: Anthony Albanese unveils recipe for refreshing PNG ties
The prime minister says an Indigenous voice won't be legislated if the referendum fails. Photo: AAP
Anthony Albanese says Australia’s close relations with Papua New Guinea have become even closer on a state visit that produced a commitment for a new security deal.
But after a decade in which connections have waned and China’s influence has grown, the Prime Minister’s visit in which he promised closer economic ties, more immigration and the addition of a Port Moresby-based team to the National Rugby League might prove equally important to refreshing Australia’s relationship with the largest country in the Pacific.
Mr Albanese said his address to PNG Parliament – the first by any foreign head of government in the nation’s history – had been one of the greatest honours of his life.
“As two big Pacific Ocean states, Australia and PNG must work as equals with our fellow Pacific states to build a stronger, safer, more secure region,” he said.
“This can be a decisive decade for peace, prosperity, unity and security in the Indo-Pacific.”
Mr Albanese pointedly advocated a “family first” approach to Pacific security in his address to Parliament, and he and counterpart James Marape committed to formalising an agreement on security co-operation by the end of June.
It’s not known what shape that document will take, but Australia is understood to be pushing for an ambitious deal that would include the training of PNG troops and joint naval co-operation between the countries.
The visit underscores the delicate diplomatic balancing act the government is trying to execute by simultaneously repairing frayed relations with Beijing and also the Pacific – a zone of strategic competition between China and Australia.
“It’s a response to China and China’s rise and China’s efforts to secure security agreements with other Pacific Island countries,” Grant Walton, Associate Professor at the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre, said of the security deal.
“There has been concern about the potential for China to build military or navy bases in parts of [Papua] New Guinea and those kinds of suggestions have been ramping up over the past few years.”
Mr Albanese’s visit to PNG is the first by an Australian PM in four years.
Rising Chinese investment
In that time Australia has remained the country’s largest source of foreign aid and provided more than $1 billion in support for its COVID-battered finances.
But rising Chinese investment has eroded this position.
And it’s from an understanding that Australia won’t ever be able to outspend Beijing in the region that Australia is placing greater emphasis on ‘soft power’ initiatives.
“The relationship with PNG has waxed and waned, particularly in the last decade where there has been in some ways a stepping back from PNG and the region by Australia,” Associate Professor Walton said.
At a press conference following a leaders’ dialogue with Mr Marape, Mr Albanese said the coming years would bring greater integration of the two countries’ economies, including a new visa deal and potential co-operation on renewable energy.
“There are now more than 1000 Pacific labour scheme workers from PNG in Australia, and we support Prime Minister Marape’s ambition to deploy some 8000 workers to Australia,” he said.
In his earlier speech, Mr Albanese said the government would work towards the establishment of a Pacific rugby league team to become the 18th team in the National Rugby League.
“When Prime Minister Marape and I watched the State of Origin together in Suva last year, he said there are only three days your country stops. Game 1, Game 2 and Game 3,” he said.
Rugby league is the country’s national sport and is taken more seriously in the nation of an estimated 10 million people than anywhere else in the world.
PNG police have previously called for a ban on live broadcasts of State of Origin games because post-game arguments can produce violent and fatal clashes.
Mr Albanese received a ceremonial welcome as he touched down in Port Moresby and later gave Mr Marape an Akubra hat made in Kempsey.
“As a nation, we’ve been brother and sister nations,” Mr Marape said. “We are elevating to higher heights.”