Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has sharply criticised Australia for planning to set up a diplomatic post in PNG’s breakaway province of Bougainville without consulting his government.
But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insists Australia’s high commissioner did provide notice of the move.
Mr O’Neill claimed PNG had no advance warning of the decision, which was tucked into the detail of this week’s federal budget papers.
“It’s not something that we want to wake up one morning and read in the papers,” he said on Thursday after delivering an address to the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“There has been no understanding about the sensitivities on the ground, especially with the [local] elections that are going on there now.”
Bougainville was the scene of a bloody civil war between secessionist forces and the PNG Defence Force in the early 1990s, with an uneasy peace deal delivering the island semi-autonomous status.
Bougainvilleans have been promised a referendum on full independence sometime in the next five years. But Mr O’Neill said PNG still viewed the large, resource-rich island as “an integral part of Papua New Guinea”.
“As we respect the territorial integrity of others, we expect others to respect ours,” he said, adding that Port Moresby had not agreed to Canberra’s plan.
Ms Bishop said Australia had a “significant and growing development program in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville” and that she had discussed a second post in PNG during her visit there last December.
Mr O’Neill also played down criticism that his government had been slow to resettle refugees from the Australian-run detention facility at Manus Island.
Labor’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles recently labelled the failure to resettle any refugees beyond Manus a “disgrace” but Mr O’Neill said more than 130 applicants had been deemed genuine and would be resettled “very very soon”.
He said “negative news” about asylum seekers in Australia had been rebroadcast in PNG, requiring the government to undertake an “extensive public awareness” campaign to “remove the stigma” surrounding the issue.
“It is also important that we teach the refugees our languages, our culture, so that they are aware of their obligations when they live within our communities,” he argued.
“We are confident that these refugees will bring skills and experience that will be of value to our nation building.”
Asked if that process might take years, he responded that it would take “weeks to months”.
Challenged about his controversial decision last year to cease funding PNG’s highly effective anti-corruption unit known as Task Force Sweep, Mr O’Neill said its work would be replaced by a new Independent Commission Against Corruption, yet to be established.
Overall, Mr O’Neill said relations with Australia were as good as they had been since independence was granted by Canberra 40 years ago.
PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill says the “welfare and wellbeing” of Melanesians, including the more than 11 million Melanesian inhabitants of Indonesia, is of “paramount importance to Papua New Guinea”.
But he says he is “engaging in a constructive manner” with Indonesia on the touchy subject of West Papua and Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya.
He told the Lowy Institute he had discussed the issue with “frankness” in a recent meeting with Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and that it “continues to be one of the most sensitive issues in our … relations today”.
The discussion was not about sovereignty, he added, but about the “shared desire to ensure that there is peace, stability and development for Melanesian people in Papua and West Papua”.
Mr O’Neill said PNG would support Indonesia being granted associate membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, through a delegation of governors of the five Melanesian provinces of Indonesia.
But proponents of West Papuan independence are critical of the plan.
Mr O’Neill said “we would love to have a united voice [inside the MSG] for all of West Papua but unfortunately there are many groupings. The only legitimate people who represent West Papua today are the elected leaders and they are the governors of those provinces.”
He said currently PNG had “no visibility of what is happening in West Papua” and this would be a “major step by Indonesia to allow this process”.