Keith Jackson on Turnbull in PNG — media snubs, refugee jitters and money problems

The headline in a Post Office Box blog item about Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's "neocolonialism". He is pictured with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. Image: poboxblog

COMMENT: By Keith Jackson

That was one strange weekend Malcolm Turnbull just spent in Papua New Guinea on his first official visit, even if at first glance the running sheet looked typical enough.

The usual Aussie-prime-minister-in-PNG schedule was dusted off trotting out a tête-à-tête with the PNG PM, a Bomana-Kokoda experience and a business breakfast dominated by expats. Nothing new there.

But otherwise there were some bizarre deviations, including a mix-up which left the PNG media believing it hadn’t been invited to a Turnbull press conference.

As ABC PNG correspondent Erik Tlozek put it in a Facebook post:

“I am disappointed and embarrassed that my PNG media colleagues felt they were not allowed to attend this morning’s press conference with Malcolm Turnbull at Bomana.

“If Australia wants to show that its government is open to media scrutiny, surely it should welcome journalists to a presser held in their own country.”

Later SBS journalist Stefan Armbruster added to this by tweeting:

“Hear from sources [that] PNG journalists excluded from Turnbull presser post-Kokoda wreath-laying. [They] were told it’s an ‘Australian thing’.”

An Australian thing?

This was later rendered by New Zealand journalist Michael Field as:

“Some Australian journos now using Facebook to say sorry for the Whites-Only press briefing Turnbull had in PNG: Melanesians journos were excluded”

– not quite on the money but an understandable interpretation.

The Australian High Commission in PNG later apologised for what was described as

“a misunderstanding”.

As Radio New Zealand International’s Johnny Blades reported,

“the fact that only Australian journalists had access to Mr Turnbull during this leg says a lot about how Canberra conducts its business in PNG.”

Manus asylum seekers
Turnbull further raised the ire of Papua New Guineans and refugee support groups by sidling away from one of the key issues in the Australia-PNG relationship – the future of asylum seekers stranded on Manus Island.

He didn’t address the issue front on, preferring to use the evasive words, “one step at a time.”

This prompted Manus MP Ron Knight to tweet: “He hasn’t even the courtesy of meeting the Manus leaders or coming here to see himself the problem. No respect.”

Turnbull’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was not as reticent as his boss, airily telling PNG the refugees were its problem, not Australia’s,

This provoked a sharp rebuff from Transparency PNG’s gritty chairman Lawrence Stephens: “You haul people illegally into PNG. Now they become PNG’s problem? Come on!”

Dutton doubled down with what read like a “stuff you PNG” statement: “We’ll be withdrawing the assets from Manus Island. We are not going to have a detention centre there for other uses. We’re not going to have facilities being used or repurposed. The centre will be dismantled.”

So there, PNG. We’ll trash all the stuff we gave you and go home.

Turnbull had earlier run into criticism about the timing of his trip from former PNG prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta.

‘Dangerous position’
Morauta said Turnbull had placed himself in a “dangerous position”, especially “with the prospect of a new government just around the corner”.

Turnbull dismissed the complaint, saying the timing of his visit was “entirely unrelated” to any domestic political events in PNG and that the election was a matter for the people of PNG “absolutely”.

Before departing Port Moresby for India, Turnbull also was forced to deflect questions about Papua New Guinea’s poor economic performance.

Asked if it was a concern to Australia that the PNG government was “broke”, Turnbull said this was a matter for the PNG government.

Not entirely the case, though, as just a couple of weeks ago Australia effectively refused to bail out PNG who had asked that the half billion dollars of tied Australian aid be used instead to prop up its budget.

Australia had said no.

Oh, and a footnote to that business breakfast with Malcolm Turnbull. Christine Aiwa – executive assistant to the managing director of the Post-Courier – paid K900 for four senior journalists to attend.

“But the waiters were instructed not to serve our journalists any breakfast; one was only given an orange juice,” she wrote on Facebook.

“That’s discriminating. I will not stop until I get the full refund of K900 back, and I want an apology.”

It was, all in all, quite a weekend.

Keith Jackson blogs at PNG Attitude where this column was first published. It is republished with the permission of the author.

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