Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea
If you set out by dinghy from the northern-most inhabited part of Australia you will make landfall in Papua New Guinea (PNG) fairly soon.
Boigu Island, part of Queensland, is the most northerly island in the Torres Strait. With its own Australia Post outlet, it is less than ten kilometres from the PNG coast, an area known as South Fly District, part of Western Province. (Fly refers to Fly River, a major feature of the area.)
PNG, a country often overlooked by the Australian public, is enjoying the fierce competition among foreign powers for influence in the country after APEC ended in stalemate and heightened US-China tensions. APEC was held in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital, earlier this week.
For PNG, the attention may well translate to development funds. Already, the US has pledged to work with Australia to upgrade Lombrum naval base on Manus Island, in what is widely seen as a counter to rising influence from Beijing in the region.
But if foreign powers really want to make a difference to PNG, one of the poorest in the region, then funding equipment like telecommunications gear and solar power kits would be widely welcomed. One key benefit would be using mobile phones to transfer money – instead of traipsing long distances to a bank in town.
No fewer than 85% of PNG citizens live in rural and remote areas, it is estimated – so items like these are capable of making an enormous difference in their lives.
Much talk of infrastructure of late has involved the heavy duty type – ports, rail, military bases and the like. But as we all know, the biggest revolution around the globe is internet access.
Stepping into remote villages in the South Fly, one is viscerally confronted with the lack of national expenditure or international finances of any kind.
Life in rural PNG has been described in terms of its “subsistence affluence.” The people are friendly and the land is fertile, with reliable rainfall.
But the lack of roads or public transport, and access to cash, means that opportunities for enterprise and employment remain extremely low. Everyone is searching for markets for their produce and crafts, so they can get cash to buy consumables and health services, and pay school fees.
One option for transferring money in these remote areas is via mobile phones.
Recent research by Tim Grice found that people living in urban centres and rural towns in PNG are already using mobile money to send money to one another.
It is yet to take off in the South Fly but it could do soon, as people are already exchanging mobile phone credits used to top-up their phones.
Across the South Fly, villagers receive money from relatives living in urban centres like Port Moresby – or from Australian relatives in the Torres Strait – through the mail service Post PNG or the “bricks and mortar” Bank South Pacific (BSP) branch in Daru.
Households affected by the nearby Ok Tedi mine receive compensation payments into their bank accounts. The payments relate to extensive environmental damage to the area, especially the Fly River, when BHP Billiton operated the mine. But this could be done via phone payments too.
And then there are public servants or retired public servants, who burn up much of their government pay or pensions just to get to the bank and back. Mobile phone payments would improve life here too.
In the South Fly, officials get payments from the PNG government for community work projects. These officials keep careful records of the hours each villager works, but sometimes spend months in Daru, repeatedly asking the district administrator to release the funds. When the funds finally arrive, the elected official journeys home, surrounded by relatives as bodyguards, and hand delivers payments to each worker.
Much of the money goes on transport and accommodation in Daru. Again, this money could be sent via mobile phones.
PNG’s new Ireland province tested the idea of social payments for aged and disability pensions – with great success. The World Bank assessed the idea and said an electronic payment system was needed across the country.
In many South Fly villages, the shared mobile phone is found dangling from a tree or a window, in the one place where reception appears intermittently.
A lack of infrastructure maintenance and coastal corrosion have seen mobile phone coverage in the South Fly deteriorate. Work is underway to replace failing towers, ahead of moves to bring in 3G internet coverage.
The cost of installing and maintaining mobile phone infrastructure is lower than building roads across river deltas and flood-prone savannah. And the higher the demand for transferring money via mobile phones, the more viable an upgrade to mobile coverage becomes.
International donors like China are increasingly funding infrastructure projects in PNG, though often with strings attached. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison just announced an infrastructure financing facility.
Two major mobile network operators, Digicel and B-Mobile, already provide mobile money services in partnership with BSP, Westpac, and ANZ.
Foreign aid could be distributed this way, to a community-based organisation, for example. And cash flowing in means better-off citizens and more economic activity.
Another big potential benefit to all this could be tackling absenteeism among teachers and medical workers. They are often off work travelling long distances to towns to get their pay and do grocery shopping.
But there are risks. Giving the cash directly to people and organisations – where previously it was funnelled through the central government – will fundamentally shift the politics between citizens, leaders, bureaucrats, and international actors, and not necessarily for the better. Some people who may be benefiting from current arrangements may oppose change to protect the privileges they enjoy.
PNG is a place of great complexity, with a development landscape littered with failed efforts. If such changes are made, there will be winners and losers – but surely it’s worth considering new approaches, given how little money is getting to these villages now.
Another powerful aftershock hit Papua New Guinea this weekend as the recovery effort continues following February’s deadly magnitude 7.5 earthquake, with many thousands of people dependent on humanitarian aid.
Some have criticised the PNG government’s efforts as “too slow”.
But the earthquake highlights the challenge for emerging economies like PNG in deploying relief efforts into remote areas to deal with natural disasters.
And the same geological features that make PNG a rich source of mineral deposits are also part of its earthquake problem.
The February earthquake struck the western Highlands provinces of the Pacific island nation, and a series of aftershocks, including several of magnitude 6 or more, continued to shake the region during the following weeks.
Although parts of PNG are particularly earthquake-prone (especially in the north and the islands, along the plate boundary), February’s earthquake was quite exceptional.
It occurred in a usually less active part of the plate boundary and was remarkably powerful when compared with the short (modern) instrumental earthquake record. The strength and frequency of the aftershocks has posed an additional threat to local populations and key economic infrastructure.
On average 10-20 major earthquakes (magnitudes 7 and greater) occur on Earth every year. Most of them occur far from densely populated regions, such that only a few draw media attention.
The mountainous regions of New Guinea, known as the fold and thrust belt, have been geologically active for millions of years. But the long recurrence interval of major earthquakes (every few centuries) combined with the short period of the instrument records (just a few decades) gives us the false impression that seismicity is uncommon in this region.
The February earthquake occurred due to the activation of a major fault system in the forested foothills, between the Papuan highlands to the north and the Fly River lowlands to the south.
The Papuan highlands have risen due to the collision between the Australian and Caroline/Pacific tectonic plates over the past five million years.
Despite this collision, the Australian plate continues to move at about 7 cm a year to the northeast, in geological terms a quite remarkable speed, leading to a build-up of strain in the continental crust.
Much of this strain is released at the plate boundary along northern New Guinea, usually with more frequent but less powerful swarms of earthquakes. It is this motion, driven by the churning interior of our planet, that leads to major adjustments to the GPS datum and reference coordinates for the entire Australian continent.
But few people are aware that this very motion of the Australian continent is what causes the seismic and volcanic activity in New Guinea and parts of Southeast Asia.
As Australia moves northward, the entire New Guinea margin acts as a bulldozer, collecting Pacific islands, seamounts and other topographic features. New Guinea represents the leading edge of the advancing Australian continent, which causes continental crust to fold and crumple over a broad region.
This is a well-known process in plate tectonics, where the oceanic plates are known to behave quite rigidly, whereas the continental regions tend to deform over broader diffuse boundaries that resemble plasticine over geological timeframes.
But the continental deformation process results in poorly defined (often due to the thick tropical vegetation cover) and intermittently active fault systems in the continent.
Over the duration of mountain building in the past five million years, the areas of highest deformation have shifted across the range. Today most of the deformation in PNG takes place north of the mountainous area, where it generates a lot of earthquakes.
Some substantial crumpling of the continental crust still occurs across the southern foothills. The folding and thrusting has generated geologically young folds, within which a large part of PNG’s gas and oil wealth has accumulated.
The intense tectonic activity has also led to the enrichment of mineral resources, including mines sourcing gold, copper, silver, nickel, cobalt and a suite of other ore types.
It is this tectonic activity that determines the delicate interplay of economic benefits from raw materials, and the often-devastating and usually-unpredictable effects of natural disasters on society.
Although the February earthquake occurred at the very heart of one of the largest and newest gas fields in the country, the industrial installations, at the highest international standards, have not suffered major damage from the tremors.
But the ongoing disaster triggered a temporary halt in gas extraction, as the facilities require inspections and repairs. Unfortunately, and unusually, the earthquakes have struck in some of the most remote parts of the country.
Hela province is one of the poorest in PNG and its people are unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of this scale. As many as half a million people were reported to be affected by the earthquake. At least 145 people reported killed.
The Highlands Highway, the one real road into the region, was badly damaged and this is the major source of food and medicines. Many feeder roads have gone.
Papua New Guineans are resilient but it is likely that more external assistance will be needed to ensure that a physical disaster does not become a greater human tragedy.
Even so the full extent of the disaster has still to be revealed, while aftershocks continue to trigger secondary hazards including major landslides that have isolated a large number of communities.
Not only are local communities facing the immediate hazards of further earthquakes and landslides, they face a protracted and costly recovery ahead.
Sabin Zahirovic, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Sydney; Gilles Brocard, Post doctoral associate, University of Sydney; John Connell, Professor of Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Romain Beucher, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Computational Geodynamics, University of Melbourne
The federal government on Wednesday reached a settlement with 1,905 detainees on Manus Island for A$70 million. The settlement was agreed immediately before a trial was due to begin in Victoria’s Supreme Court. The case alleged the Commonwealth and its detention centre contractors, G4S and Transfield, had breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiffs in relation to their detention, and falsely imprisoned them between November 2012 and May 2016.
The decision to reach a settlement can be read in several ways.
It would first seem to be a stunning admission by the Commonwealth that it did owe a duty of care to the detainees, and that it breached this duty through its detention practices.
Alternatively, it may be read as a strategic decision by the Commonwealth to reduce the political damage it believed would be caused through a protracted trial (predicted to be six months). This damage was likely to be exacerbated by the court’s decision to allow proceedings to be streamed live.
Compared to the federal government’s expenditure to manage unauthorised maritime arrivals – $1.078 billion in the 2015-16 financial year, and more than $800 million in 2016-17 – $70 million is a tiny sum.
And $70 million – an average of about $36,000 per detainee – might seem a small price for the Commonwealth to pay for the litany of allegations of mistreatment detailed against it in the statement of claim. These included:
failure to provide adequate toilet facilities;
inadequate and delayed medical treatment; and
This mistreatment was connected to the death of three detainees, and the serious injury of many more.
The class action brought the issues to a conclusion in a more timely fashion than individual actions could have done. But given the extent of the harm to each individual, the settlement amount for each person is likely to be significantly lower than they might have received in an individual claim.
The action was only peripherally about the money, though. The case provided a platform to lay bare the ugly reality of conditions in detention and the role of the Commonwealth and its contractors in producing and sustaining those conditions over many years.
In this case, private litigation was able to play a significant role in holding the government to account in an environment in which traditional accountability mechanisms fail to cut through. There are several reasons for this.
First, the case was able to produce new information about conditions on Manus Island. Once the class action was on foot, it provided a platform for expert witnesses and detainees to testify to conditions in detention free from the constraints of other types of investigation. It provided access to sensitive documents, such as the detail of government contracts with detention centre operators.
In contrast, the Australian Human Rights Commission only investigates detention abuses on Australian territory. And it is difficult for NGOs to investigate conditions in the detention centres. They need permission from governments to visit centres, and findings in their reports are easily denied by governments.
As a result, the best information on conditions in detention is through reports of those working in the centres, or through leaked documents.
As Slater and Gordon lawyer Andrew Baker said following the settlement, the case provided a strong reminder of the role the legal system can play in:
… holding governments and corporations accountable.
The case may herald the beginning of a period in which the Commonwealth will be forced to account for its offshore detention policy through protracted legal action.
What remains unclear is how many Manus Island detainees opted out of the action, and are thus free to bring individual claims. In light of the government’s decision to settle the claim, detainees outside the class action – and detainees on Nauru – may look to bring individual actions for negligence and false imprisonment against the Commonwealth.
If the treatment of these people was particularly bad, and they manage to reap a significant compensation settlement, this may open alternative pathways to settle in Australia. They might, for example, be able to apply for an investor visa, which requires a $1.5 million investment in a state or territory upon nomination.
There are no doubt many obstacles to such an application. This includes the ability to meet the health requirements for the visa – which might be compromised due to the applicants’ treatment in detention – or understanding Australian values, which may well seem very confusing to those subjected to offshore detention.
However, that such an application could even be contemplated highlights the perversity of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. It brings into shocking relief the distinction drawn between the same person as an asylum seeker and as a migrant with the means to invest in Australia’s economy.
Peter Dutton has put his credibility in the frame by sticking to his claim about the role of an incident involving a young boy in triggering the Manus Island disturbance that saw Papua New Guinea defence personnel fire shots at the detention facility.
Dutton’s well-publicised but strongly disputed allegation will be tested by the investigations being done by the PNG defence and police authorities, while Senate estimates in a few weeks should also provide a chance to probe it.
Dutton is a former policeman, which is just one reason why he should be held to the highest standards of accuracy in making a claim.
How Dutton comes out of this dispute about facts is particularly important, because it goes to the character of the conservative Liberal from Queensland who is touted as a possible future leader.
In notable contrast to the obvious tensions between Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison, the prime minister and his immigration minister are walking in lockstep. Dutton is at the heart of Turnbull’s attempt to win voters’ support with tougher policies on foreign workers and citizenship.
When Dutton last week was asked on Sky what he knew about the Good Friday violence he said: “There was difficulty, as I understand it, in the community. There was an alleged incident where three asylum seekers were alleged to be leading a local five-year-old boy back toward the facility and there was a lot of angst around that, if you like, within the local PNG community.”
Pressed on why there was this angst, he said: “Well because I think there was concern about why the boy was being led, or for what purpose he was being led away back into the regional processing centre. So I think it is fair to say that the mood had elevated quite quickly. I think some of the local residents were quite angry about this particular incident and another alleged sexual assault.”
But Manus Province police commander David Yapu rejected this version. He told Fairfax the boy, who he said was aged about ten, had been given fruit in the centre about a week before the violence.
“Then Wilson Security had to intervene and get him out from the centre. That had nothing to do with the latest incident involving soldiers,” Yapu said. “The child incident is unrelated.”
Earlier Yapu was reported to have said the soldiers’ drunken rampage was retaliation following a clash between navy personnel and asylum seekers who were playing soccer in the navy base.
When it was put to Dutton on Sunday that what he’d said wasn’t true, he retorted: “It is true. And the briefing that I’ve had is particularly succinct and clear … I can give you the facts in relation to it or you can take the Twitter version.”
Reference to “the Twitter version” was an obvious attempt to denigrate the alternative account. But that alternative came in the form of direct quotes from a local police commander.
Dutton told interviewer Barrie Cassidy that “there are facts that I have that you don’t”. Pressed on the source of his information he said: “I have senior people on the island. We also have obviously significant contacts with the governor and people of Manus.”
Let’s hope that the evidence-gathering speedily produces “the facts”, whether those facts contradict or back Dutton.
Ministers should not be allowed to slip away from taking responsibility – as former immigration minister Morrison did over his wrong claims against Save the Children personnel. On the other hand, if Dutton is so certain he’s got the right story, he has every interest in seeing the proof out in public to back it.
Meanwhile at the weekend US Vice-President Mike Pence reiterated that the Americans will stick by the deal the Turnbull government did with the Obama administration to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. But Pence didn’t miss the opportunity to again register the Trump administration’s unhappiness with the deal. The honouring “doesn’t mean we admire the agreement,” he told his news conference with Turnbull.
Pence cast the honouring in firmly alliance terms: “The decision to go forward I think can rightly be seen as a reflection of the enormous importance of the historic alliance between the United States and Australia,” he said.
“And whatever reservations the president may have about the details of agreements reached by the prior administration, we’ll honour this agreement, out of respect for that enormously important alliance.”
The firm message-behind-the-message seemed clear: don’t forget we’re doing you a big favour.
Labor leads the Coalition 52-48% in Newspoll, compared with 53-47% three weeks ago. The Coalition’s primary vote remains at 36% in the poll, published in Monday’s Australian, while Labor has slipped from 36% to 35%, and the Greens from 10% to 9%. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation remains at 10%.
Malcolm Turnbull’s net satisfaction has improved from minus 29 points to minus 25; while Bill Shorten’s net satisfaction has gone from minus 22 to minus 20.
The new hardline regime concerning asylum seekers has been implemented with the first boat arriving since the announcement of the changes by Kevin Rudd and Labor. The Coalition is supporting some of the changes, which for Labor should be an alarm bell, meaning it has gone too far to the right.
The link below is to an article that looks at some of the divergent interest parties contesting this year’s federal election.