Not in Our Backyard, on Our Doorstep

By Urban, Peter | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Not in Our Backyard, on Our Doorstep


Urban, Peter, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


IF there is one lesson for national security policy that we should learn from September 11 and the Bali bombings, it is a quite fundamental one: that threats to national security often come as a surprise, but that, after the event, are also rather unsurprising. This lesson is particularly important at the moment. With our attention firmly focused on terrorism, the risk for our national security planning is that we will downgrade or overlook other risks.

Papua New Guinea is a good example of this danger. As noted in Beyond Bali (a recently released report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute), PNG is an obvious launching pad or conduit for terrorist or transnational crime activity directed against Australia, given the growing political and institutional instability in that country. While this is the obvious security threat from PNG, the real security threat from PNG is likely to come from internal developments in PNG and a continued failure of Australian aid policy, rather than from external agents such as Muslim terrorists or transnational criminals using PNG as a base.

To most Australians, to identify PNG as a major threat to our national security in its own right would seem nonsensical: how could a small, developing country pose an independent threat to a country such as Australia? This perception is reinforced by the fact that for many Australians, PNG is viewed through the prism of the Kokoda Track, fuzzy-wuzzy angels, mountainous jungle and an environment relatively unspoilt by modern society. Within this perception, PNG is also seen as a part of the geographic isolation that adds to, rather than detracts from, our security.

The reality is dangerously different from this out-of-date perception. Although PNG is indeed rich in natural and environmental resources, it is also beset by endemic official corruption and political instability. Despite over twelve billion dollars (yes twelve BILLION dollars in 2001-02 terms) in aid from Australia since it gained independence in 1975, in terms of most development indicators (life expectancy, literacy rates, income per capita, etc.), PNG is going backwards.

Worse, our aid policy has been a significant contributor to the emerging failure of PNG as a state. For most of the period after independence, Australian aid was delivered as direct budgetary assistance-chequebook aid, without the accountability regarded as the norm for other expenditure programmes. The result: PNG politicians used Australian aid flows to fund their growing appetite for corruption.

The decline in PNG is also accelerating. In 1999-2000, GDP contracted by 1 per cent. This financial year, PNG's GDP is forecast to decline by 3 per cent. In real per capita terms, incomes in PNG have probably contracted by around 20 per cent over the last five years. …

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