Australia must take the threat to the Manus Island naval base project seriously
15 Jun 2020|

The Australian government must take very seriously the threat to the Manus Island joint naval base project outlined recently by a senior minister in Papua New Guinea’s government.

The fact that the man concerned—Foreign Minister Patrick Pruaitch—has since been suspended from office does not in any way lessen the urgency the Australian government must give to ensuring the signature project under its ‘Pacific step-up’ proceeds.

The redevelopment proposal was in many ways an unusual one when it was announced by the Australian and PNG governments almost two years ago. It was clearly put together in haste following credible evidence that the People’s Republic of China had its eyes on the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island.

The announcement was really a reflection of the complex relationship the then PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill, had with Australia.

Even though PNG’s relationship with China grew stronger during his eight years in office, O’Neill skilfully maintained excellent relations with successive Australian governments from both sides of politics.

In 2013, he signed an agreement with Kevin Rudd’s Labour government to enable asylum seekers arriving off Australia by boat to be housed at a detention centre Australia rapidly constructed on Manus Island. Even though the agreement was criticised by the Coalition, within days of Tony Abbott becoming prime minister in the same year, O’Neill negotiated its continuation and expansion.

Pruaitch’s announcement last week of a review of the Manus redevelopment agreement was clearly in response to local political and social media pressure to, at the very least, seek a restructuring of the deal, if not its cancellation.

That is what the governor of Manus province, Charlie Benjamin, and some local leaders have been seeking since the project was first announced. And it’s what influential non-government organisations and social media writers have been demanding.

The suspension of Pruaitch is unrelated to his announcement of a review of the base arrangement. The PNG Ombudsman Commission has been pursuing him for serious leadership code breaches for the best part of a decade. His suspension from office became automatic once the chief justice appointed a leadership tribunal to hear the allegations against him.

But the Australian government would be unwise, even foolish, to assume that, with Pruaitch stood aside from ministerial duties for what is likely to be an extended period, pressure to review the Manus agreement will diminish.

It will not. The former minister’s robust assertion that the deal is unfair to PNG and especially the people and businesses on Manus Island is headline news. It will embolden Benjamin, other MPs and social media commentators to demand not just a review, but termination of the project.

National elections are now less than two years away in PNG, and it will be easy to make the base a campaign issue on Manus and beyond.

There’s also no doubt that the well-resourced Chinese embassy in Port Moresby, with its more than 100 staff, has been lobbying—even heavying—PNG politicians and village leaders to stop the project.

While China seems to have lost some interest in acquiring more of the PNG resources sector, its engagement in areas such as communications, defence and the future of Bougainville is as active as ever.

What the Australian government must do immediately is expedite the tender process. That two years have elapsed without a tender being granted is disappointing and, frankly, dangerous.

The tender, worth around $175 million, would likely be awarded to an Australian company, or one with both Australian and American links, given the US’s involvement in the initial agreement.

But what Australia also needs to do is maximise local content by actively seeking participation by Manus Island businesses and contractors in a genuine and meaningful way.

That shouldn’t be hard to do. A number of Manus companies and contractors have been engaged on work associated with the construction and operation of the island’s detention centre since 2013. It remains questionable whether that engagement has been adequate and it would be beneficial if local involvement were given high priority in the new project.

Australia has received a significant warning shot on an issue that is absolutely vital to its national interest. It needs to lift its game with urgency.

And lifting its game needs to include a significant marketing and community engagement program on Manus, and across PNG as a whole.

There remains within the PNG community—and in the national parliament—significant goodwill towards Australia, and an acknowledgement that Manus Island, and the naval base and airport, have significant links with our wartime history, and that of the United States.

Australia must never take that goodwill for granted. It is under pressure from unfriendly groups, and from the government of the PRC, in particular.

Killing off the naval base project would be a massive coup for China and an even greater setback for Australia and the US.

Time is short. PNG politics is increasingly volatile, and campaigning for the next election is already underway. The PNG economy is in dire straits. The construction of the base, and the engagement of the PNG Defence Force in its future operations, will not just serve Australia’s national interest and provide greater regional stability, but can and must benefit our closest neighbour as well.

It really is step-up time.