Helping PNG improve border security is in Australia’s national interest
6 Aug 2020|

The Australian Federal Police deserve high praise for shutting down a major cocaine trafficking exercise near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, that was intended to deliver a drug haul valued at around $80 million to Australia.

The AFP had excellent cooperation with the PNG police drug squad, which is to be applauded.

It’s clear that the AFP had been monitoring the drug-trafficking syndicate for some time. Soon after the light aircraft carrying the drugs from a makeshift airstrip near Port Moresby crashed on take-off,  alleged members of the syndicate were arrested in Melbourne, Sydney and North Queensland.

PNG has long been regarded by authorities as the source of significant marijuana trafficking to northern Australia, but the news that trafficking of a large (500-kilogram) consignment of cocaine has now been attempted is alarming.

This detection also highlights the extent to which PNG needs long-term help to improve its border security, with an emphasis on illegal people trafficking and movements, and now major drug trafficking.

This latest revelation, with its wider implications, surely adds to the case for the naval base redevelopment on Manus Island, driven by Australia, to be given an even higher priority.

The capacity of PNG’s police and defence forces, and customs and immigration agencies, to detect and respond to sophisticated drug-running and people-trafficking operations is very limited.

Canberra alone has the capacity to help fix that—and to prevent PNG from becoming a half-way house for deliveries to Australia.

Australia needs to reprioritise its significant program of aid to PNG (over $600 million this year) and focus on just a handful of areas of highest need. Strengthening the police and the defence force heads the priority list.

Border security needs to be given a massive funding boost. Some of that money could come from the existing aid budget, but additional support for training and resourcing will need to be provided in  October’s federal budget, if not sooner.

Neither the PNG police nor the PNG defence force have the resources needed to monitor a very extensive land border with the Indonesian province of Papua. When it comes to coastal areas, including many inhabited and uninhabited islands, the PNG agencies’ capacity is very limited.

That is not the fault of the police and defence force leadership. Their budgets have been inadequate for many years. Dealing with the challenges of local crime, tribal fights and illegal border crossings have stretched their limited resources well beyond capacity.

Now is the time for Australia to add this vital issue to the ‘Pacific step-up’ program, as well as the existing development assistance arrangements.

The program needs to be people based and to greatly enhance the recruitment of young men and women and their training and skilling, to strengthen border security right across PNG’s vast landmass and islands. Emphasis also needs to be put on getting governors and local leaders fully involved, especially in coastal and island provinces.

But this process needs to go beyond training and skilling. The PNG defence air wing is run down, as is the very limited naval force, and the police need the most modern surveillance equipment available.

If this enhanced engagement is properly constructed and promoted, it will not be seen as intrusive or unnecessary; it will be warmly welcomed not only by the leadership of the PNG police and defence forces, but also by the national political leadership and the eight million people who are our closest neighbours.

PNG police commissioner David Manning has in recent days been frank and honest about the extent of drug trafficking in and around the country. He and his senior officers will welcome greater Australian engagement and assistance with open arms.

The ongoing investigation into the drug haul near Port Moresby will no doubt reveal the extent of PNG engagement, and especially where such a huge quantity of cocaine originated from.

There is every chance that this is not a one-off event.

The Australian border with PNG has long been seen as porous and Australia’s northernmost islands are just a few kilometres away.

Shutting down a massive drug-trafficking operation is to be welcomed, but it illustrates the need to urgently help our closest neighbour strengthen its border security. It is overwhelmingly in Australia’s interests to do so.