PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, Aug. 25) - It is a healthy sign for Papua New Guine and for democracy that the present emotion-charged debate over Australian aid has prompted the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Mekere Morauta, to come up with balanced and sensible comments on the issue.

It is hard to avoid the impression that Sir Michael Somare's undoubted nationalism has triumphed over cold common sense on this occasion.

Nobody likes living under an obligation to another.

Anyone who has borrowed money from a friend knows that feeling well - the sense of an on-going indebtedness, and the feeling that one may be expected to support that individual in future, perhaps in matters that will prove uncomfortable or even unacceptable.

But it is foolishness to suggest that AusAID only benefits Australian companies and organizations in PNG, and offers no direct help to Papua New Guineans.

Such a statement amounts to a willful distortion of obvious facts.

AusAID has achieved a great deal for PNG, and many an institution can stand up and confirm that impact.

So too can ordinary village people who have benefited from bridges, road maintenance, new classrooms, clinics and a host of other AusAID initiatives spread throughout the nation.

The magnificent new library that will shortly be opened at Divine Word University in Madang is an excellent example of the benefits of AusAID. 

It will provide cutting-edge technological backup for what will soon become the nation's pre-eminent book collection.

It will directly benefit generations of scholars.

Undergraduates come from every corner of the nation to the Divine Word campus, and from other nations of the Pacific. 

The construction of this library is an AusAID Incentive Scheme initiative, and there are many other examples of the worthwhile work being carried out under that scheme.

Both Mr George Manoa, President of the National Alliance party, and Mr Sinai Brown, the Planning Minister, have been particularly outspoken in their support of the Prime Minister's remarks.

Both gentlemen come from the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain, an area that has benefited more than most from Australian aid in one form or another. 

We wonder if they would be happy to forego those benefits by halting AusAID, and if their people would approve of such a move.

Much of the criticism is an understandable emotional reaction to an alleged remark of Mr John Howard's, the Australian Prime Minister, indicating that his country might cut back aid to PNG.

Our readers should note that at the same time the Australian Treasurer Mr Peter Costello had no such reservations, and made a categorical denial that Australia had any such intentions.

The key to this storm in a cooking pot is the Pacific Islands Forum and the unexpected accession of an Australian candidate to the position of Secretary-General. 

PM Sir Michael had made PNG's stance on that candidature crystal clear before he left PNG to travel to the Forum in New Zealand. 

He also made strenuous efforts to achieve consensus among the members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and ensure that a candidate from the Islands nations would be elected.

As we have already written in these columns, we believe he was absolutely right to do so, and that the appointment of an Australian to head what is basically a flexible alliance of island states is inappropriate, backward-looking and a negative step.

But it is a sizeable jump to claim that veiled threats were made by Australia that failure to elect their representative would lead to the withdrawal of Australian aid from those who did so.

We acknowledge that Australia under John Howard is increasingly cast in the American mould.

Extending Australian hegemony to adjoining nations appears to be one aim of the Howard government.

There are appropriate ways to combat that move, and sensible dialogue as proposed by Sir Mekere Morauta is the best.

The alternative - a PNG without the 66 percent development budget that Australia contributes annually, and the 25 percent of revenue and grants in the national budget that comes from the same source - would reveal that PNG at the moment is a near-bankrupt state.

We urge all PNG parties involved to contribute to the debate, but to avoid media outbursts that can only damage a long standing, and on balance positive international relationship.

August 25, 2003

The National:


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