The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (May 18) – Foreign Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu is fully entitled to again criticize Australia’s Howard government over the seasonal guest workers issue. Today, even more clearly than in October last year, Australia is putting itself in a transparently false position over this matter.

Six months ago, John Howard firmly rejected calls for a seasonal workers scheme raised by Pacific islands leaders who were attending the Forum in Port Moresby. At the time, The National expressed doubt over his stated reasons for refusal.

It seemed to us that the Australian prime minister produced a red herring at the Forum, with a spurious reason advanced for his government’s stance on the issue. Mr. Howard sought to boost the concept of "building island economies" as the answer to unemployment, and described the guest worker concept as "imaginary relief".

He did not attempt to tackle the sensitive question of existing preferences given to young European and American backpackers. The Australian government has now decided to significantly extend those work opportunities to cover tourism and regional and rural work opportunities.

As Sir Rabbie says, these are the very areas in which young seasonally employed Papua New Guineans could not only benefit Papua New Guinea, but Australia as well. Where is the logic in Mr. Howard relaxing already generous provisions for European and American back-packers, while refusing to recognize the claims of his country’s island neighbors to similar treatment?

Similar arrangements applied to the Pacific island nations could have many potential benefits. Among them are the strengthening of PNG-Australian ties, not between senior diplomats and ministers, but in a more youthful and personal way.

Young people of both countries working together would learn to appreciate each other’s customs and aspirations. Such contacts are far more likely to contribute to the much vaunted "special relationship" that supposedly exists between our two nations. The working and social experience gained by young Pacific islanders could contribute towards the development of their maturity and vision.

It is tempting to see hidden and far less laudable reasons for the Australian government’s intransigence over seasonal employment for Pacific islanders.

Few intelligent people will deny that the billions of dollars pumped into PNG by Australia since independence has had, on balance, a positive effect. But very little of that largess has been channeled towards removing Australian barriers against Pacific island immigration, recreational visits, or large scale educational opportunities.

The advent of international terrorism has admittedly tightened the laws applying to the movement of peoples from one nation to another, even for tourism or recreational purposes. But Canberra’s current determination to paint PNG and other Pacific nations as hotbeds of unrest, crippled economies and incubators of chaos goes far beyond anti-terrorism measures.

Look at the processes now inflicted upon Papua New Guineans seeking short term visas to visit friends and relatives in Australia. Or read the appalling travesties of reality posted on the Australian foreign affairs advisory website on the internet; Australians reading that site would be left with the firm impression that most Papua New Guineans are embryonic thieves, rapists or worse.

Then there is the atrocious misinformation about our nation and our people by Australian pen-pushers who dare to call themselves "journalists." Given those negative impressions, why should average Australians welcome our people to their shores for seasonal employment?

So there’ll be no Australian voter backlash against the Howard government over this issue. From the PNG vantage point, that government appears determined to go as far as possible to discourage our people and other Pacific islanders from entering Australia.

It is relatively simple to disburse aid and assistance beyond your own shores. The majority of your people need never come in contact with the recipients, but your international reputation will be of a caring and responsible former territorial power determined to support a fledgling independent country.

That seems to us to be uncomfortably near to a description of the current relationship between PNG and Australia. Yet approval of seasonal workers seeking employment in Australia has the potential to change that overnight. We urge the Australian government to take a long hard look at this restrictive policy, and reverse it forthwith.

May 19, 2006

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