A fly on the wall at the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji should be in for some interesting viewing. While the organisation was established to encourage co-operation between Pacific Island nations, that unity is looking fragile.

A month after he slammed the Solomon Islands for kicking out Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has announced a ban on Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Michael Somare and other PNG officials from entering Australia. Reduced Australian aid has not been touted.

Somare insists that he doesn’t know who authorised the plane that took alleged s-x offender and suspended Solomon Islands attorney-general Julian Moti out of PNG but the Australian government isn’t satisfied — the ban will remain until they find out who did (an investigation is taking place this week in PNG).

Meanwhile Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was rivalling Downer for tough talk on Friday, arguing that Australia is replaceable:

We already have contingency arrangements in place to replace the Australian military and police contingent … I don’t want foreigners to continue to push this government to a point where we will make a decision that will not be in our strategic interests. Respect our laws, and we will respect you.

The current stand-off between PNG and Australia is something that we’ve been predicting, says PNG paper The National. We’ve “long warned that such a situation could be triggered unless relations between the two neighbours improved. There has been a steady and obvious decline in the former ‘special’ relationship between PNG and Australia, and we have watched the emergence of tit-for-tat exchanges between the two countries with growing concern.”

The ban has put a question mark over the PNG Government’s participation in the 9th PNG Mining and Petroleum Investment Conference in Sydney, which Sir Michael is supposed to attend with about five Cabinet ministers, as well as the Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum in Kokopo in December, reports The Post Courier (PNG).

What’s needed now is a diplomatic response, rather than “open confrontations between nations”, argues The National. Perhaps a focus on shared goals rather than differences of opinion would be useful.

Australia’s pursuit of Moti is very much in line with PNG’s own policies, says The National — “concerns over child s-x tourists, under-age child molestation and the broader area of children’s rights have grown rapidly in the South Pacific” and PNG has “been in the forefront of a new awareness of the need to defend and protect our children from s-xual predators, whether they come from overseas, or from within our own extended families”. 

Peter Fray

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