PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill
PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill

Covering Australia’s near northern neighbours can sometimes resemble a game of chess. There are many players: ASIS, ASIO, the Federal Police and, of course, private companies — mostly Australian-based, including miners, security firms and Australian government-funded NGOs.

Throw into the mix China and its business interests, the US trying to counter them, the Indonesians trying to stake a claim. And then there is the unpredictable and sometimes uppity (from a DFAT perspective) local governments in these so-called democracies, Australia considers them.

From East Timor in 2006 to the Solomon Islands and Fiji in the same year and now PNG in 2016, every event of civil unrest that has led to the downfall of a regional leader who dared to oppose Australian policy has been designed to demonise and depose that leader. It is usually done by a combination of demonstrations, civil unrest and a demonisation by the Australian media of the beleaguered government’s response.

In Timor in 2006 there were reports of massacres that never happened, carried widely by the ABC and News Corp. In the Solomons that year, the same. In Fiji there were reports of crackdowns responding to Australian-owned and -funded local media and organisations that were basically claiming repression that was not happening. Why is it whenever Australian interests in the region are threatened there are “spontaneous” demonstrations breaking out?

Now we have PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who approved the declaration of the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre as illegal just last month, being faced with demonstrations he calls over-exaggerated and illegal. He gave Australia a bloody nose with his acknowledgement of the illegality of the Manus Island detention centre. Now Australia has given him one back by reporting and inflating the demonstrations against him. The ABC reported for more than 24 hours that four people had been killed in Port Moresby. It turned out not to be true. None were killed.

The PNG Prime Minister himself was reduced to telling the sole ABC correspondent in PNG to get out of his compound and report what was happening. I’ve seen this happen before. Correspondents beholden to Australian official sources that are either lying or massaging and bending the message to suit their own government’s perceived agenda.

The Port Moresby General Hospital felt compelled to put out a statement, saying:

“All media reports of deaths due to Police Shootings are false and misleading. There are NO Deaths or Dead on arrival patients due to Police altercation with University Students at Port Moresby General Hospital.

“We have so far received a total of 8 gun shot wound casualties, all 8 were stabilised and admitted at the hospital. We have discharged 2 casualties, with the further 6 patients admitted and all in a stable condition.”

The statement quoted hospital CEO Grant R. Muddle, who said:

“I cannot make further comments or speculation on the happening of today as PMGH is a treatment facility, but I do ask that all media refrain from making seriously false and misleading statements. Many of the media in this country need to have far greater accountability. Many of the stories being released by the media are just fiction at best and have no basis of any factual content, especially when you look at the number of deaths being quoted as occurring at PMGH.”

The following day O’Neill rejected Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s offer for assistance: “Papua New Guinea can handle these matters. We’ve been an independent country for 40 years,” said O’Neill. And in a statement O’Neill condemned “agitators” for instigating the violent confrontation.

“The facts relayed to me are that a small group of students were violent, threw rocks at police and provoked a response that came in the form of tear gas and warning shots,” the statement read.

Australian Federal Police in Port Moresby quickly issued a statement saying they had suspended operations with their PNG counterparts following the violence. But the pattern of events is a common one to any close watcher of the Australian involvements in our nearest neighbours to the north.

What is at stake in PNG now — aside from the asylum seeker detention centre on Manus Island (a problem that has been kicked forward until after the Australian federal election by the fiction it is no longer a detention centre as the detainees are allowed to go into the local town, but not leave the island) — is a raft of contracts regarding the development of liquefied natural gas resources.

Contracts that have been signed or are being negotiated with Australian companies such as Woodside Petroleum for the development of LNG resources. And as anyone who has followed the East Timor oil and gas disputes following independence would know, Woodside has form in putting pressure on small vulnerable nations to accept inequitable contracts over resource development.

There is a pattern here: student protests, destabilisation, regime changes and outcomes favourable to Australian companies. Sometimes followed up or accompanied by the deployment of Australian police and Military. That probably won’t be necessary given the power and influence Australian aid organisations and government funding brings to PNG. But to any serious analysis of what is happening now in PNG that influence cannot be understated. It is very easy to orchestrate events and manufacture outcomes using third parties when that much influence is available in an economy like PNG.

Maybe by trying to shut the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre O’Neill has overstepped the mark, and is about to be faced with a “spontaneous” movement that forces him to resign.