Labour’s new Foreign minister, Bob Carr, has threatened sanctions against Papua New Guinea, risking a backlash against Australia as a regional bully.
Weeks after Australia struck a deal to support Port Moresby to conduct mid-year elections, Senator Carr said last night that any move to delay the poll would be a shocking model in the Pacific and invite a sharp response.
”You’ve got Australia placed in a position where we’d have no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea,” Senator Carr told Sky News.
”We’d be in a position of having to consider sanctions. So I take this opportunity to urge the government to see that those elections take place, keeping Papua New Guinea in the cycle of five-yearly elections,” he said.
Today Coalition spokeswoman for foreign affairs Julie Bishop said threats of sanctions against Papua New Guinea had the potential to undermine one of Australia’s key relationships and reduce Australia’s standing in the region.
“One of Senator Carr’s highest priorities should have been to repair the relationship with Papua New Guinea, after years of neglect and mismanagement by the prime minister and his predecessors, but his decision to threaten them with sanctions will create more tension,” Ms Bishop said in a statement.
Ms Bishop said Carr should have met personally with PNG leaders and discussed the issue with them before “grandstanding in the media”.
PNG has been plagued by political instability in recent months after former leader Sir Michael Somare was removed as prime minister during an extended illness.
The country’s High Court in December ruled the move to replace Sir Michael unconstitutional, leading to a stand-off with his successor, Peter O’Neil, while the country had two prime ministers, two governors-general and two police chiefs. There have also been minor rebellions in the police and military.
But close observers had been encouraged that the political institutions – while clumsy – had managed to preserve order.
Australia’s High Commissioner in Port Moresby, Ian Kemish, said last month there was a remarkable calm in the country despite the upheaval, with the courts and the bulk of the police and army all resisting immense political pressure to intervene.
Senator Carr appears to have hardened Australia’s stance after talk emerged of a delay to the scheduled election.
Deputy prime minister Belden Namah has said the poll should be pushed back for 12 months to give the government more time to carry out its policies. He also said there was potential for fraud because the electoral roll was only 60 per cent complete.
Australia recently struck a deal to provide about 30 computers to assist with managing election data and sending officers to work in Port Moresby.
Australian Federal Police have also completed a new $2.5 million communications network for local police to respond to any outbreaks of trouble.
Senator Carr’s comments come days after his junior minister, Richard Marles, said Australia was not contemplating the possibility of an election delay.