Australia’s new Foreign minister Bob Carr has backed away from comments that Canberra would impose sanctions on Papua New Guinea if it did not go to the polls, saying he was misunderstood.
Carr, who became the country’s top diplomat this week, sparked condemnation from Port Moresby after he said Australia would “be in the position of having to consider sanctions” if Papua New Guinea failed to hold elections in mid-2012.
“We’d have no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea,” Carr told Sky News on Wednesday.
He also said Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill “must commit unequivocally to this election”, adding that “without it, you’ve got a shocking model of misgovernance that is there planted in the Pacific”.
But Carr issued a statement Friday saying Australia accepted assurances from O’Neill and others that impoverished Papua New Guinea’s elections would be held on time.
He said he had spoken to his counterpart Ano Pala, who had reportedly called for a public apology over the remarks.
“As I said to Foreign minister Pala in my telephone conversation yesterday, my recent comments have been misunderstood and used out of context,” Carr said.
“Australia’s approach to PNG as a sovereign friend and neighbour is to be supportive.”
Politics in Papua New Guinea have been in turmoil since late 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled O’Neill’s rise to power – via a parliamentary vote while then leader Sir Michael Somare was recovering from illness in Singapore – was illegal.
Somare, who has dominated politics in his country for decades, believes he is still the leader of the Pacific nation of 6.6 million people, which is on the cusp of a major resources boom.
O’Neill, who has the support of parliament, has vowed to hold free and fair elections in June but is facing calls from within his government to delay the polls to allow more time to carry out policies and finalise voter rolls.
Carr said Australia would assist with electoral experts as well as aviation support, including to transport personnel, ballot boxes and election materials to remote areas.
“PNG is a robust democracy with a proud history of holding elections as provided for under its constitution,” he said.