Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Papua New Guinea
I rise to speak about my recent visit to Papua New Guinea as part of the Australian Regional Leadership Initiative, a Save the Children Australia project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With just a few kilometres separating parts of the Torres Strait Islands from Papua New Guinea, this fascinating country of eight million people to our immediate north is of enormous strategic importance to Far North Queensland, including the regional hub of Cairns. Our five-day tour included Port Moresby, Mount Hagen and Goroka. I was joined on the trip by my parliamentary colleagues Josh Burns, Senator Rex Patrick, Senator Hollie Hughes, Katie Allen and Dave Sharma, as well as journalists and photographer Alex Ellinghausen, who captured the contradictions and complexities of PNG as only he can—its youthful, tribal, brutal yet generous nature. I'm sure it made for a welcome break from question time! I would like to take this opportunity to thank Save the Children, especially Paul Rawlings, Sarah Carter and Marion Stanton, for their hard work in organising the tour. I also want to thank the staff at DFAT who expertly guided us around the country and were happy to answer many of our questions—most of them, anyway!
Once in Papua New Guinea, it's easy to see why the Australian government is partnering with non-government organisations to focus on lifting literacy and delivering primary health care. We visited two hospitals and various health clinics. The friendly nurses and doctors who work hard with the limited resources they have are unable to overcome the challenge of the lack of well-trained workers. Someone, somewhere, will need to provide the training for these future workforces, and rapidly. There is no reason that that place can't be Far North Queensland.
One of the best things about living in Cairns is the close connection to PNG and the Pacific. Cairns is Australia's gateway to the Pacific. The proximity of Queensland to Papua New Guinea presents both risks and opportunities. Queensland is just four kilometres away from Papua New Guinea. You could probably shout from one island and be heard on another; this was said to me in jest while we were in Port Moresby. In fact the historic Torres Strait Protected Zone allows free movement for customary purposes between coastal areas of PNG and the Torres Strait Islands in Queensland. As a result, Far North Queensland and PNG are the closest of friends.
Many people from the Pacific region travel for work, for education and to receive health care. These are opportunities for trade, investment and jobs between our two countries. But there are also immediate and underlying threats to security from civil unrest and the outbreak of communicable diseases. If those threats reach Australia, Cairns is the city that will feel the impact first. The importance, then, of managing those risks and developing opportunities for prosperity for both our nations is the reason that Advance Cairns, a peak advocacy and economic development body for Far North Queensland, has been calling for a Cairns-based Office of the Pacific. I will be advocating in favour of this proposal with my federal Labor colleagues. It is the reason that Mayor Bob Manning is calling for a PNG rugby league team in the NRL. It is the reason that the government must build the Cairns university hospital, which will specialise in tropical health. It is the reason that part of the Regional Airports Program, promised by this government in the last budget, must be used to upgrade the Horn Island Airport in Queensland, which provides biosecurity services to the Torres Strait Islands.
All of these reasons make Papua New Guinea and Far North Queensland vital to one another's future prosperity and stability. That is why I was incredibly disappointed to arrive back from this trip to hear the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, who recently dismissed Pacific Islanders as the people who pick our fruit. I was in Port Moresby visiting a training college and meeting with hospitality workers, and I can tell you that his comments couldn't be further from the truth.
Mr McCormack's negative views of Pacific Island workers reveal this government's deep misunderstanding of the challenges facing Papua New Guinea and the strategic role it plays in our region and to Cairns. There is a fundamental difference between issuing well-meaning press releases and committing to do the work to make generational change. If we want a safe, stable, prosperous region, we must work with our Pacific neighbours and not patronise them, as Mr McCormack did.