Australia's High Commissioner is leaving Papua New Guinea | Pacific Beat

Australia's High Commissioner is leaving Papua New Guinea

Australia's High Commissioner is leaving Papua New Guinea

Updated 1 March 2013, 18:18 AEDT

Australia's High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea Ian Kemish is leaving the country after a drama-filled three-year stint.

The pidgin-speaking diplomat's posting coincided with some of the most tumultuous events in PNG's short history as an independent nation.

Among them were the constitutional crisis sparked by the leadership dispute between Peter O'Neill and Sir Michael Somare, an attempted military mutiny and last year's national elections.

Despite the drama Mr Kemish told our PNG correspondent Liam Fox that he's optimistic about the country's future though it faces serious challenges.

The interview begins with Mr Kemish relaying the event he says most sums up his time in PNG getting stuck during the long drive up the east coast of Bougainville.

Presenter: Liam Fox

Speaker:Australia's now former High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea Ian Kemish

KEMISH: We had to ford river after river as we drove north and it was raining very hard and of course as we got to the last river I looked at it and I was pretty worried but I wasn't behind the driving wheel. The fellow who was behind the driving wheel made a different judgement to the one I would have and we drove straight into the river and of course we became stuck. It was a classic Papua New Guinean moment because Papua New Guineans emerged from nowhere by the hundreds to help us out, carrying my young colleagues completely dry from the truck onto the grassy river bank. Not me of course, I sort of plunged into the water and emerged muddy and covered in river water and in my bare feet, and it was at this moment that I received the news that Peter O'Neill had been elected on the floor of parliament in Port Moresby. And it was about 30 seconds later that I hit the green button on my mobile phone and rang the newly elected prime minister of Papua New Guinea to congratulate him. There I was, and I remember thinking to myself here I am, bare feet, covered in mud, the Australian High Commissioner congratulating the new prime minister of Papua New Guinea.

FOX: That was a special moment, how would you describe in general the time that you've been here?

KEMISH: Look it's been a real period of transition for this country. I arrived at a time when there was a bit more dynamism needed I think at the political level. Not quite as much dynamism as we got a year later. But certainly the country's sense of direction had faltered a little. We had a crisis last year; a political and a constitutional crisis which was very difficult for all of those involved and difficult for external partners including us to get exactly right. But I think we did rather well. It was a crisis where we first saw a real competition over leadership between two principle parties; Michael Somare and Peter O'Neill, that became really rather difficult and rather bitter and there were attempts to draw the military in and the police in. And then we had calls from some in parliament for the elections not to proceed. And that would have been a great shame, it would have been the first time in 37 years of independence that Papua New Guinea had not stuck to its constitutionally mandated timetable. So we had all of that and in the end commonsense prevailed, the population remained calm, the military stayed out of it, the police stayed together and PNG passed through it, and PNG held an election. It was messy, it was complicated, what emerged was a new generation of leadership. We now have a Prime Minister and for the great part a cabinet who grew up in post-independence Papua New Guinea. They think differently, they think differently about the outside world, they think differently naturally about their own country and that's to be welcomed and that's to be engaged with by countries like Australia.

FOX: There was a bit of criticism about the Australian government's approach to it all, some people were calling for Australia to take a more vociferous role, to pull out the megaphone. Do you think some commentators and some academics back in Australia maybe overestimate the power and the ability of the Australian government to influence certain things, particularly political problems in PNG?

KEMISH: Perhaps, but I think it's also a misreading of or misunderstanding of how best to be influential. If you read influence as shouting from the rooftops, speaking publicly, exercising your muscle in those conventional terms, if you think that that's going to get you influence then you're badly mistaken, particularly in a relationship between a former colonial power and a proudly independent country. It's not the way to get things done. The way to influence things here is through respectful conversation, through respectful dialogue, to do it privately wherever you can and this is what we did as a government.

FOX: After having been here for three years, what are your feelings about PNG's future? Are you pessimistic or optimistic?

KEMISH: I think that we must always be hopeful about Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea has quite a few pluses on its side; the significant growth in the economy and the prospects there are pretty good as well. The fact of political stability for the next few years it seems pretty clear, a new government which clearly wants to deliver real returns for its people. So those are some of the pluses. It has some serious challenges; almost three per cent population growth is a serious problem to manage, 40 per cent of this country is below the age of 15. Health and education services are struggling to keep up. Papua New Guineans deserve much better. So it really requires enormous application of effort and leadership. Australians should not think that it is for Australians to fix that problem. Australians and the Australian government can help, but every Papua New Guinea politician will tell you that it's for Papua New Guineans to fix the problem. We can help but we can help in thoughtful ways and in ways which identify those leaders who really want to make change and we can get in behind them.

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