The following statement was released by Aid/Watch, an independent monitor of international aid and trade, on March 5.
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Australia spends $577 million a year on aid for Papua New Guinea (PNG). Two key focus areas are anti-corruption related — law and justice, and governance.
PNG has concurrently undertaken a number of national processes to combat corruption without Australian support.
Five years ago today, the Finance Department Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in PNG uncovered widespread fraud involving senior bureaucrats and law firms from the period 2000–2006, with 780 million kina (A$380 million) of public finances stolen. To this day, no action has been taken to implement the recommendations of this report.
Since that time, there has also been a National CoI into Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs), the lease mechanism that provided the pathway for large-scale land grabs to occur in PNG. This has resulted in a loss of around 12% of the total land mass. The report found that of the 77 leases investigated, only three were found to have been legally obtained.
The report also cited Australian companies, including Queensland-based Independent Timbers and Stevedoring who fraudulently acquired a total lease area of 2 million hectares of traditional land. It was recommended that they be investigated for criminal misconduct and conspiracy.
One of the most significant anti-corruption processes to have taken place is the Task Force Sweep, established in 2011, to investigate allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the Department of National Planning and Monitoring, later extended to a number of other departments and individuals.
Sam Koim, who headed the investigation, travelled to Australia to seek assistance and was publically rebuffed, with Australia citing PNG corruption as a domestic matter.
He has since been sacked following the issue of an arrest warrant for PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill over an allegation that he authorised an illegal payment of $23 million to the Paraka law firm.
Aid/Watch Director Thulsi Narayanasamy said: “Australia’s commitment to assisting PNG to end corruption appears to be purely rhetorical. Their reluctance to provide support for PNG’s internal anti-corruption measures coupled with their facilitation of corruption makes it evident that Australia is pursuing national commercial interests at the expense of assisting concrete anti-corruption measures.
“It’s political theatre. Australia’s primary requirement from PNG is maintaining the Manus Island detention facility and their cooperation with resettlement of refugees. This has left Australia to posture about ending corruption with aid money though none of it supports the processes that really matter.
“The enormous amount of aid money given to PNG for governance must be redirected into ensuring that the recommendations of the CoI in SABLs and CoI into the Department of Finance are implemented. This will have a real impact in PNG.
“In addition to Australia’s reluctance to assist with national anti-corruption measures is a concurrent facilitation of corruption. Nothing has been said or done about the activities of Australian timber companies who have engaged in illegal land grabs or the flow of money from corrupt individuals in PNG to Australia. An individual named in the Finance Department’s CoI report as having acted fraudulently has since been invited to study in an Australian University.
“Australia presents the relationship with PNG as one of an equal partnership when the reality is that the cornerstone of the relationship is unequal power.
“So long as Australia can dump refugees on Manus Island, engage in an unfair free trade agreement, and facilitate its companies to have access in PNG – corruption is not a threat to Australia’s national interest, in fact, it appears to benefit from it.”