The Federal Labor Governments announcement of a Guest Worker Scheme from Pacific nations is welcome news for neighbouring countries situated within our international area of responsibility. It is also good news for the horticultural industry that estimates up to $700 million worth of fresh produce is left to rot for the lack of reliable workers. This is almost double the value of our annual aid budget to PNG!The Rudd Government is to be congratulated for its re-engagement of the islands in the Pacific – particularly PNG – through the Pacific Partnership for Development and Security initiative. The Hon Duncan Kerr was a wise choice for the appointment of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs in view of his previous experience as Dean at the Faculty of Law at the University of Papua New Guinea.
Kerr has given an assurance that the scheme will have legislative safeguards to protect guest workers from exploitation.
It is difficult to understand the Federal Oppositions objection to such a scheme. There is no doubt that Melanesia in general and PNG in particular were policy blind spots over the past decade. Responsibility for our region was sub-contracted to bureaucrats in AusAID and other NGOs while we tried to punch above our weight on the more appealing international circuit in London, Paris, Washington and New York.
The argument that we need more time to debate the issue doesn’t wash. The issue has not just appeared on the radar – it has been around for more than a decade. A couple of Senate inquiries were conducted on the issue as farmers cried out desperately for seasonal labour to harvest their produce. It was all to no avail.The issue of allowing guest workers from the Pacific access to seasonal work in rural areas is not only about helping our farmers. It is also about our relationship with our neighbours in our international area of responsibility.
Our refusal to allow PNG citizens’ access for seasonal work while our farmers have to turn their crops back into the ground creates a seething resentment at our ‘big brother’ attitude in the region. They are aware that we have agreements with 36 countries around the world for temporary work but not with PNG. A young PNG worker is allowed to travel to London and work for up to two years under a mutual holiday worker scheme. But they cannot come to Brisbane because we will not let them in.
Is it any wonder some of their leaders are exploring a ‘looking north’ policy so they can politely tell us where to place our fruit and vegetables that we won’t allow them to harvest? Our deep seated racial discrimination and our condescending political attitudes to issues such as this have not been designed to ‘win friends and influence people’ in the Pacific.
They will never forget the humiliation of their Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare, by our security morons at Brisbane airport!The trial guest worker scheme can be a bridge for the rebuilding of our relationship with PNG. But to make it work there has to be some attitude change on both sides of Torres Strait.
PNG has to seriously address three major problems in their political, commercial and cultural environment. These are 1) governance; 2) governance; and 3) governance. Corruption has to be exorcised from their national DNA.
This will be an inter-generational process but someone, somewhere, somehow has to start the process. The Rudd government’s Pacific Partnership is a tentative first step.
An agreement on access to our seasonal labour markets provides an opportunity for some conditions and mutual responsibilities to be attached to the scheme.
Australians needs to understand our Pacific cousins much better. We need to build empathetic relationships through political, corporate and cultural exchange programs. We should upgrade our Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs to a Ministry for Melanesia. We should introduce Melanesian studies into our primary, secondary and tertiary education system.
Papua New Guinea needs to urgently address the issue of governance by granting some sort of amnesty for past wrongs and accepting assistance for agencies dealing with law enforcement and justice. The ‘Melanesian Way’ should no longer be accepted as an excuse for corruption, incompetence or inefficiency. Papua New Guinea should acknowledge that corruption is robbing them of the opportunity to tap into an abundant store of goodwill that ordinary Australians have for their people. Individuals, corporations and philanthropic organisations are willing to donate generously towards causes that will meet both short and long term objectives. They will not do this until Papua New Guineans can guarantee that the donations will not be siphoned off by corrupt middlemen.
The objections raised by both the Federal Opposition and the Trade Union movement are pathetic and should be dismissed. If they cannot acknowledge the responsibility we have for our Pacific cousins in our international area of responsibility they should be dealt out of the debate. Helen Keller once said ‘the only thing worse than being blind is to have sight but no vision.’The challenges facing our Melanesian neighbours in the ‘arc of instability’ to our near north are daunting. The solutions to the problems are complex and long term. International aid has failed Melanesians just as welfare has failed our own indigenous people.
A pilot program that allows Melanesian workers an opportunity to earn a cash income, learn new skills and develop empathetic relationships while helping our farmers get their produce to market has great merit. It should be supported by responsible leaders from across the political spectrum.
Posted by Charlie Lynn