Papua New Guinea: John Howard sends Australian troops

As early as August, Australian troops will be deployed to Papua New Guinea (PNG). It represents the latest advance by Australia as an infant imperialist power. As foreign minister Alexander Downer said, “It is one of the most important single developments in Australian foreign policy in recent years.”

Over 200 policemen will be sent to PNG particularly to ‘hotspots’ such as Bouganville and the Western Highlands. In spite of the constitutional illegality, the Australian government insisted on immunity for Australian police and troops from prosecution. Judges and other personnel will be sent to ‘bolster’ the criminal justice system, as well as senior public servants to deal with the financial problems inherent in PNG. For many people, both in Australia and in Papua New Guinea, it will be seen as a solution to the ‘law and order’ crisis in PNG but in reality it will create an even deeper crisis.

Australian colonialism 1883-1975

The current deployment of troops to Papua New Guinea does not represent the first time Australia has been involved in the affairs of its nearest neighbour. In 1883, the then colony of Queensland, concerned about the advances of the new German imperialist power in the Pacific, unilaterally annexed New Guinea. Although Britain initially refused to recognise New Guinea as a part of the British empire, pressure from Queensland premier McIlwraith and the other colonies, forced Britain to claim sovereignty over the southern half of New Guinea, with Germany holding the northern half (Papua) until 1915.

From the Versailles conference after World War One, Australia controlled Papua and surrounding islands as a ‘Class C’ Mandate. While the other German colonies were given over to other imperialist powers as mandates, under this system independence for these colonies was promised at some point in future, Australia had a unique mandate over PNG, which was indeterminate as to when PNG would be given independence. For more than fifty years, PNG remained a territory of Australia, which had its resources plundered. Corrupt Australian civil servants ran their own fiefdoms. Whole river systems were turned to sulphuric acid through industrial pollution, the most notorious case being the Ok Tedi mine.

In 1975, Australia gave PNG its independence. While this was a landmark step for the people of Papua New Guinea, corruption, lawlessness, separatist tensions and poverty continued and deepened. With independence for PNG, there was increased support from Bouganville for its own independence from PNG. For over ten years, civil war raged between the Bouganville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the PNG armed forces. This came to a head with the ‘Sandline’ affair, when the PNG government hired mercenaries from South Africa. Eventually this was temporarily ‘solved’ by the deployment of Australian troops to Bouganville.

Australian colonialism 2004

Although official corruption and lawlessness has been given as the reason for Australia’s latest involvement in PNG, the reasons are much more complex. The Australian government fears that the internal situation in Papua New Guinea will bring another wave of refugees into Australia. This could lead to the rise of the anti-immigration, racist far-right, especially in far North Queensland, where Papuan refugees would be most likely to settle. Populist and far-right parties would in future undermine the electoral position of the Liberals (and Labor), and with it political stability for capitalism.

It is even speculated that the Australian government is also sending troops to PNG in order to avoid greater commitment to the war in Iraq that would be even more damaging to John Howard’s electoral prospects in future. Thirdly, and most obviously, Australian capitalists want their interests in Papua New Guinea in terms of mining, fishing and industry to be better protected than it would be under PNG control. Finally, Papua New Guinea has developed a closer relationship with Malaysia, which threatens Australia’s standing in the region, as well as its hegemony over PNG.

The Australian government’s plans will not work, because, in the long term, all these problems will come to a head. Lawlessness will continue, people from PNG will try to migrate to Australia and opposition to an Australian presence will increase. Corruption is not likely to be dealt with either, as it was the Australian administration over many years that created such a problem, and, indeed, the troops are there to protect the corrupt politicians. The Australian Labor Party stands condemned also, as it has not criticised the actions of the Liberals in any way.

What now for Papua New Guinea

For many years, especially since independence, the workers and students of PNG have been increasingly in conflict with the PNG ruling class. Student protests over increases in student fees only three years ago lead to a massive crackdown by the PNG police, leading to the death of three students. Workers who have protested their exploitation by both Australian and PNG bosses have been heroic in their fight for greater rights, only to be suppressed by company thugs and the PNG police. The workers and students of PNG need their own party, with a socialist program. A workers’ party would be a potent force in both removing Australian imperialism from PNG, as well as fighting the corrupt politicians that brought PNG into its mess. Its first demand should be for the cancellation of Papua New Guinea’s debt. This would free up funds that would otherwise be filling the pockets of rich bankers in Australia and the IMF. These funds would be used vastly more effectively under a democratically-planned economy, run by and for working people that would be able to act in the interests of the people.

We stand for:

  • A socialist solution for Papua New Guinea
  • Australian troops, police and judges out of PNG
  • Cancel the debt
  • self determination for Bouganville, and other nationalities
  • For a workers party on a socialist programme
  • For a socialist Papua New Guinea in a socialist federation of the pacific democratically planned economy to end poverty

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July 2004