The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her Papua New Guinean counterpart say they have begun a new chapter in the bilateral relationship after agreeing to a number of initiatives.
After a meeting in Port Moresby, Ms Gillard and Peter O’Neill announced initiatives concerning law and order, infrastructure and health. Australia will support the recruitment of retired policemen into positions in the PNG police force in areas like training and prosecution.
It will also help set up an infrastructure development authority to speed up the construction of important projects in PNG.
Meanwhile PNG is going to delegate responsibility for health procurement to AusAID until it sets up an independent procurement authority.
Ms Gillard and Mr O’Neill also signed a Joint Declaration on a New Papua New Guinea-Australian Relationship that they say reflects the broad ties between the two countries. After the meetings, Ms Gillard says she expects a permanent processing centre for asylum seekers to be constructed on Manus Island.
Ms Gillard says the land is available and construction will begin in the second half of the year.
“Construction anywhere in the world brings its own stresses and strains,” she said.
“Doing it on Manus Island in PNG has a few extra but we will work our way through those.”
Mr O’Neill has suggested that asylum seekers from other Pacific Island countries could be housed in the new facility.
But Ms Gillard says there are no current plans to do that.
On her first official visit to Australia’s northern neighbour, Ms Gillard says she will take steps to make it easier for PNG citizens to travel to Australia.
At a state dinner on Thursday night, Mr O’Neill urged Australia to relax visa rules for PNG citizens, saying the current requirements were frustrating and insulting.
“I’m aware that citizens of around 40 countries can access what is known as the ETA visa, which enables them swift access for their trips to Australia,” he said to Ms Gillard during the state dinner.
“Unfortunately your closest neighbour, your best friend, is not one of the 40 countries on that list.”
Ms Gillard has told a breakfast hosted by the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce that a new online application process will soon make it easier for visitors from PNG to get visas.
She says her government will also streamline the process to get multiple entry visas for people on business trips.
After the breakfast on Friday, Ms Gillard travelled to a market in the rough Port Moresby suburb of Gerehu.
Ms Gillard was given a warm welcome by a crowd gathered outside the Gerehu market and by the women who sell fruits and vegetables inside.
One woman gave Ms Gillard a bilum, or woven string bag, adorned with the PNG flag.
The prime minister also bought a bunch of locally-grown bananas.
In recent months, a project by UN Women has improved the facilities and safety at the market.
AusAID is now coming on board and will contribute $3 million.
This follows on from an initiative announced in December 2012 and reported in this blog. Finally a structured approach towards one of our nearest neighbours. PNG has struggled for a long time without much patronage from Australia so hopefully these changes reflect a real change in attitude.