SCOTT BEVAN: There was a delayed start to voting in the Papua New Guinea capital today. People who waited for hours for the polling booths to open in Port Moresby say the Electoral Commission should extend the voting deadline.
..NEWS REPORT FROM PNG..
SCOTT BEVAN: Well, for more on the election, let’s speak with Richard Marles, the federal Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs. He joins us from our Canberra studio.
Richard Marles, thanks for your time this evening.
RICHARD MARLES: It’s a pleasure.
SCOTT BEVAN: Now, a few months ago you wrote an opinion piece published by News Limited that these would be the most important elections in PNG history. Why do you think that?
RICHARD MARLES: I think these elections are critically important for a couple of reasons.
We've seen a very difficult year in PNG politics over the last 12 months.Much of that has not been anybody’s fault. The circumstances of Sir Michael Somare’s illness and absence from office, which certainly wasn't his fault, created a very difficult situation in PNG.
So these elections, in one sense, represent a bit of a reset button in relation to PNG politics.
In addition, we're also seeing something of a generational change in PNG. From those leaders who were around at independence to a group of leaders who have grown up in an independent PNG. At the same time, PNG is enjoying or on the verge of a resources boom unlike any it has seen since independence.
So, for all these reasons, PNG really is at a turning point at its history and these elections come at this moment.So, they are really very important.
SCOTT BEVAN: Well, as everyone’s been observing, it has been a bumpy and awkward political generational change. The Lowy Institute released a paper in regard to this election saying that a flawed election holds wider consequences for public trust in the very democracy of PNG.
Now, if the consequences are that high, how concerned are you about the examples of a flawed election already, ranging from the long delays we saw in Sean Dorney’s report through to outbreaks of violence and allegations of fraud?
RICHARD MARLES: I think the first thing is it’s important not to judge these elections as a whole based on a few reports we've seen over the course of the weekend.
I heard in your report Edward Natapei, the former Prime Minister of Vanuatu, who’s leading the Commonwealth observers' mission.We need to see what they come up with in terms of their assessment of the elections as a whole. It is probably fair to say that Hela Province and Southern Highlands Province were always anticipated to be two of the more difficult provinces in terms of how the elections were conducted. They were the two provinces that went first over the course of the weekend.
What we are hearing, as was reported in your report this evening, is voting in other parts of PNG and in Port Moresby hasoccurred in a more orderly way.That is probably what would have been expected if you asked people before the election started.
So, we've got to reserve our judgement until the elections are complete before we make any assessments about the elections as a whole.
These elections are very important and, for that reason we have been providing, as an Australian Government, unprecedented support to make sure the electoral roll is in as good a condition as it can be, providing logistical support through aircraft and through helicopters to get ballot boxes and election materials around what are very remote parts of the country — which has extremely remote places within it — as well as undertaking voter awareness campaigns and providing security.
So, a lot of effort has gone into making these elections work and providing preparations for these elections.
I think what we can say, at this point, is that going into these elections there was at least as much preparation as there had been for any elections in the past.
SCOTT BEVAN: Again, the Lowy paper, if I can quote from it, says of Australia’s involvement, though seemingly extensive, and you've just outlined the involvement there, the actual level of Australia’s commitment to the elections is modest relative to the scale and range of risks in these elections.
Now, given so much is at stake with these elections, why not commit more to ensure that they run as freely and as fairly as possible?
RICHARD MARLES: I wouldn't agree with that Lowy assessment. We have committed more to these elections in terms of preparation and support than we have to any previous elections in PNG since independence. Something like $15 million has been spent in the course of the last electoral term — in the lead-up to these elections — to make sure these elections are in as good a position as possible to happen on time and with the kind of preparation we've seen.
So a lot of effort has gone into them, precisely because we understand how important these elections are in the context of PNG’s history.
I think we need to take our hats off to the leaders in PNG for taking what I think has been the brave decision to make sure these elections happen on time. We need to credit the fact that all the key political players in PNG today are doing what you'd expect them to do in a democracy and that is be back in their home provinces campaigning to try and get re-elected. This is all a good thing.
We are witnessing fundamental democratic behaviour in all of that and PNG deserves credit for that and we've tried to be the best friend we can be in providing the support we have for these elections.
SCOTT BEVAN: How confident are you that out of this election political stability will be restored to PNG?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, look, that’s a very difficult question to answer, as really any question is about predicting the future in PNG. But, putting that on the table, I suppose what I would say is I think we can be as confident in relation to these elections and the post-political period after them as we have been in relation to any elections in the past.
SCOTT BEVAN: That doesn't sound very confident, Mr Marles, if I may say.
RICHARD MARLES: Oh, no, I think that whatever you say about PNG, since independence a fundamental characteristic of PNG is that it’s been a democratic country and that is very much to PNG’s credit.What I'm saying is that, in the context of that history, we can be as confident about that continuing forward as we have been about it happening up until now, and it has happened up until now. I'm not going to make outrageous predictions here but we do feel confident about the future of PNG and I think we're in as good a position as we could be for these elections.
SCOTT BEVAN: If the people, the PNG people, don't feel as though these elections have been free and fair, if political and social stability isn't restored, what scenario are you preparing for?
RICHARD MARLES: I think we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves here. The main thing has been to see elections held on time and that as much preparation as possible can be put into them. We've seen that occur.
We're now witnessing the elections unfold. There are a whole lot of steps that need to go through until next Thursday week before the polls close. Then after that there'll be a period of counting and the process will continue. It’s very important we don't get ahead of ourselves and it’s very important we don't rush to any form of judgment on what have been just a couple of days of polling so far. There is a lot of work to do in trying to support these elections through until their conclusion and really that’s our focus at this moment.
SCOTT BEVAN: Richard Marles, on another issue, as the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, what role do you believe Manus Island and Nauru can play in helping provide a solution to the asylum-seeker issue, indeed impasse?
RICHARD MARLES: I think in relation to that, the fundamental point here is that the Australian people want to see the Australian Parliament come to a solution in relation to asylum-seekers.
We are witnessing people make an incredibly dangerous journey from Indonesia to Australia and they are now literally dying in their hundreds. That will continue to happen until we have a solution.
Right now there is one side of politics, the Government in this country, trying to come up with a solution and we've got, on the other side, the Opposition resolutely refusing to come to the table and come up with a solution.You have to think that, at the end of the day, they don't want to see a solution.
We have seen the leader of the Opposition this morning talk in terms of what is there to negotiate. We heard the shadow spokesperson, Scott Morrison, yesterday evening essentially saying that it wouldn't matter what the Labor Party proposed or Labor in government proposed to the Opposition, they're not about to agree to anything.So they stand resolutely for not having a solution.
So long as there is no solution we're going to continue to see people die on the high seas in these rickety boats and I think the Australian people are sick of that.
SCOTT BEVAN: Do you believe part of the solution — you know Nauru well, you've visited there, you certainly know PNG well — do you believe Nauru and Manus Island can be part of that solution?
RICHARD MARLES: The Government’s negotiations with Papua New Guinea to have Manus Island form part of an arrangement in combination with Malaysia is all well known. In the context of Nauru, we've made it clear that Nauru is on the table.
Our view has always been that the best hope for stopping the boats coming and stopping people making this journey is with the Malaysia arrangement. But, in the spirit of compromise, if the Opposition believe that Nauru has a role to play we have said, all right, let’s put Nauru on the table.
Now, the fact of the matter is, we're moving. We are willing to reach a compromise to see this issue resolved — to stop seeing people die at sea — but the Opposition is resolutely refusing to go down the path of solving this issue and the Australian people are sick of that.
SCOTT BEVAN: Talking of the spirit of compromise, in searching for a solution, what do you think of this meeting held by a handful of MPs from both major parties as well as the independents and will you be attending any further such meetings?
RICHARD MARLES: These are meetings of backbench members and think it’s a really important step here.You've got people of good faith coming together around the table trying to come up with a solution to this issue.They should be commended for the efforts they are making.
In saying that,I think we are all aware that nothing is likely to happen until Tony Abbott, as leader of the Opposition, comes to the table himself, puts politics aside and starts to act in the national interest to come up with a solution to this issue.That is what Australia wants to see him do.
The efforts of the backbench group are laudable indeed. I hope it makes a contribution but, at the end of the day, it is Tony Abbott who needs to come to the table and it is Tony Abbott who needs to stop playing politics.
SCOTT BEVAN: Richard Marles in Canberra, thanks very much for your time this evening.
RICHARD MARLES: Thanks, Scott.
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