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Interview with PNG PM Peter O'Neill
Jim Middleton interviews Peter O'Neill, the current Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, during his trip to the Australian capital, Canberra.

Not so long ago Papua New Guinea was the land of the two prime ministers.

Peter O'Neill won that protracted tussle, and now he's promising a new beginning for his nation.

During the week he was in Canberra to talk aid with the Gillard Government and promote PNG as an investment destination.

JIM MIDDLETON: Prime minister, very good to be talking to you.

PETER O'NEILL, PNG PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much, Jim.

JIM MIDDLETON: Now in the last day or so, you have changed some of the rules, if I can put it that way. The period of grace for a government before a no confidence motion can be moved has been extended from 18 to 30 months. To an outsider that might seem a bit anti -democratic. Why was it necessary and why is it not simply there to ensure you maintain your grip on power?

PETER O'NEILL: Basically history in our country is that governments have been continuously changing, creating a very unstable political environment, giving rise to an unstable economic and social environment. So we have simply allowed ourselves to mix with a government that has been elected by the people. It's given a good opportunity to implement their policies and programs that they have committed to the nation, and 18 months simply cannot be expected of any government to deliver on those programs.

JIM MIDDLETON: You've had a very big week. You have also just passed your first budget for this term of office, the focus is on rebuilding Papua New Guinea's infrastructure. What are the priorities? What do you need? What are the first things that should be done?

PETER O'NEILL: Generally, if you look throughout the country there has been a huge neglect of major key infrastructures in the country. So, you know it's a huge challenge for any government. So we are focusing on key infrastructures, that is of national significance, that will continue to grow the economy of the country, like the Highlands Highway, like the Leahy Airport that we are redeveloping. We are redeveloping the Port Moresby Airport. In the hospitals and the education systems, we are investing more money in universities an investing more money in the health care facilities to other country.

So the Government is focusing on uplifting some of those key important infrastructures that will serve the majority of the people as we forward.

JIM MIDDLETON: I am wondering this though, Papua New Guinea has not been without revenue from mining and resources over the year. Why is it now that this needs to be done? When you have had all this money coming in, why hasn't the priority been there to maintain what you already had?

PETER O'NEILL: Quite simply we mismanaged the opportunities that were before us. That is an indication of this infrastructures in dire need of repair and upgrading because we've simply mismanaged ...

JIM MIDDLETON: I suppose what I'm asking is what guarantees can you give now that history will not repeat itself. That if money is made available, that if you do nominate these priorities that they will actually be delivered for first time?

PETER O'NEILL: Of course we are now establishing the accountability process of those funds. We are improving all the inspections. For the first time in, many years we are upgrading those divisions of our financial structure of our country. And at the same time we are putting in the anti-corruption measures, including the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Funds have been made available to some of these projects in the past, but it has not in seen the light of day by implementation in making sure that these funds go to each destination.

JIM MIDDLETON: You've been somewhat critical I've got to say of the emphases of Australian development assistance; you would like more money directed to these big infrastructure projects. How confident are you that Prime Minister Gillard will see things your way?

PETER O'NEILL: I think our discussions in the past have been genuine and frank. We are talking to the Australian Government that we become partners in some of these major infrastructure programs that we are embarking on. So people of Australian taxpayers and most of Papua New Guinea can see the government is spending the money on projects that is visible.

We are spreading the development program too thinly. And although the program is very much appreciated, the effect of it has not been felt by the population of Papua New Guinea and I am very certain that the Australian public are interested in it.

JIM MIDDLETON: The priorities that you have for the emphasis of development assistance does seem to be more akin to what China does in the Pacific than what Australia has done traditionally. China is much, much more powerful than it was 10 years ago. It is interested in demonstrating its influence in the Pacific. Is there a message in what you are saying here that Australia needs to look at the way in which it's doing things otherwise Papua New Guinea may turn increasingly to Beijing.

PETER O'NEILL: Papua New Guinea's relationship with China is quite simply trade and investment. Most of the projects that Australian Government does through the aid program is very much on health and education, whereas the Chinese government is investing through loans to Papua New Guinea, it's not an aid money that has been given through established programs in education and health.

China doesn't invest in education, China doesn't invest in health in our programs in our country. They invest in infrastructure through a loans scheme, which we need to build infrastructure. So the terms differ which they are offering to us are very favourable. Some of them are very consistent. So I think these two programs as two separate programs but I'm also tried to encourage the Chinese to engage in more aid ...

JIM MIDDLETON: You would like more? You'd like a lot more?

PETER O'NEILL: Not necessarily in terms of loans. We will borrow funds as and when we required.

JIM MIDDLETON: Foreign direct investment?

PETER O'NEILL: More foreign direct investment in the country, but at the same time as partners in some of the developments we are doing. In terms of resource development we would like to encourage partnership rather than them investing directly and taking full ownership of those programs and projects themselves.

JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject, almost inevitable when you are in Canberra: asylum seekers.

The program of which the reopening of the processing centre on Manus Island is a part is designed by the Australian Government to be very much a deterrent. The Australian Government is saying that they will give no guarantees about how long people who fetch up on Manus Island will be there. You say they should be processed as speedily as possible. When you say that, are you talking months or years?

PETER O'NEILL: I think one has to assess this in a reasonable matter. What is practical? And we understand the logistical difficulties that the Australian Government faces, especially putting people in a very remote area and processing of those people would take some time. We understand that. But where there is children and where there is elderly people, they need to be processed. And If they are not processed to enter Australia then they must be repatriated to their original country of origin anyone. I am very concern that the Australian Government will do it in a timely manner.

JIM MIDDLETON: So on humanitarian grounds alone, does that mean as far as you're concerned it's really a matter of months?

PETER O'NEILL: I hope so ...

JIM MIDDLETON: Would you be concerned if it went into years?, put it that way.

PETER O'NEILL: I would be very concerned if it went for years. But I want to say that I am very confident that the Australian Government will do the right thing. And every year we have an annual ministerial committee meeting. We will review this every year and we will highlight to the Australians if there are concerns that we need to discuss..

JIM MIDDLETON: Prime minister we'd better leave it there, thank you very much indeed.

PETER O'NEILL: Thank you and thank you for meeting me today.
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