Last Thursday, ABC News reported that Papua New Guinea has asked for a re-direction of Australia’s foreign aid program towards direct contributions to PNG’s health and education budgets. PNG, a country already struggling with high population growth and public health challenges, such as a high rate of HIV infection, has recently suffered an economic and budgetary crisis due in part to lower commodity prices.
I expect Australian officials will be wary of the proposal from PNG, particularly given Australian officials would have little say in how the money would be spent. And rather than building up the nation’s capabilities, it would run the risk of turning PNG into a mendicant state forever. Arguably, a better way to assist PNG would be to further open up Australia’s labour market to workers from PNG, who would benefit their economy immensely through the flow back home of remittances.
Earlier this month, the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched a report from the Menzies Research Centre, Oceans of Opportunity, which may well serve as a blueprint for how Australia and our Pacific neighbours, including PNG with its burgeoning population (see chart below), can mutually benefit from greater labour mobility. I particularly like the report’s recommendation (see p. 18) to establish two new visa streams: Pacific Connect (Skilled) for skilled migrants from the Pacific and Pacific Connect (Labour exchange) which:
“would allow employers, primarily in the tourism and hospitality sector to forge links with like businesses across the Pacific and establish an exchange of skilled and experienced workers.”
This would supplement the existing Seasonal Workers Programme which allows people from selected Pacific nations to work temporarily in the agricultural sector.
I hope the Australian Government seriously considers the recommendations of the Oceans of Opportunity report, given the mutual benefits to Australia, from a supply of additional workers that could work in sectors and regions with labour shortages, and to the Pacific nations themselves, through the remittance of much needed income.