>Kevin Rudd has been warmly welcomed by Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare on his first visit as Australian PM. Rudd arrived at the head of a 20-person delegation and was received at a colourful reception at Port Moresby airport including a thousand schoolchildren, a 19-gun salute, huge banners with his picture and traditional dancers from the four regions of the country. Rudd is in PNG on a three day tour to discuss aid issues, climate change, migrant workers and the status of the Kokoda Track.
He is also expected to mend fences after bilateral relations soured under the previous government. PNG Foreign Affairs, Trade and Immigration Minister Sam Abal said this was the first such visit in 11 years. “The visit is an important statement by the Rudd government in terms of our relationship,” Mr Abal said. “It shows PNG is right back on the radar.”
Rudd and Somare signed a new Australian aid agreement which ties in climate change and could see Australian companies offset carbon emissions by investing in PNG's tropical rain forests. Australia is the former colonial power and PNG’s biggest aid donor spending $US332 million a year. Rudd said the new aid agreement would ensure a more cooperative approach to aid spending after complaints the Howard government used aid to impose strict conditions on smaller nations. "We are carving out a new chapter in the relationship with PNG, we are carving out a new framework for our relationship with the rest of the Pacific island countries," he said.
Relations between Somare and Howard soured for a number of reasons including a failed plan to boost PNG's rundown police force and tackle police corruption. Australian police began deploying in PNG under the Enhanced Cooperation Program in 2003 but around 150 were withdrawn in 2005 after PNG's Supreme Court ruled their legal immunity conflicted with PNG's constitution. Now PNG is saying it would welcome Australian police back on its streets to help tackle law and order issues. "The past few years, things have not worked out as we expected," said Somare. "That is all water under the bridge now. This is the beginning of our revised and new relationship."
The only people in PNG not pleased to see Rudd were the 500 landowners near the Kokoda Track. At the press conference, Somare said that a compromise was needed between the environmentalists and the pro-mining lobby on the status of the Track. He said the Track would get the world heritage listing that Australia demanded. Local landowners oppose heritage status because it will prevent proposed gold and copper mining near the track. They support Australian company Frontiers Resources' bid for a renewed mining exploration licence in the area. Rudd seemed confident PNG would reach a compromise on the historical site where Australians stopped the Japanese advance during World War II.
Rudd flies to Goroko in PNG's Highlands tomorrow to inspect AusAID projects. On Saturday, Rudd will attempt to repair more Pacific relations when he visits the nearby Solomon Islands. Australia has about 200 police and troops in the Solomons as part of the RAMSI mission. He’ll meet new Solomons Prime Minister Derek Sikua who took office last month following the ousting of Manasseh Sogavare in a no-confidence vote in parliament. Similar to PNG, both sides were making noises about improved relations. Solomon Islands High Commissioner Victor Ngele said his country was looking forward to Rudd’s visit and his support of RAMSI. “The people of the Solomon Islands have spoken and they want RAMSI to continue,” he said.