Something is rotten in PNG

GAME Time! This week we’re not going to play spot the difference, we’re going to play spot the inconsistency, a favourite of Slugcatcher's because it’s so much fun and can end with a bang.

The clues are contained in two statements about recent troubles in the Southern Highlands area of Papua New Guinea.

First comes this quote attributed to Oil Search chief executive Peter Botten and published last week in the Australian Financial Review: “We anticipate that the company will continue to operate normally during the state of emergency.”

Now run that remark past this opening paragraph two days later in a story in the same newspaper: “Border security has crumbled to the point where Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister is seeking Australian help to disarm criminal gangs.”

Taken separately and perhaps some people might not see the link. Read it as part of a series that looks at Australia’s deeply troubled, and sometimes lawless northern neighbour, and a pattern emerges.

What is less clear is how a request for Australian police and military assistance in a part of the world that is close to anarchy cannot affect the workings of everyone, especially the oil and gas producers.

Or, more to the point, how is possible to infer that all is well, and an $8 billion gas pipeline project can proceed safely when there are wild men running around the countryside shooting at anything they don’t like.

Slugcatcher, who has ranted about PNG and its appalling level of insecurity in the past, finds the current breakdown of law and order in the Southern Highlands extremely interesting. And not just because it helps prove a point he made as far back as July last year, but more because the highly-promoted pipeline that will link Australian industry with PNG gas is in the final stages of planning and about to start construction.

It has long been The Slug’s view that buying gas from a dodgy neighbour that can’t govern itself, and which is wide open to external threats and internal corruption, is an exceptionally stupid thing to do.

And, when you read that latest rant from The Slug you actually have to ask a question: is he talking about PNG or East Timor?

In this case, it is very much PNG. East Timor can wait for its next serve.

But, in both cases the core argument remains intact. Australia is a country with an abundance of gas. We are, after all, supplying the stuff to Japan, China, and an increasingly diverse range of customers. Even the US is keen to become a regular.

Now comes the crunchy bit. Ask yourself why so many countries want to buy Australian gas.

Is it because we’re nice people? No way.

Is it because our gas is cheap? No, but the early sales certainly were.

Is it because we’re a safe and reliable supplier where the rule of law is strong, contracts are honoured, civil unrest is rare, military coups do not occur and the most dangerous things in the outback are feral pigs – not men with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades? Bingo!

Once you accept these facts (and they are facts), go to the next step, and ask – if Australia is such a reliable supplier of gas, why are some Australian companies interested in buying gas from war-torn countries that need military patrols to suppress the troublemakers?

Answers on a single sheet of A4 paper can be sent to Slugcatcher at where they will either be published, or hung on the back of the door leading into the smallest room in the office.

And if penning an answer to that question isn’t enough fun, consider what does the breakdown of law and order in the Southern Highlands of PNG do to the future of Australian Gas Light, which is one of the leading potential buyers of PNG gas?

Interesting times, aren’t they!

Note: The views of Slugcatcher are not those of APPEA.

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