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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese Calls for Expanding Women’s Leadership in Papua New Guinea

07 Feb 2023
By Dr Ceridwen Spark
Linda Rau from Kila Kila Village Court outside Port Moresby. Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/

Prime Minister Albanese’s recent trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and his call to expand women’s leadership and combat gender-based violence in the country are notable gestures. But some hard truths are still forthcoming, especially the fact that for women in both nations, real security is still in the distance.

In 1975, Australia’s nearest neighbour, PNG, became independent from Australia. Some, especially among the older generation of Papua New Guineans, still wonder whether it happened too soon. At the time, though, the two men most involved, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his PNG counterpart, Sir Michael Somare, were optimistic about creating a postcolonial nation. Because PNG is a country characterised by great linguistic and cultural diversity, the task was always going to be challenging.

Almost 50 years later, two male prime ministers met again. In January 2023, Anthony Albanese made his first visit to PNG to talk with Prime Minister James Marape. It was the first visit by an Australian prime minister since 2018, and the effort seems to have been well received. Albanese’s description of Australia and PNG as “equals, partners and mates” met with general approval, and the local newspaper, the Post Courier, described his comments about PNG’s independence as “the most graceful thing an Australian leader has said since independence.”

Over the course of the two-day visit, Albanese made jokes in Parliament about rugby league, Papua New Guineans’ obsession with the game, and reiterated his desire that the National Rugby League create a Pacific Islander team based out of PNG. He and Prime Minister Marape also signed a statement of commitment to a bilateral security treaty. The treaty, which both parties hope will be finalised by mid-2023, will emphasise increased defence as well as “non-traditional security challenges” such as climate change, cybersecurity threats, and economic coercion.

Amid all this goodwill and “blokey” bonhomie, there was also some talk about women’s leadership and advancing gender equity. Albanese announced Australian government funding for PNG Women Lead, the latest manifestation of aid support directed at addressing gender inequity. When discussing this with my friend who recently completed her PhD on women in politics in PNG, the response was confusion.  “Nogat planti toktok lo sait blo ol meri,” she replied in a text message, which translates as “there wasn’t a lot of talk about women’s perspectives and concerns.” I tend to agree with her.

It is difficult for political representatives to diplomatically discuss levels of interpersonal violence in a country that is not their own. But it can be done respectfully and well if both sides agree that there is a need for stronger action in their own electoral realm, as well as in that of the other. It would be patronising and inappropriate for Albanese to fly to PNG and point out the high levels of gender violence there as though Australia does not also have a problem in this area. But it is disappointing from a human rights perspective that the Australian prime minister seemed to steer clear of meaningfully addressing gender violence in PNG at all.

For feminist political scientists, personal security is as an integral issue and as much on the agenda as the security of “nations.” The two men met in Port Moresby, a city in which women and girls cannot walk around freely or catch buses without risk of sexual harassment or assault. This matters from the perspective of security. Albanese could have addressed gendered violence within the “non-traditional” security frame that was otherwise in play.

Albanese did seem more comfortable with the matter of women’s leadership. In his speech to the PNG Parliament, he said: “I want to congratulate the two new women members elected to this place – you are representatives and you are trail blazers and I hope you inspire a new generation of women and girls to serve their country and their democracy.” At a press conference later, he commented that he was pleased that when he addressed the parliament, “the two newly elected or relatively newly elected women members of the PNG Parliament were both present.”

Again, it would seem arrogant for an outsider to comment, but considering the emphasis during his visit on the ties of the last half century and since independence, it seems noteworthy that these numbers are less than the three women elected to PNG’s first parliament in 1975. And this is despite the millions spent on Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development, a ten-year program administered by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that finished in June 2022. Perhaps it’s easier for both Australian and Papua New Guinean male leaders to joke about rugby and discuss national security than the real change, which needs to occur in both nations if women are to achieve equality.

The goals of PNG Women Lead echo those of the Pacific Women program, with a fourfold emphasis on enhancing women’s leadership and decision making, promoting economic empowerment, ending violence against women, and enhancing knowledge and understanding. As Albanese said in one of very few references to gender when he was there – “Equality for women is fair, it is right and it is powerful economic reform.” Let’s hope the activities, spirit, and politics of PNG Women Lead further displaces the boys’ club to achieve these. The key will be allowing PNG women (and not men or fly-in, fly-out consultants) to actually lead.

Ceridwen Spark is an Associate Professor in Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. She conducts research on gender and social change and has led many projects in PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.