While the archives released two cabinet papers about PNG in 1998-99 on Wednesday, several other documents, including Australian Defence Force (ADF) Contingency Planning for PNG, Review of Australia’s Policy Towards Papua New Guinea, and PNG Economy – Australian response, remain secret.
An archives spokesman said: “If this information was disclosed, it could lessen the confidence of a foreign government in the Australian government, which could damage the international relations between the countries.” Legislation allows the Archives to keep information secret if that is the case.
Intelligence and security agencies, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Defence were all consulted on that decision, the spokesman said.
In 1998, PNG was reeling from the fallout of a secret government deal with British-based Sandline International to use helicopter gunships flown by mercenaries to put down an armed independence movement in the province of Bougainville.
When the plan was revealed in 1997, it set off a series of events that led to the firing of the country’s top military commander, a public uprising and Sir Julius’ decision to step down pending an inquiry.
Australian troops were readied to prepare to bring Australians living in PNG home if violence escalated and an Australian air force base in the Northern Territory later became the holding location for helicopter gunships and weapons Sandline had planned to import into PNG.
The two documents released by the National Archives show Australia agreed to accept the weapons and helicopters, but demanded Sandline pay half the cost of destroying the ordinance before it “poses a serious safety threat”.
“It is inconvenient to have foreign equipment stored on a busy and sensitive operational base,” then defence minister John Moore said in a briefing to cabinet.
Sandline, the briefing note said, was seeking a buyer for the helicopters, which media reports had suggested were worth up to $14 million. The Defence Department’s assessment was more subdued. “Except possibly for spare parts, the helicopters are not a particularly good buy,” Mr Moore said.
Almost two decades later in 2016, the helicopters were buried at the Darwin tip after Sandline went out of business.
In a second document, cabinet’s National Security Committee agreed to consider the implications of British inquiries into Sandline’s activities and the likelihood of Sandline succeeding in legal action against Australia for interfering in its contract with PNG.
Bougainville’s future remains a major topic in PNG politics. Earlier this month, 97.7 per cent of the island’s residents voted to break away from PNG. The referendum is non-binding and the vote for independence will now need to be negotiated between leaders from Bougainville and PNG.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.