Australia will not be forced into buying the Conflict Islands while Papua New Guinea is looking at legal means to stop the possible sale of the atolls to China.
Retired Australian businessman Ian Gowrie-Smith is selling 21 of the privately owned Conflict Islands in Papua New Guinea, situated less than 1000km from Cairns.
He has called on the Australian Government to buy the islands off him as there are Chinese companies showing interest. This has alarm bells ringing about China’s acquisition of the islands and using them as possible military bases.
Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese’s response to pressuring Australia has been that the taxpayer can’t be on the hook for every island in the Pacific.
Mr Gowrie-Smith has flagged selling the islands to China, telling Nine’s A Current Affair he would accept a lower offer just over $36 million for the islands if it’s in Australia’s national security interests.
Mr Albanese said Australia is not currently in a position to purchase the islands but didn’t completely rule out future Australian interest.
“There’s over 500 (islands) in that area,” he told 2GB radio.
“There’s a lot of real estate across the Pacific. Australian taxpayers aren’t in a position to buy all of it.”
Mr Albanese also hit out at the businessman for trying to sell the islands through the media, after reportedly trying to get in contact with the foreign minister’s office and not hearing back.
“Penny Wong’s office was unable to locate the email as having been received. The department has now received that, and are looking at it,” Mr Albanese said.
“One of the things the government shouldn’t do is do taxpayers’ real estate through the media.
“Think about the implications if sellers of assets came through the media, say, ‘I want Australia to buy this or else there’s implications – we’ll sell it to China’, think about where that ends.”
Mr Albanese said the final decision ultimately rested with the PNG Government and that they would make sure that if a foreign party did purchase the islands then Australia’s national interests were protected.
The Conflict Islands owned by Mr Gowrie-Smith are a sovereign territory of Papua New Guinea.
The PNG parliament has been having intense discussions and debate on the matter with the majority of the members of parliament saying the islands cannot be sold to foreign interests.
PNG’s deputy prime minister and minister for lands John Rosso told parliament the privately-owned controversial islands would instead be turned into an environmental marine conservation area.
Mr Rosso has issued a ministerial directive for an immediate investigation into the acquisition of titles and the alleged sale.
He told parliament that these islands would never be sold under his watch and that the government would make sure they would be kept as protected areas.
“The Conflict islands cannot be sold to non-citizens and that is my stand, and the PNG government’s stand, There will be an investigation to establish the status and the way the title was awarded in the first instance,” Mr Rosso said in parliament.
“The islands will be declared as a conservative and protected area to be administered by special purpose vehicle to protect it for our children to benefit from in the future.”
Mr Rosso has called on Mr Gowrie-Smith to come forward voluntarily and discuss these issues with the lands ministry.
“I will be pursuing properly talks with the current owner to see a way forward for this but with a very firm view that we will not allow these islands to be sold, likewise other protected areas in PNG,” Mr Rosso said.
He said the sale and transfer of the Conflict Islands can be made only to a PNG citizen. The PNG government is also investigating as to how a foreigner was able to buy and own the freehold properties contradicting PNG land laws.