The company says the poverty-stricken people who own the land are in desperate need of development, jobs and revenue. But Prime Minister Howard, who has a keen sense of history, is leading an angry revolt against the development. He sent his top bureaucrats into the PNG jungle last week to see for themselves how the “sacred site” would be affected. PNG is objecting strongly to this intervention from the “big brother” nation and the diplomatic rift is likely to come to a head when Howard meets his PNG counterpart Michael Somare at the Pacific Islands Forum this month. Just one section of the contentious mining and exploration lease overlaps the Kokoda Track. But will the company forgo any riches found in the section under the track? Probably not. The PNG High Commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, echoes the company’s sentiment that a substantial gold find would be hard to ignore. “I would imagine the land owners on the track will be more sympathetic to having the company develop that, if the resource justifies it, than not have it developed,” he told The Canberra Times.

PNG is astounded at what it believes is Australia’s heavy-handed over-reaction. PNG Mining Minister Sam Akoitai says his government will do its best to protect the trail. In a twist, Howard is being accused of double standards for protesting about possible damage to the Kokoda Track but not doing enough to protect some of the oldest and most important rock carvings on Earth. The endangered Aboriginal art is in West Australia’s Burrup Peninsula where Woodside Petroleum wants to build a national gas plant.

Canberra’s spat with the Solomon Islands is a more serious diplomatic rift. Australia’s High Commissioner in the Solomons, Patrick Cole, has been expelled among great controversy. His sin? Meeting opposition politicians. Diplomats are paid to plug into the local happenings and report back the political intrigues to their masters. The real reason for the extraordinary action by the Solomons is its embarrassment that Australia has highlighted a scandal in the capital, Honiara. Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has established an inquiry into the riots that swept Honiara in April.