The Lowy Institute launches a new Lowy Institute Paper today, The Embarrassed Colonialist by Sean Dorney, former ABC Papua New Guinea correspondent, former captain of the Kumuls (Papua New Guinea's national rugby league team), legendary Pacific journalist and Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. This piece is the first in a series in which experts debate Sean's arguments in detail. Sean himself will take part in the conversation.

Sean's paper argues that Australia needs to acknowledge its colonial past in order to move to a deeper level of engagement with the Papua New Guinea of today.

The title of the paper is a little startling. Is Australia an embarrassed colonialist? Australian government officials are undoubtedly uncomfortable with Australia's status as Papua New Guinea's former colonial master. Ministers and officials prefer to use the terms 'deep historical links' or 'shared history' rather than mention the word 'colony' when talking about Australia's history in Papua New Guinea. This could be political correctness but is by no means a new sentiment. Sean quotes Rachel Cleland, the wife of Sir Donald Cleland, Australian administrator in Papua New Guinea from 1952 to 1967, saying 'I wouldn't say that any Australians thought we had a colony...that was not in any way the thinking.'

Unlike the Pacific, African and South American colonies of European powers, the geographic proximity of Australia and Papua New Guinea means we cannot escape each other. Australia is still Papua New Guinea's largest bilateral aid donor by a margin of US$374 million to the next most generous donor. This translates into the Australian government having interests or connections in almost every sphere of governance in Papua New Guinea. Australia is Papua New Guinea's single most important trading partner. Australians also occupy many leadership positions in the private sector. This dominance invariably leads to sensitivities among Papua New Guinean politicians and officials about Australian influence.

We have seen these sensitivities play out to the detriment of Papua New Guineans over the last year.

In the midst of a serious drought that ruined crops and caused significant suffering and even starvation in some parts of the country, the Papua New Guinea government delayed requesting external assistance. It was confident it was capable of responding to the crisis, principally through distributing funds to members of parliament from the affected areas, and has been defensive of criticism that its response has been inadequate.

The Australian government had delivered significant assistance to regions affected by the 1997 drought in Papua New Guinea and although it was ready to assist again, it was unable to mount a similar effort unless asked by the Papua New Guinea government. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced a package of assistance in November last year but the Papua New Guinea government remains determined to be seen to be in control of the response, which appears to mean a very different level of visibility of Australian assistance to that of 1997.

Australia has a large official presence in Papua New Guinea — a High Commission of 360 staff (larger than Australia's Embassy in Washington) and an aid program worth over $550 million — but struggles to understand its nearest neighbour. Poor media coverage of Papua New Guinea within Australia, a small Papua New Guinea diaspora (mostly based in Queensland), a lack of coverage of Papua New Guinea in school curricula, the tiny number of universities offering courses about Papua New Guinea, and limited tourism promotion mean that even interested Australians find it hard to comprehend developments across the Torres Strait.

The signing of the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement in 2013 and subsequent re-opening of a detention centre for asylum seekers on Manus Island has seen an increase in Australian media coverage of Papua New Guinea. This has provided a bit of an upsurge in business for Papua New Guinea watchers like me, providing information on Papua New Guinea to journalists, non-government organisations and politicians. I am usually disappointed to find that most of my new friends appear more interested in the plight of the asylum seekers than in the challenges facing 7.5 million Papua New Guineans, but nevertheless I take every opportunity to draw their attention to the much more interesting issues I think they could be following.

The seeming intractability of Papua New Guinea's many challenges (Sean does a great job of summarising them in his paper) make it hard to entice Australians to engage with our nearest neighbours. As Sean says, 'it is easy to focus on Papua New Guinea's weaknesses...but less often do people consider its strengths.' This resonated strongly with me. In the work we have done at the Lowy Institute with emerging leaders in Papua New Guinea, I have been impressed by their energy, their enthusiasm, and their commitment to the development of their communities, which stands in contrast to reporting on negative trends in governance, law and order, health and education in Papua New Guinea.

Australia's nearest neighbour is an endlessly fascinating country, with a huge endowment of natural resources and a hard-working and enterprising young population which is desperate for more education and employment opportunities and which knows far more about us than we know about them. I recommend you read Sean Dorney's The Embarrassed Colonialist to learn how Australia can 'build a new partnership with one of our most vibrant neighbours'.