Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Australia-PNG relations: Decades of missed opportunities

Published 17 Mar 2016 17:32   0 Comments

Last year Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner to Australia, H. E. Charles Lepani — who was one of the first Papua New Guinean heads of a government department at independence — observed in Reflections: 39 years of Sovereign Statehood in Papua New Guinea that, despite the two countries’ closeness and successive leaders ‘tireless efforts … to build our relations',

Australia remains substantially ignorant of Papua New Guinea. You cannot dig any deeper than the ongoing Manus issue to see the vitriol and vilification borne out of ignorance by Australians of Papua New Guineans and our country.

As Sean Dorney makes clear in The Embarrassed Colonialist, the situation remains much the same a year later: Australians are mostly ignorant and indifferent in regard to Papua New Guinea. 

When Don Aitkin and I analysed Australian public opinion polls from the mid-1940s to the lead-up to Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975, our conclusion was remarkably similar. As we wrote in Australian Outlook at the time: 'During the last thirty years, the Australian public has had little knowledge of the New Guinea area, and cared little about it'.

Studies of British and Dutch public opinion concerning their countries’ colonies, including Dutch New Guinea, reached much the same conclusions.

Some 40 years after Papua New Guinea became independent, the 2015 Lowy Institute Poll suggested that Australians are beginning to adopt increasingly positive attitudes to the need to address global warming, an issue of particular concern to Papua New Guinea, though support for Australia’s foreign aid programme remains weak. The overwhelming majority of Australians believed that stability in Papua New Guinea is important to Australia (82%), and that Australia has a moral obligation to our former colony (77%). 

Public support for Australian aid and for Papua New Guinea’s economic prospects was much weaker. And, while just under a quarter of Australians surveyed admired Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, just over 60% did not even know who he was. However, as fewer still could identify India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these figures might suggest less about Australians’ interest in PNG than their awareness of other countries more generally. The feelings barometer, which is intended to measure Australians’ over-all feelings towards 18 other countries, ranks PNG at number 8, quite some distance below Fiji and roughly equal with China and Malaysia.

In the case of the Manus Island detention centre, sending, processing and resettling asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea is widely depicted as a strong disincentive to people from other countries trying to make their way to Australia without proper documentation

When it comes to the question of Australia’s colonialist embarrassment, Gough Whitlam was, surely, concerned with the likely diplomatic and wider international embarrassment of continuing Australian rule when he expressed support for an early transition to independence for Papua New Guinea at a time (in the late 1960s and early 1970s) when formal decolonisation was becoming a global norm.

According to the Australian Government-sponsored history of Australia’s role in Papua New Guinea from 1945 until independence, a few former senior officials who returned there for the independence ceremonies in 1975 were embarrassed by the colonial style of the arrangements, the VIP enclosures, the evidence of privilege, and the unfamiliar gulf between officials and the people.

However, the Australian former kiaps who pressed for a medal in recognition of their efforts in Papua New Guinea were clearly not embarrassed by a past in which they had played such a pivotal role (they were eventually made eligible for the Australian Police Overseas Service Medal in 2013). 

A noteworthy feature — really a gap — in Australia’s colonial legacy is the relative lack of a Papua New Guinean presence in Australia. According to the 2011 national census, there were then only some 26,787 persons born in PNG known to be living here (though there are likely to be others who have crossed the border without being officially registered or who, having entered lawfully, have overstayed). Of the Australian residents shown as Papua New Guinea-born, only some 8,752 were recorded as being of Papua New Guinean ancestry (the two next largest groups were of Australian and then English ancestry). Compare that with the obvious presence — and impact on cuisine and other aspects of culture — of people of indigenous descent from former colonies resident in other former colonising countries. 

While a number of Australian artists and writers have drawn on Papua New Guinea in paintings, films, poems and books, both non-fiction and fiction, what impact has PNG really had on Australia? [fold]

Papua New Guinea is home to a rich array of staple foods — sweet potato, taro, cooking bananas, yams, cassava, sago, various greens, and other vegetables —and diverse ways of preparing them. But where is there a restaurant serving any form of Papua New Guinean food anywhere in Australia? Or even a readily accessible cookery book? While there is now a café serving Papua New Guinean coffee in Sydney, how easy is it to find and then buy even the small range of products — coffee, chocolate, and organic virgin coconut oil — sometimes available in some Australian stores? Compare this with the impact that other former colonies, particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, have had on the cultures, including the cuisines, of former colonising countries in Europe and North America (and, dare one add, Australia).

Thus does the ongoing legacy of the White Australia policy (which applied even to Papuans, who were formally Australian citizens but without right of entry to Australia) continue to haunt relations between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Both countries have been fortunate in the professionalism, commitment to observe, determination to understand, and willingness to do more than just report events of some of the Australian journalists who have written about PNG. Those who have written books about Papua New Guinea include both Australian-based visitors such as Gavin Souter, Osmar White, Keith Willey and Peter Hastings, as well as residents in Papua New Guinea such as Don Woolford and Don Hogg. Sean Dorney is apparently unique in being a member of both groups at different stages in his career. 

The number of journalists now reporting on PNG for an Australian audience has reached a new low (only one, employed by the ABC). This means that stories emanating from Papua New Guinea are less diverse, both in coverage and viewpoint, than previously. It also means that many events worthy of being reported are less readily accessible than before as there is no longer a group of otherwise competing journalists able to share the costs involved in chartering an aircraft or boat in order to access places where interesting stories await.

Australian-based media — television, short-wave radio, and certain newspapers — are readily accessible in, at least, some places in Papua New Guinea. Rugby League State of Origin matches seem to attract even greater public interest in PNG than they do at home. Might there not be a strong case — quite apart from advocating an enhanced Australian journalistic presence in Papua New Guinea — for media organisations, even governments and non-government organisations in both countries, to work together to establish a Papua New Guinean journalistic presence in Australia? This could both provide audiences in Papua New Guinea with stories and supply a Papua New Guinean perspective on Australian news. Both would enhance a mutual understanding.

Photo courtesy of National Archives of Australia

Preaching to the converted

Published 10 Mar 2016 16:45   0 Comments

I have been delighted with the responses to my paper The Embarrassed Colonialist on the The Interpreter site. It has been titled a debate but all the main contributors have been very kind in their comments, generally agreeing with the thrust of my argument; that Australia and Australians need to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of and commit to greater engagement with our former colony, Papua New Guinea.

The main Australian based contributors have been members of that 'tribe' Ian Kemish writes about '… who have been touched by PNG and have it in their blood forever'. My hope is the Paper and the debate will help convince those outside of this tribe to also care about PNG.

The general ignorance about PNG in Australia is depressing. I’ve had a lot of comments on Facebook about The Embarrassed Colonialist and one in particular had me shaking my head. This person said he had been to Indonesia and spoken to Papuans who had no complaints about Australian colonialism!

I suppose I should forgive this chap for confusing the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua with the southern half of Papua New Guinea because he probably went through his entire schooling in Australia never learning a thing about our colonial-master history.

I was surprised when in her introduction to our interview on ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra program Geraldine Doogue spoke about Australia’s 'brief' colonisation of PNG. In Papua’s case it was 74 years and more than 60 for New Guinea. Not so brief when PNG itself is only 40 years old.

One of the Papua New Guinean contributors to this Interpreter discussion, Alan Bird, commented that he is 'not sure what Australia is trying to accomplish in its dealings with my country'.  He tells of being told by Australian officials that Australian aid was being cut off from an agricultural empowerment program that had been run 'very successfully for five years' because it 'was not in Australia’s interest to keep the program going'.
One passage cut from my Paper because of length considerations (I wrote far too much in my first draft), dealt with a discussion I had with the then head of the PNG National Research Institute, Thomas Webster, and it might be worth resurrecting in the light of what 'dumbfounded' Alan.
Dr Webster said he and some other senior Papua New Guineans spent two years drafting a basic education plan for PNG that would have engaged local communities much more in managing and looking after primary schools. He says Australian aid officials were doubtful and so got an international consultant from the Netherlands to examine the plan.
But when that consultant gave it the all clear another consultant from New York was hired to assess it. She endorsed it as well but, he says, Australia then decided to spend the money on building classrooms. So the innovative education plan designed by Papua New Guineans remained just a plan.
The whole point is that if we do not engage better with PNG and find ways to ensure the aid is effective then millions and millions of dollars of Australian tax-payers' money is not achieving what it should. It is not only corruption that leads to misspending and waste.

Ian Kemish, a former Australian High Commissioner to PNG, says rightly that there is no silver bullet in managing what is a very complex aid program and that 'while Australians can help, it’s for Papua New Guineans, nobody else, to ‘fix’ PNG.' But do we listen when Papua New Guineans propose some answers? [fold]

Michelle Nayahamui Rooney suggests I should have paid more attention to the Manus asylum seeker detention centre deal. She is right in saying 'Manus makes Australia need PNG more', but she questions how positive an outcome that is because it also makes it 'harder for Australia to speak up for good governance'.

I devote some attention in the Paper to the way I believe the Australian media has failed to give PNG the coverage it deserves and so welcome what Max Euchtritz says about the ideal of noble journalism holding up a mirror to society. 'But, when it comes to PNG,' he says, 'Australia either recoils from its own reflection or refuses even to look in the mirror'.

There are certainly issues in PNG I could have given more attention to:  the drought which is causing severe problems; the economic setback caused by poor commodity prices; and the whole fraught issue of logging.

But on one matter I would have to take minor issue with Michelle Rooney. She says that while I want Australia to better understand PNG, perhaps I underestimate just how difficult the task is. I have spent a good part of my life trying to understand PNG and explain it to an Australian audience. I acknowledge how difficult that task remains.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user National Archives of Australia

PNG: Australia's foreign policy priorities should be closer to home

Published 3 Mar 2016 08:55   0 Comments

In The Embarrassed Colonialist Sean Dorney speaks bluntly about Australia’s relationship with its former colony. In that very Australian way, one might say he has called a spade a spade. As an Australian with a long and heartfelt connection with Papua New Guinea, Sean appears to be trying to get the two countries to work things out for a better future. He is uniquely qualified to do just that.

From my vantage point in Papua New Guinea, I have often wondered what our richest and most powerful neighbour thinks of us. I am not sure what Australia is  trying to accomplish in its dealings with my country. Australia needs to better define its end game with Papua New Guinea.

On a personal level, most Australians I have met have a very warm attitude to Papua New Guineans but I find that, at the government level, things are not so warm. It’s as if the Australian government wants to give us some lollies and send us away to play.

I have always believed in the philosophy that one should  focus first on those areas where there is the best opportunity to achieve positive outcomes. This is the argument I think Sean is trying to make about Australia and its relationship with its former colony.

Australia’s foreign policy should be more focused on improving its relationship with its nearest neighbour — a country where people share similar values, who love, for example, rugby league, Aussie rules and cricket — rather than those who live on the other side of the planet.  Australia’s chances of foreign policy success in Papua New Guinea are surely much better than in Iraq or Afghanistan. [fold]

There is plenty of scope to improve the bonds between people and government. I recall one discussion I had with some of Australia’s top minds on foreign development when DFAT was scrapping an Agricultural empowerment program in PNG, one that had run very successfully for five years. I asked the Australian representatives why they were dumping the program despite its success. The response was 'Well agriculture is not a PNG government priority. We only fund PNG government priority programs. In addition, it is not in Australia’s interest to keep the program going'. With 85% of PNG's population dependent agriculture, that statement dumbfounded me.

I responded by saying that I understood that all countries must use foreign policy to advance their own interests. I then asked them, 'What would be in the Australia's interest?' They didn’t respond.

If the current population growth rate persists, by 2030 there will be more than 20 million Papua New Guineans living within swimming distance of Australia. Is it not in Australia’s interest to find ways of making sure those citizens live happily in their country? Or would Australia prefer to deal with thousands of people arriving in speed boats to improve their lives in your country? Papua New Guineans need empowerment, not handouts.

To all Australians, I echo Sean's plea to reset this important relationship. Come on; give us a fair shake. It's in your interest to do so.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Drew Douglas

An embarrassed Australia meets a bolder Papua New Guinea

Published 29 Feb 2016 12:30   0 Comments

Forty years after Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia, Sean Dorney, a long serving journalist in PNG, invites Australians to reconsider their relationship with the country in his Lowy Institute Paper, The Embarrassed Colonialist.

Dorney argues that, for the most part, Australia is reluctant to address its history with PNG, a complex and perplexing country. But it is time to stop being embarrassed about this colonial legacy and instead move towards a partnership with PNG that includes embracing our shared history. 

For Dorney, a key player in the generation of Australians and Papua New Guineans who fostered mutual understanding during this 40-year period, the relationship has waned. He says Australia has a moral obligation to help its neighbour and he identifies four key challenges facing PNG: its imperfect democracy; poor development policies; corruption; and law and disorder.

On the positive side, he identifies PNG's key strengths as: a strong economy; a military that does not have any ambition to rule; resilient women; tourism; and a free media. But are these areas really so strong?

Recent economic developments indicate that PNG continues to face great challenges in economic management and remains susceptible to global economic patterns. Furthermore, continued infighting among and between the police and defence forces means chronic insecurity is a debilitating concern for everyone, especially women. PNG's women are indeed resilient and this is a key national strength. Yet, the fact that they continue to face immense social, political and economic constraints is perhaps the most compelling challenge facing PNG today. [fold]

With respect to Australia's position on the bilateral relationship, Dorney quotes the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese, who said in August 2015 that Australia's 'relationship with PNG is seen as a barometer of Australian foreign policy success' (though Varghese fell short of outlining exactly what this means).

More recently, addressing the Australasian Aid Conference, Varghese noted that aid has to be based on the local political context and that innovation is needed. Rather than imposing Western notions of the state, Varghese said, there is a need to understand the 'the nature of the social contract in the societies in our region so that the nature of the state reflects that social contract'. Varghese's point is important. For example, in citing a strong economy as a key strength, Dorney argues that the lack of a national welfare system is a good thing because it might help PNG avoid a 'Greek-like' economic crisis. But the absence of a welfare system, combined with a weak democracy, means PNG MPs, unlike their Australian counterparts, are less beholden to the views of their constituencies and media-driven domestic opinion.

Dorney identifies important reasons why Australia must re-engage with PNG. The substantial amount of aid Australia delivers to Port Moresby could impact on the bilateral relationship if it is not managed well. Dorney is firm that aid can be far more effective if Australia can engage with more depth. He also notes that the security imperative for Australia means that 'PNG remains prominent in Australian security thinking'. Political indifference among most Australian politicians towards PNG also means that some decisions that impact on the bilateral relationship are made without a nuanced understanding of the country's politics and society. He notes that former Foreign Minister Bob Carr's suggestion that the world should consider sanctions on if the 2012 PNG elections were delayed reflect 'a shallow understanding of PNG's politics'.

Dorney acknowledges that PNG’s progress has been made with important support from Australia, but he reminds Australia to be sensitive to PNG's sovereignty. He cites the outcry by the PNG government in 2015 upon learning that Australia was planning to establish a mission in Bougainville. Ironically, this angry reaction came at around the same time that Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop was fighting to protect PNG from large cuts to the Australian aid budget.

This underscores a significant challenge for Australia. Even if PNG is the largest recipient of Australian aid, PNG's own foreign policy stance reflects a bolder self-perception than Australians may know. To illustrate, during the February 2016 PNG National Leaders' Summit, Public Service Minister Sir Puka Temu said PNG's 'standing in this globalised era has been elevated' and in the Pacific, 'PNG must maintain a strong leadership role'. In recent years, Prime Minister O'Neill has demonstrated this foreign policy aspiration, making PNG a donor in the region and displaying a growing inclination to diversify the country's foreign relations away from Australia and New Zealand (recent commentaries can be found here and here). 

Among all the bilateral Australia-PNG issues, it is perhaps the Manus deal on asylum seekers that is most contentious. Dorney mentions the Manus agreement, but gives very little attention to it. Yet, even if, as Jenny Hayward-Jones argues, the bilateral relationship was changing well before the controversial Manus Island deal, it did redefine the relationship from one based on aid and mutual strategic interests towards co-dependency and collaboration. Manus makes Australia need PNG more, which some might consider as a positive outcome. But it also makes it harder for Australia to speak up for good governance, and this, as Stephen Howes argues, should be counted as a cost.

Dorney wants Australia to better understand PNG, and his book will certainly help. But perhaps he underestimates just how difficult the task is. PNG political leaders face a set of domestic political accountability practices and norms that are alien to most Australians. He rightly argues that a relationship anchored on money alone is not enough, and a more nuanced relationship based on equality and deep understanding (and, I would add, frank exchanges) is required. The challenges for Australians and Papua New Guineans will be to remain open and willing to understand and contribute to this endeavour.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user National Archives of Australia

The Embarrassed Colonialist: Our migration problem

Published 25 Feb 2016 08:33   0 Comments

Sean Dorney's new Lowy Institute Paper, The Embarrassed Colonialist is fantastic — and I'm not just saying that because he quoted my research. Through a mixture of interesting facts, digestible quotes, and entertaining stories, Sean details the strengths and weaknesses of our nearest neighbour, provides a thorough justification for why now is the time to reengage, and explains how to do that.

There are too many areas worth highlighting in this Paper to cover in a single article. What I want to focus on in is the research I light-heartedly mentioned above, which focused on Pacific Islanders that currently call Australia home, or at least did at the time of the 2011 census. Below I recap the analysis I presented at the 2014 Pacific Update, and hone in to take a closer look at PNG.

Before sinking into the results we need a bit of methodology housekeeping. For my analysis I opted to use the variable of ancestry as opposed to place of birth to assess the stock of Pacific Islanders in Australia. Place of birth is the better indicator if you are interested in tracing individuals who are themselves migrants. Ancestry is a better indicator to assess overall stock of ethnic Pacific Islanders in Australia. This distinction matters a lot because place of birth excludes the New Zealand migration pathway to Australia (which is critical for Polynesian states), and includes a lot of people born in Pacific Island countries (e.g. Australians born in PNG) who do not identify as Pacific Islanders.

Pacific Islanders in Australia: ancestry vs. birth Source: 2011 Australian Census

Using this definition, Pacific Islanders in Australia still account for less than 1% of Australia's total population. By contrast, New Zealand's 2013 census shows people with Pacific Islander ancestry (not including Maori) made up 6.9% of its population.

While the Pacific is not an important source of migrants to Australia, Australia is still an important migration destination for some Pacific Islands. Of the 166,272 Pacific Islanders in Australia, 35% are from Melanesia, 64% from Polynesia and 1% from Micronesia. (A detailed table with the number of people from each Pacific state can be found at the end of this article.) To put this into perspective we can compare these numbers with those of the populations of these three regions. The ratio of Melanesians in Australia to Melanesians in Melanesia is 0.7%; the equivalent ratio for Polynesia is 15.9%; and for Micronesia 0.2%.

These numbers just don't stack up. Melanesian countries are our closest neighbours in almost every metric — trade, aid, proximity, defence ties — except one, migration. Why is it that there are more Cook Islanders in Australia than Papua New Guineans, when Papua New Guinea has more than 430 times the population of the former and is our former colony? Why more Nieuans than Solomon Islanders, when the Solomon Islands has more than 360 times the population of the former, and far closer links with Australia?

The explanation is simple: the New Zealand route. One third of Australian Pacific Islanders who identify as Polynesian were born in New Zealand. This is because many Polynesian countries have migration access to New Zealand, and thus Australia via our open border policy with New Zealand. We haven't provided the same migration opportunities to our closest neighbours. In fact, one could argue, we preference them pretty far down the list.

Where Melanesians sit on the list of ancestries in Australia

Note and source: There are 311 recognised ancestries in the census, 285 of which have more than 100 people in Australia. 2011 Australian Census

All of these numbers are astounding, but we're here to talk about PNG. As Sean highlights in his Paper, the Aus-PNG relationship is unique for many reasons – it is our only former colony, we shed more blood in PNG than anywhere else in World War 2, it's our closest and largest neighbour, and it's a significant trading partner. Yet we have only 15,462 Papua New Guineans living here. Interestingly, when you take a look at those in Australia born in PNG that number almost doubles to 26,787; clearly there are a lot of people in Australia with ties to PNG. Julie Bishop, as with most Australian politicians, has on numerous occasions called Papua New Guineans our 'dearest friends' yet somehow there are more Russians and Iranians, nations we are far less friendly with, living in Australia. [fold]

It's a strange and bizarre disconnect that Australia has more Polynesians than Melanesians calling it home. And, sadly, this disconnect is getting worse. Since 2001 the average annual growth rate for migrants from both PNG and the Solomon Islands has fallen, while Tonga's has increased and Samoa's has remained the highest in the region. The increase in the number of Samoans living in Australia over the last decade (almost 28,000) is almost twice the total number of Papua New Guineans living in Australia (15,462). As a result, the proportion of Polynesians among all Pacific Islanders is actually growing, and the proportion of Melanesians is shrinking.

PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu. These are the six countries in the Pacific that have the fewest labour mobility opportunities, and are generally the poorest as well. Their share of the Pacific population in Australia has fallen over the last five years from 13.6% to 12.7%. The increase in the stock of migrants from these six countries over the last five years has been 770 a year on average. That's a drop in the ocean. While a claim can be made for all of these neighbours to be given more migration options to Australia,  none are more deserving than PNG.

If Australia wants this relationship to mature beyond one of trade, aid, and asylum seekers, we can start by letting more Papua New Guineans in.

A full, and a little bit messy, dataset of my census analysis is available here.

Growth of Pacific Islanders in Australia 

Notes and sources: 2006 and 2011 Australian Censuses. This table does not include 'Fijian Indians' as they were not included as a demographic category in the 2006 census.

Plenty of great stories still to be mined in Papua New Guinea

Published 24 Feb 2016 11:25   0 Comments

Sean Dorney’s The Embarrassed Colonialist should be mandatory reading for every influential Australian media executive and newsroom leader. Because when it comes to Papua New Guinea, we are the myopic media.

Historical blindness and ignorance is an underlying theme of Dorney’s excellent treatise of what is an emblematic tropical sore for Australia and Australians. Overcoming this ignorance is the healing balm he proffers – and the media, pardon the image, is the bleeding obvious place to start.

There are wonderful individual exceptions, of course: Journalists who would swim the four kilometres from our most northern Torres Strait islands to PNG to report on this vibrant and vexed nation of eight million, so inextricably linked to our past and so critical to our future. And there are editors and news directors who would, and do, battle internal obstacles to ensure coverage of our biggest, nearest neighbour.

But institutional apathy started soon after PNG Independence in 1975. Dorney notes that when he first arrived in Port Moresby for the ABC in 1974, there were six Australian journalists based there.

But then Fairfax (1980) and the Herald and Weekly Times (1981) pulled their journalists out when there was none of the chaos and mayhem that many had predicted for independent PNG. Since the AAP ended a 60-year-tradition by closing its bureau in 2013, we’ve been left with one reporter for the ABC.

Dorney writes of a conversation he had with the last newspaper correspondent months before that reporter was recalled:

We had a discussion on news values and he told me he knew what the subeditors at the Melbourne Herald wanted. ‘They want raskols, plane crashes and tribal fights! And that’s what I’m giving them'.

More on this later.

Journalism is often nobly described as a mirror that society holds up to itself. But, when it comes to PNG, Australia either recoils from its own reflection or refuses even to look in the mirror. Our real image is one of colonials for most of our first 74 years as a federated nation (sixty-one years from 1914-1975 to be precise). We ruled over other people. It’s a simple truth — with complex legacies.

Millions of Australians are related to those generations who worked, lived, pioneered, made and lost fortunes and fought and died there (more Australians were killed in PNG in WWII than anywhere else).

There’s give and take, and share, like most ex-colonists. We give $500 million of aid a year to PNG, and our NGOs and churches inject many more millions. Thousands of volunteers donate slabs of their lives to helping our neighbour’s poor, needy and sick. Our companies, especially in mining and energy, take resources worth billions of dollars from PNG soil, waters and forests .We dump our refugees there. We take few PNG immigrants.

Our High Commission in Port Moresby has 360 staff, more than in our Washington DC embassy. It’s said PNG’s population might match ours by 2050.

It’s all a rich stew of personal history and impersonal stark reality. The security and prosperity of PNG, as Dorney emphasises, is hugely important to Australia.

So, hold up that proverbial mirror Australia. A myriad of Australian stories to celebrate, commemorate or condemn await those outlets that veer from the larger geopolitical canvas. The general awareness so created would create a richer, bigger picture, one even the most unaware Australians could not ignore. Information could be a laser to the historical cataract. [fold]

It's unfair to single out the craft of journalism though. Many others have been blinkered too, including our film and documentary industries, those who’ve designed our school curricula, and those who run many of our cultural institutions. Ditto for related government departments and agencies.

Dorney rightly says we must accept our colonial past, not try to escape it, and use that acknowledgement as the starting point for a new, deeper engagement with PNG.

He explores the good, the bad and the ugly of the relationship and, yes, some is embarrassing; for both countries. His examination of PNG’s corruption and law and order problems is unvarnished, but has context. Australia left PNG woefully unprepared in 1975, including a tiny fledgling police force. In the year of independence police responsibility covered only 10% of the land and 40% or the population.

Dorney deftly weaves sledgehammer facts and figures with the vivid frustrations and passion of both Papua New Guinean and Australian identities.

One staggering comparison rams home our attitude to our former colony: more Cook Islanders live in Australia than Papua New Guineans, even though the population of the Cooks is 430 times smaller than that of PNG.

The Cook Islands was a former colony of New Zealand. The Kiwis embrace Cook Islanders, letting them into their country and then they migrate over the Tasman. Dorney writes:

According to the last Australian census in 2011, of the 166,272 Pacific Islanders in Australia, 65 per cent are from Polynesia and just 35 per cent from Melanesia – numbers totally incongruent with the relative populations of those island groups. The simple reality is that the Polynesians get to Australia via the New Zealand route because New Zealand has a policy of favouring migration from its Pacific neighbours.

China and Indonesia beckon PNG. Australia needs to review and renew its PNG relationship. Otherwise its six decades of colonial rule and a century of deep, genuine bonds will be a mere footnote in history.

PNG is changing and we need to keep up

Published 23 Feb 2016 14:00   0 Comments

Sean Dorney is right when he says that Australians should take a stronger interest in Papua New Guinea. Sean is a consistent advocate of this cause. He is one of the leaders of a special Australian ‘tribe’; those who have been touched by PNG, and who will have it in their blood forever. I'm a member myself, having been raised there in the decade before Independence, when my parents’ generation were working to help prepare Papua New Guineans to govern themselves.

This ‘tribe’ constitutes a significant Australian constituency for PNG. It includes the thousands of Australians engaging with the country today; those working on resource projects and in commerce, NGO professionals and volunteers, and others who keep returning for one more project, one more posting. Many visit to try to appreciate their forebears' wartime experience of the country.

Yet PNG is a blind spot for so many other Australians. As Sean says, Australian media interest is superficial, and national literacy about our nearest neighbour is limited. In the absence of real knowledge, negativity often prevails. Salacious reporting about violence and corruption dominate any media coverage, as do stories highlighting the implications of PNG’s problems for ourselves; just look at the portrayal of the tuberculosis challenge on PNG's side of the Torres Strait. By contrast, most Australians would be astonished by how well Papua New Guineans understand us. They know our politics, our popular culture and every player in the Australian National Rugby League. Australia’s aid contribution is understood and appreciated at the grass roots level.

Why should Australians care more? Sean emphasises the theme of responsibility. It's true that Australia has an obligation, as a wealthy and responsible neighbour, to support PNG in a generous and thoughtful way. That would be true even if we were not the former colonial power. I think that successive Australian governments have tried to manage the development partnership responsibly. I have had occasional frustrations with the program myself, but I've no time for the kind of armchair commentary that can be heard at the wet bar of the Port Moresby Yacht Club. Sean acknowledges that PNG is a difficult context in which to manage our largest aid program and offers some suggestions. There's no silver bullet, though, and while Australians can help, it's for Papua New Guineans, nobody else, to 'fix' PNG.

Even if we think about the relationship purely in terms of aid — and we shouldn’t — then the case for sustained engagement is compelling. As PNG leaders will tell you, the health sector is struggling, with too many people dying unnecessarily every year. Administrative capacity has not kept up with rapid population growth.  This has contributed to the challenging law and order situation which, while often distorted, remains an impediment to national development. 

But, as Sean also notes, the relationship is about much more than this. Australia’s roles as a market for PNG, and as a provider of services to PNG consumers, are more important now. The PNG economy is immensely bigger than it was 15 years ago, and substantial investment now flows in both directions. Following the global financial crisis, northern Australian communities like Cairns saw the continued expansion of the PNG economy as central to their own recovery. The commodity crunch has made things more difficult, but there remains plenty of commercial opportunity for Australia in PNG.

It's not just the economy that has changed. [fold] The population is growing very rapidly, and now exceeds seven million, making PNG second only to Australia in the Pacific. Projections suggest that the population will approach 16 million by 2050. All this inevitably alters regional dynamics.  PNG is attracting more attention from other important countries, and is more willing to play a regional leadership role. The PNG world view is changing too. Most members of the current government grew up in an independent country. They are more confident in dealing with Australia, and inclined to take each external relationship on its merits.

So when we picture the future shape of PNG, we should imagine a country led by more confident leaders, with more than double its current population, playing a more active regional strategic role. It will still have development challenges, despite its undoubted resources. It is in Australia's interests to stay engaged with such a country as it emerges.

Remaining a constructive and relevant partner for PNG will require Australians to continue questioning long-held assumptions, and to embrace change in the relationship. In the end, though, our approach to our nearest neighbour should always appreciate that greater prosperity, security and stability for Papua New Guineans is also in the interests of Australians.

Ian Kemish was Australian High Commissioner to PNG from 2010 to 2013

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ian @The

Australia in Papua New Guinea: The Embarrassed Colonialist

Published 22 Feb 2016 11:27   0 Comments

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. [fold]

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'.