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.

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