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?
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