Just a little bit of culture, please Senator
13 January 2009
John Fowke has been around PNG a while. “I’m aged almost 70, and have spent 50 of those years in PNG, mostly at the coalface of the culture clash between tradition and the West; maddeningly frustrating at times,” he adds. “It has nonetheless been a life full of enjoyment and one which has yielded much of great value in terms of working relationships and personal friendships.”
For some years now, since 1998 in fact, John has been trying to engage the interest of Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department and its subsidiary agency AusAID in a discussion he hopes might better prepare young Australians who are sent to do important work in PNG and other Melanesian states. “I believe insufficient attention is paid to this [cultural understanding]; to their great loss, to Australia and to the client states,” he says.
Now, after receiving a polite brush off from Duncan Kerr, John has gone to the go-to man in the Rudd Government, Senator John Faulkner, the Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary.
John asks Faulkner to urge his Cabinet colleagues to at least consider authoritative training courses or seminars to inculcate a good understanding of Melanesian culture in young Australians going to do official work in PNG - street smart stuff, dos-and-don’ts, a bit of lingua francae... “Since the ANU embraced ASOPA,” he says, “the essential pre-departure and career-related studies of the culture to be encountered has lagged and to my knowledge no longer exists.”
It seems an easy enough proposition to accept - make sure our people sent to PNG carry with them some basic cultural understandings – but John’s found it very hard to achieve cut through for the idea.
And to demonstrate he knows his stuff, here are a few insights for new chums from a paper of John's, A Newcomer’s Guide to Papua New Guinea. This extract is about PNG’s political culture:
The Constitution is an exceptionally liberal document emphasizing the rights of the individual and providing a large measure of insurance against any tendency to despotism by a government. At the same time the rules firmly inhibit the exercise by a Prime Minister of what one might term statesmanship or visionary leadership; one of the many paradoxes which bedevil this young nation as it grows…
The establishment of party-based (and not regional-based national politics) has created a barrier of misunderstanding and disillusionment between the ordinary people and the politically active…
The people look upon themselves as landowning members of tribes, and feel no sense of identity with the parties, which remain as small, elite groups existing largely to advantage themselves...
Members of Parliament look forward to an insecure tenure, and tend to use their brief flowering as MPs to their own personal advantage, eschewing loyalty to the party or the electorate when it is in their interest to do so. In this situation the Prime Minister can never count upon solid support and must be able to ensure a flow of perquisites and appointments to keep enough Members on side to pass desired legislation, a situation that has had demonstrable drawbacks over the years…
Where the possession and defence against invasion of ones garden and hunting resource is the principal guiding life imperative, one learns with the ingestion of one's mother's milk to regard all but blood relatives as potential enemies. This early and very deeply imprinted imperative sits in the deepest recess of consciousness; even in the consciousness of the first-and-second-generation urban-born Melanesian person. From this flows an unconscious guiding moral and ethical outlook that dictates that crime is that which harms the clan. No other act is crime.
That’s what an acute appreciation of culture does. It smartens us up to the fact that our values and understandings are not always other people's. What we believe about how the world works doesn't necessarily count for much
in a new environment.
It’s what the more aware expatriates always knew: they had to get culturally conditioned and this didn't often happen automatically. The new culture in which they were immersed needed to be understood to be responded to appropriately.
What John Fowke wants, and is asking the Australian Government to do something about, is to adequately recognise this reality. It's time people like John - who are themselves immersed in Melanesian culture and have significant cross cultural expertise - were listened to. The effectiveness of Australia's relationship with PNG and the Pacific may depend on it.
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