For those people who don’t get the picture, says JOHN FOWKE in this insightful article, the point
about PNG today is that the Australians who whinge about it helped to create it
Being a kind-hearted old PNG pundit, I have allowed enough
time for Bob Curtis’s [see Recent Comments
here] wattles to settle back to their normal puce colour before returning
to the theme of “missing the point” about social development and the dire
standard of administration, services and infrastructure in PNG.
The point, which I believe to be well-understood by many
of those who read my “tiger riding” posting, is that a PNG implosion such as we
witness daily was inevitable and foreseen by many.
PNG’s path to becoming a really fair and well-managed modern
society would be a long and tortuous one. PNG was not a well-driven,
fully-functional carriage drawn by a team of the best Percheron or Shire
This despite perceptions to the contrary expressed by those
who are “disappointed,” “disgusted,” and “saddened” by what has gone on in PNG.
Two major factors are responsible. One was an inexplicable,
apparently blind, decision made by Australia. The other was simply the
function of the mismatch between PNG’s readiness and world sentiment about
colonialism, which impelled Australia
to grant independence as and when it did.
I left the Admin early in my PNG career - as the result of
a tiff with my then boss, the late Speed Graham, following which I became a
tradestore minder for the late Brian Heagney and later a plantation manager.
I remained in or directly associated with the latter until
2005, with one break working for Mobil Oil in Queensland.
I think that experience in private enterprise, after being
a Patrol Officer and a Co-ops man, was salutary. Deprived of automatic
deference and submission, one quickly learned the truth of PNG society, a truth
which may not have been appreciated by most POs and others until they reached
quite senior rank.
The truth is that in a micro-tribal society no-one matters
much except one’s clan brothers and sisters and that stealing from and telling
untruths to people other than one’s blood relatives is not a sin.
This is not intended as a criticism of Melanesia
- it is a truism covering all micro-tribal societies. My own distant ancestry
is Scottish and Scandinavian, societies which before Roman colonisation, and
even after it, remained structured in and ruled by similar mores and customs.
These characteristics are part of the functional logic of
such societies, where social security and personal safety are completely bound
up in defence and, where possible, the expansion of one’s land and supporting
In the Admin we tended to entrust responsibilities for
storekeeping, for purchasing fresh foodstuffs, for issuing fuel and oversight
of vehicle allocation to trusted clerks and policemen. One wonders how the
books ever balanced.
I don’t recall that we ever did balance stores records
properly. I think we just used to order replenishments according the clerk’s
stock-take and the station’s entitlement under that vote. Similarly we would
pay out for fresh foods on vouchers typed up for us.
This would never have been done in the real world of
commerce. Even now one will meet an ex-Kiap here and there who speaks fondly of
“good, honest old bush cops”. My own relationship with the police with whom I
worked was one which I remember, largely, with considerable fondness.
However I also remember an instance involving the extremely
well-concealed burning down of an entire village by a small detachment of my
police during my absence in another area. A reprisal for a non-fatal accident
to one of their number using a village-owned canoe at the time.
The villagers were too scared of reprisals to complain,
and without other witnesses I just had to swallow my strong suspicions and
accept that it had been an unfortunate accident on a windy day, as stated by my
large and imposing Corporal.
The late John Black, a most perceptive pre-war Kiap
well-known for his association with Jim Taylor on the Hagen-Sepik patrol
published an interesting monograph relating his own experiences with, and his view
of the New Guinea Police members who served with him on many ground-breaking
patrols in the ‘thirties.
His analysis was deep and very interesting. His conclusion,
virtually the same as mine. Police boys could often be very naughty boys for
cultural reasons imprinted very deeply within them. Has anything changed?
Those who look back in anger, as some apparently do, are
misguided and miss the point that this journey into modernity, set in motion
with high ideals and with generosity by Australia, is a long and difficult
You don’t change a micro-tribal stone age culture devoid
of any sense of nationhood or commonality of interest into one which can
function, just one hundred years later, in a manner analogous with Australian
society and the rest of the world as it was in 1975.
The second factor, one which sits at the root of all the
official corruption and dysfunction in politics and public-sector operations in
PNG is one which I dealt with at some length in an article published a year or
more ago in PNG’s The National and in Quadrant,
the Australian conservative quarterly.
Here I showed that the decision to close down the
established embryo political system comprised of the appointed District
Advisory Councils interacting with the overarching and partly-democratic
Legislative Council was wrong.
This linkage of institutions would logically have served
the new nation very well when fully democratised and extended to include the
then Local Government Councils as the grass-roots end of the whole.
It was, after all, like all systems introduced into PNG by
the Australians, one which grew within the social environment peculiar to that
place and time, and importantly, it was simple, well-understood - and it
Although I have looked for the logic behind the creation
of a Westminster-type party parliamentary system I have not found a good
explanation. Only the late David Fenbury, a man of great experience and
unusually high level of intellect and determination confronted the Minister for
Territories, Paul Hasluck, with a different vision. This may have been as early
What happened, as we know, was that a system which had
grown over several centuries to answer the need for fairness embracing a
stratified society incorporating a few powerful men at the top and a massive
number of extremely poor vassals at the bottom, was introduced.
Introduced into one of the most egalitarian societies then
existing on the face of the earth; a society almost entirely bare of any vestige
of hereditary hierarchy; a society where every male member had equality of
opportunity within his clan; where everyone had rights to the use of land and
hunting and fishing resources; where everyone had the right to be heard before
the assembled clan in times of controversy.
What has resulted, in the saddest paradox in this land of
many paradoxes, is that the system imposed or allowed to establish itself by
the Australians has produced exactly, absolutely exactly, the conditions of class-disparity,
lack of equity in society and lack of justice which prevailed in the England of the twelfth
What more can we say, except to say sorry. It’s too late
to change things back. Ask the Grand Chief.