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Tricks and traps for the Aussie cops redux


I HAVE JUST READ Patrick Lindsay’s  plea for help for Papua New Guinea’s police following the senseless  murder of young  Rex John during a robbery at Laloki on Port Moresby’s outskirts .A relaunch of the ill-fated police ECP [enhanced cooperation program] was advocated.

Whilst it has long been obvious that PNG’s police need urgent help, in 2009 I penned a piece demonstrating that sending Australians whose experience and training is entirely Australian, to be mentors to PNG policemen, is not a valuable exercise. Indeed not a valid one at all except where technology and legal procedure are concerned.

The article may bear repeating, now that many in positions of influence in Canberra and Port Moresby are regular readers of PNG Attitude.

In 2009 I wrote as follows: “A new group of Australian Federal Police officers may move to PNG next year to act as advisers to the RPNGC. At the same time a comment was made to the effect that these men and women may end up sidelined due to resentment within RPNGC where there is a perception that this will be an unwanted  “neo-colonial intrusion.” (In fact something like this did occur and the operation was drastically scaled down.)

I went on to say ”if more Aussies are seconded to PNG by the AFP and regardless of the fact that PNG’s public at large as well as some sections of RPNGC may welcome this, there’s another, more insidious trap waiting, one which will be difficult to combat.”

PNG supports an inappropriately-large, expensive and inefficient Public Service, of which RP&NGC is a part. In the form it has taken over the years the PS constitutes a huge self-help shop supporting tens of thousands of government employees and their extended families, rather than a service-provider to its owners, the public.

At Tari, for instance, in 2008 there was a large, new, two-storey District Administration building. Because furniture and electrical appliances had not been supplied (what happened to the ones in use in earlier facilities?) no-one turned up to work except the unusually-dedicated District Manager, the equivalent of yesteryear’s ADC.

He brought his own table and chair and I was able to arrange a mobile phone for him. His files all lay in neat piles around the walls of his office.

The rest of the staff, of all operating departments represented at Tari except for Health, remained at home, doing no work but still drawing fortnightly salary payments.

And even at the hospital five new, AusAID-built doctors houses remained empty because no-one wanted a posting to Tari. The hospital was taken over by Medicins sans Frontieres, which runs it still, together with Angau Hospital in Lae.

The ratio of public employees to the general population is around 1 in 80. It is said that the Police service is not recruiting  and training at an appropriate rate, and that many members are approaching retirement. This is true but it is not the reason for the RP&NGC’s low level of efficiency.

When overseas reformers show up with a mandate to ask questions within the public sector, individuals are known to formulate clever concealing strategies to defend the conditions which nourish their lifestyle.

In the late 1980s, the totally ineffective yet very expensive Assistance to PNG Police (APNGP) program was launched. It was funded by Australia’s aid agency AIDAB, as AusAID was then badged.

In the province where I was working then the handful of Australian policemen deployed  were greeted with friendly expressions. It’s fair to say that an immediate sense of comradeship was established at Provincial police headquarters.

A spacious office had been vacated, repainted, refurnished and provided with its own fridge. A competent secretary had been identified by the Provincial Commander and instructed to make the new arrivals' learning curve as flat as possible.

On the first Saturday morning, in the interests of further edification and bonding, an overweight and hung-over HQ force of other-ranks was compelled by the Commander to parade in dress uniform with rifles, so they could be ceremonially inspected by the White Men and express, in turn,  their own happiness at the arrival of their Australian benefactors.

The new men, now completely at ease, were quickly and earnestly adopted into the small pool of local and expatriate business and professional people. They were showered with hospitality and offered membership of the limited but lively club and social networks.

Desperate for better service from the police and full of high expectations, local men of influence opened their hearts, doors and social milieu to the Australians.

Back at Police HQ the new men were encouraged to participate in areas in which each had a particular interest. In one case, where a marijuana-packing and shipping enterprise was believed to exist, one of the Aussies, an experienced drug-squad man, took the case in hand.

He soon located and questioned a witness who confirmed that what was rumoured was in fact occurring, and further, provided a tip-off as to an expected pick-up by sea at a coastal town often visited by foreign yachts.

The Aussie drug specialist accompanied by local detectives and the witness travelled together by road to the relevant port, a day's drive away.

Here they encountered difficulties which amounted to a total fiasco, a situation never fully-explained, but which reflected badly upon the Aussies who had obviously been led into a trap.

It was later alleged that the “witness” not only located the yachtsman and warned him, but had also secreted a large package of processed, vacuum-packed marijuana under the hire-car in which the party travelled- presumably  selling this to the suspect yachtsman after the hue-and-cry died down.

Abashed, the Australians confined themselves henceforward to in-house training programs, only accompanying RPNGC members by invitation  and never initiating raids and investigations.

Locally, though, there was speculation. The drug affair was much discussed. Many suspected that there was far more to the story than had been revealed and that the White Men had been both compromised and neutralised by the “window-curtain” subsequently drawn by the police over the affair, allowing the White Men to preserve some self-respect whilst remaining mightily relieved that the affair had not led to an embarrassing media report.

The truth will never be known; the project is long-dead, to be followed years later by ECP, and now, perhaps by a further program.

Reports of these Australian aid projects are never readily made public. The clique of Canberra bureaucrats and consultancy staffers who together create, monitor and implement aid-projects holds its cards extremely close to its chest. Summing up and debriefing reports are seen only by the officials and principals who head this clique.

At one juncture I was invited to dinner to meet two of the most senior managers involved in the Australian police project. In their mid-fifties, they were pleasant people, a man and a woman; the man was an ex-Chief Stipendiary Magistrate and the lady a very senior commissioned officer on loan from her State’s police force.  

As conversation proceeded I realized that neither seemed to have the depth, in intellectual terms, which one would expect. Both demonstrated a remarkable naivety in remarks made about PNG, its culture and the nature of the RP&NGC and its failings. For their part, the policeman-consultants worshipped the ground the pair walked upon.

A year or two later I was invited again to the same hotel to have dinner with friends. While I waited for them I struck up conversation with a group of RP&NGC commissioned officers, of whom there seemed to be a great many in the bars and the hotel’s casual bistro dining area.

The men told me that they were participating in an AusAID-conducted training seminar, and that they had been brought together from every one of the nation’s 19 provinces. I noted that there were no whites in these groups of policemen.

Later, in the high-cost a la carte restaurant where my friends and I sat down to dine, I noted six white men sitting together, strangers in town, and obviously enjoying themselves. I went over to them and asked them if they were connected with the police seminar.

One replied that they were running it. I asked them if they thought it appropriate to dine alone and exclusively whilst the subjects of their seminar, all senior serving commissioned officers, were left to fend for themselves outside. In answer I received  a stoney-eyed glare from them all. They gave me a business-card and turned their backs on me.

How was it, I reflected , that professionals at the peak of responsible institutional careers could remain so unmannerly,  so ignorant of social obligation in any setting, to behave like this; especially in a land where the sharing of food between comrades, and even between enemies at certain times, has immense significance.

Was it perhaps a concealed lack of confidence? Insecurity is often at the base of arrogant behaviour by foreigners in PNG, often manifest even after years of residence.

Over many years suggestions recommending a pre-deployment orientation course for Australians appointed to serve their country in Melanesia and the Pacific has fallen upon deaf ears.

An institution which would live within its files most of the time, taking on a physical manifestation as and when needed; perhaps within the ambit of such an establishment as ANU’s Crawford School, where there is a resource of committed and mature PNG/Pacific-friendly people with much in-depth knowledge, including one or two PNG nationals.

Such people, with guest mentors from PNG, would be well able to present papers and pass on valuable ideas and tips at such a seminar which could well embrace Australian military personnel as well.

PNG is nothing if not a country of extreme paradoxes, deserving in so many ways of its unofficial title as “The Land of the Unexpected.” It is no place for the newly-arrived and unprepared consultant, medical or education or police professional, whether imbued or not imbued with missionary-like zeal.

PNG’s culture has always been a highly complex one, and it has moved far beyond any falsely-perceived colonial-era pliability. Among the educated there are numbers who have acquired a dislike for all things promoted by and all people of foreign nations.

With a colonial history still evolving under the impact of the Asian influx it is an increasingly-difficult puzzle for Australians with their generally cut-and-dried, not to say simplistic form of logic.

Australia must re-invent its role vis-à-vis its late colonial dependency, accepting a long-term role as brother/sister to PNG, rather than that of heavily-patronizing rich uncle.

An uncle who would like to see PNG’s problems vanish overnight, and is angered, a-la Bob Carr, that they don’t.

When one understands the nature of the immense changes and the huge social pressure PNG has coped with over the past century, pressures which remain unabated, pressures with which the people continue to cope whilst remaining a largely smiling society, one cannot but feel a little humbled.

This even whilst contemplating the continued malfeasance of the ruling elite and elements of the public service.


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Phil Fitzpatrick

I've got the later version with the green cover Harry.

But page 33 still says that ammo must be locked up and returning fire is only acceptable after you are dead.

Harry Topham

John, A timely piece in view of the current ADF assistance programme to PNG.

I recall that at the time the enhanced police program was in play that one of the key grievances expressed by the RPNGC members was the disparity between the wages being paid the Ozzie coppers and the local police members who also felt that the overseas members had no clues on social customs and that the community policing approach adopted by the advisors was not relevant.

To some of us who have longer memories can recall a previous expatriate police Commissioner who tried to restructure the RPNGC along more egalitarian lines only to find a failure of purpose due to the resistance of changing long established hierarchical and paramilitary structures to the new model espoused.

To me the key current issue is one of discipline and more particularly the lack of self-discipline in both organisations involved.

If any wisdom is to be gained so as to avoid any similar embarrassments arising, such as those outlined in your article, it may be opportune for the Australian authorities to provide any prospective recruits for possible future police involvement in PNG with suitable in house training before they embark overseas.

I would have thought that there was no shortage of advice as there are plenty of lessons to learnt from Australia’s other foray in the Solomon Islands.

Perhaps those in Canberra might consider utilising the experiences gained from previous police officers who had served in the Solomon Islands campaign after all PNG and the Solomon Islands have strong similarities.

At least they might be advised to have a read of earlier historical policing issues relevant to PNG.

I still have a copy of that original DDA Departmental Standing Instructions manual which they are quite welcome to borrow

Paul Oates

Leonard, maybe part of the problem lies in the difficulty of those in positions of power to admit they can't manage. It's far easier to blame someone else than to admit you have to change your behaviour.

This aspect could well be exacerbated by the Melanesian fear of being shamed if one is forced to admit a mistake.

The only way things will change is if those at the top decide to foster a climate of change and those below are allowed to rule off and start again without being held accountable for possible past misdeeds.

Leonard Roka

This is the real PNG:

"When overseas reformers show up with a mandate to ask questions within the public sector, individuals are known to formulate clever concealing strategies to defend the conditions which nourish their lifestyle."

Fowke's paragraph above, is the problem in PNG. One can talk about it, but right from a handful of the educated to the grassroot, they will attack.

I just don't know when this attitude will change...

Paul Oates

John, a very timely reminder of what the issues are and how they are often ignored through ignorance or ineptitude.

Why should those who are milking the system on either side of the Torres Strait change? They're perfectly happy with the current set up.

Australian political perspectives and the ability to understand the problems at home, let alone one next door is actually on trial here.

Innumerable books and reports from yesteryear detail how no one in Canberra wants to know about a problem to our near north until it erupts. Then the same people are able to blame anyone but themselves.

The real culpability is that our political leaders have allowed this situation to occur time and time again and don't hold the mandarins accountable.

Most of our current crop of political leaders are just too interested in what's happening in Europe or the Mid East or the US to look over their front fence.

I suppose the appeal of Port Moresby and downtown Lae or Hagen lacks a little something when compared to strutting the world stage and talking about such global issues as the Syrian imbroglio or the G8, 20 or will be 35 in due course?

Ah Phil, thank heavens we haven't become cynical.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thanks John, for this very helpful insight into present day PNG.
I hope that it will help Australians to understand better ways that we can help the country.

Phil Fitzpatrick

The problem that I have with John Fowke's articles is that I generally agree with them wholeheartedly. This one is no exception. Having been led up the garden path on numerous occasions all one can do is nod sagely.

I would like to add though that this one is one of his more beautifully penned and eloquent contributions. If the mandarins in Canberra let this one drift over their heads as usual they should at least appreciate its classiness as it goes by.

Advocates of the shock and awe style of writing take note - this works much better.

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