Our sacred land and the lies, suffering & death
The Gordon Steege story 1 – Flying boats in Papua

Nauru: A dog barked but was not heard. It barks yet


IT IS MY CONVICTION that although Australia was an exceptionally good and generous foster-parent to both territories, Papua and New Guinea, it cared for until 1975, it committed two major sins of omission.

These were sins of short-sightedness which led to continuing and far-reaching consequences.

I have written about the first of my concerns here on PNG Attitude, and fellow PNG-pundits of the aged, expat sort have either shot it down or patted it on the head with faint praise.

This plan for the reversal of the first major sin of Australia has been humbly (yes, humbly for once) lodged with people who may take it seriously and even use some strands to weave their own tapestry for tomorrow. Or not, of course.

But Harry Topham’s well-put article on Nauru prompts me to propound my second concern.

The Second Sin of Oz in its legacy to PNG concerns the recent history of Bougainville and its future. The future of PNG as a single political entity.

Several large and populous of PNG’s island provinces all look to Bougainville with interest as well as concern. There are wide-spreading waves here.

Waves with meaning for other Melanesian states nearby, and for Australia. Waves already lapping the shores of the land “girt by sea.” Waves which should concern our leadership and its foreign affairs minions in Canberra.

Under the stewardship of an Australian Liberal Minister for Territories, permission was given for Bougainville’s Panguna mine and its support infrastructure to go ahead.

This would relieve Australia of part of the financial burden it foresaw carrying for many years following independence in PNG. 

The mine was viewed by Paul Hasluck and his top men in Konedobu as a shared-across-the-new-nation common resource. There was an indisputable rush to secure this “pot-of-gold” in Bougainville as insurance for future national financial viability.

Harry’s piece on the destruction of aeons of self-sustainability and the creation of a beggar-nation has very serious implications for our beloved PNG. These implications which were there to be read and interpreted in the early 1960s. They could be seen in the disgraceful exploitation of Nauru under a mandate administered by Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

In Nauru, under the phosphate company, there was no pragmatic, thoughtful attempt prior to exhaustion of the phosphate deposits to prepare the people for life after mining; they were simply paid wages and allowances at incredibly high rates to keep them quiet.

The years of extraction were years of rampant, greed-motivated selfish colonialism at its worst. And on Australia’s watch.

Nauru boasted the highest per capita income enjoyed by any sovereign state in the world during the late 1960s and early 1970s. When the phosphate reserves were exhausted, the physical and ecological environment had been very seriously harmed.

The resource of trust established to manage the island's stored wealth diminished in value due to mismanagement, as the erstwhile miners looked on. Ultimately the people re-established their ancient subsistence lifestyle but with radically-altered, vastly-impoverished topography.

Little of friable, cultivatable soils remained. No big trees meant no canoes, so essential fishing has to be done from fibreglass banana boats - that’s if the family can afford one. Canned fish has become the staple protein in this once independent island.

To earn income, Nauru briefly became a tax haven and an illegal money laundering centre. In addition to the major funding belatedly remitted annually by Australia, from 2001 to 2008, the beggar-nation accepted yet more aid from the Australian government in exchange for hosting the Nauru detention centre. And now this program has been revived.

Bougainville was subjected to a program of exploitation already visibly executed on Nauru; a picture ready and available for study by any who cared. In Bougainville, as we all know, the after effect of the opening of the mine was dreadful. Armed rebellion, a savage civil war, numberless unrecorded massacres and murders-by-dropping from government helicopters.

On and on the oral history goes. There is no reliable and open official record.

I have wondered how those kiaps who joined with Bougainville Copper in the ’sixties and early ‘seventies - and there were several - could reconcile their service experience and ideals (kiaps were idealistic to a degree at least) with what was proposed on Bougainville and its foolishly-conceived function as a cash-cow for a Port Moresby-based national government.

Some were very experienced men.

In Australia and in TP&NG there was no apparent recognition of the potential damage to such a society. Hasluck was both intelligent and a man of demonstrably high ideals. He was notoriously difficult, however, and unwilling to accept advice. Not a man for compromise. Here at the top was a serious lack of well- informed insight and of future-reading.

Here was a society already under immense strain in its headlong progress from swapping coconuts for twist tobacco (which the early traders had to teach people to smoke), from using simple steel tools to using aeroplanes, and with rule of law increasingly bestowed by a black public-servant sitting in a strange building far away from the village.

The village, where up until very recently the law sat under a tree surrounded by the whole clan. Law administered by a lawgiver making judgements as informed by, and as intuited from a knowledge of local customary observances and obligations.

This new rule of law, of course, was Hasluck’s child by Professor Derham, delivered in indecent haste by Hasluck’s enthusiastic apostle, Justice Alan Mann. This was an era of confusion which sowed seeds of fertile and persistent weeds.

The cost of this sin to Bougainville has been immense and is ongoing. It is seen in the aftermath of physical and mental injury, of widespread sadness and bitterness which remains, of the imprinted, ineradicable desire for revenge, of material and infrastructural impoverishment, and in latent political instability – an instability which may well be contagious.

There is much for our own leadership to reflect upon here, to say nothing of the occupants of the big house at Waigani.


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Arthur Williams

Loved a miner's comment at the Madang Mining Conference in 1997, I think.

He made a claim for sustainable mining!

John Fowke

Erasmus, I think you've confused my article with another. In mine it is stated-

"The years of extraction were years of rampant, greed-motivated selfish colonialism at its worst. And on Australia’s watch."

The whole point was to emphasize this and the fact that the same lack of foresight and desire for early, large financial gains were present when the Department of Teritories in Canberra began to consider the licensing of the Panguna mine. The example of outcome in the case of Nauru, though there as a warning, was ignored.

There is more to say on this, as I shall submit a slightly different case soon, as seen by someone who was in Nauru for a period of years in the 'seventies and who made lasting friendships with number of Nauruans whilst there.

Whilst "The Case of Nauru Redux" will reveal deeper insights into Nauru's history than those pictured by Harry Topham and myself, the implications for present-day PNG and its unsettled Bougainville province will be seen as even more stark and troubling than the conclusions we have both drawn already.

Erasmus Baraniak

John your article did not place sufficient responsibility in the hands of Australia and Australians for reducing Nauru into the ruins where it is at present.

When Nauru was flying high, Australians made hay and took more than they cared. Air Nauru was flying high with Qantas leased aircraft. Nauru House was a great part of Melbourne citiscape.

Big legal and accounting firms in Sydney and Melbourne fought over who was going to look after Nauru's wealth.

In the end Australia and Australians benefited more from that ill-fated Islands fortunes.

John Fowkes, at a time when PNG is considering and being wowed by Australian fund managers over management of its Sovereign Wealth Fund, and the young bunch of PNG pollies with follies abound, history is something we ought learn from, and certainly yours to tell to be fair to all readers.

Paul Oates

Hi Leonard, we have a saying in Oz, 'horses for courses'. It means that you apply different but appropriate rules to each and every different situation.

The essence of the dilemma as I see it is simple to describe but hard to achieve. Generations of my ancestors went through wars and trauma before it truth was recognised for what it is.

Somebody once said to me: Don't ask what can I do? Seek understanding and then you'll know what to do.

Melanesian culture has some very good and appropriate customs. Looking after the 'lapuns' is just one of them. In my so called western culture, many families can't wait to send their elderly relatives off to 'retirement homes'.

We too used to have something equivalent to Melanesian customs when I was young and everyone wasn't wanting more and more material goods and money.

The laws of business however, were never developed to be meshed with Melanesian culture. It's like oil and water. They don't mix.

The solution is to use the appropriate custom or law for the relevant situation. I am still very cognizant of my ancestors and their particular language that I do not speak.

I can trace my ancestors back many generations and know where they come from and who my extended family is. Our ancestral farmhouse is at least 1,000 years old.

Yet my underlying cultural roots mustn't affect the way I have to obey the laws of my society and follow what are defined as 'good business ethics' irrespective of whether I am selling to a family member or not.

Similarly, if I were to be on a selection panel and interviewing someone I had a perceived obligation to, I would declare that obligation and withdraw from the selection panel.

Wantok. Mi savi pinis ya. It's easy to say and hard to do. Yet from my perspective, like it or lump it, that's the only way forward.

Happy to discuss further if you like. It's only by exchanging and sharing ideas and concepts that we all can advance.

Leonard Roka

Oates - I feel that in PNG no one really is interested in history.

They all want to hang to the present, yet we all know that everything like investment upon we are talking about the LNG, mineral boom are all foreign controlled, we are not interested at changing the system.

We can change it, but in a society where tribalism is prevalent, I just don't know how.

Tingting tasol.

Paul Oates

Thanks John. Your article begs the question about relying upon mining for the majority of your national revenue. Mining will always be an 'extractive industry' and clearly only a relatively short term solution.

Australia would do well to heed this inevitable axiom yet the current government is reportedly busy at spending fabulous amounts of the wealth we don't have to try and stay in power and pay off their supporters.

What happens when the so called mining boom ends or more importantly, goes elsewhere (Mongolia) for cheaper coal and iron ore?

Could a new 'domino' effect happen whereby the value of the Australian dollar goes down to where it was a couple of decades ago when it was first floated (about 50% of the US$) and we can't afford the current level of aid the Pacific has become accustomed to?

At that point:

1. The few billionaires who have made their fortune out of Australia's natural resources will no doubt fly out to some no tax haven, (Switzerland, Bahamas, Maldives, etc.),

2. The current politicians who are overseeing this travesty will retire on their huge pensions and write their boring memoirs,

3. Those who are currently buying our minerals decide to become even more 'assertive' in the Pacific, and

4. Those of us 'lapuns' who are left will again be scratching our heads as to why no one ever learns from history.

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