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.