AN involvement with Papua New Guinea touches people in many ways and in fact there seems to be three degrees rather than six degrees of separation which comes with this involvement.
This was a contributing factor to the relaxed social aspect as well as the formalities of the recent Symposium initiated and hosted by the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia to mark the centenary of the relationship between Australia and PNG.
The first night dinner allowed me the opportunity to meet and chat briefly to familiar faces from the media like Sean Dorney and politics, Charlie Lynn MLC, PNG High Commissioner Charles Lepani and former Australian Governor General, Major General Michael Jeffrey.
Speakers at the dinner included Dr Jonathan Ritchie (Alfred Deakin Research Institute), Andrea Williams (President PNGAA), Charlie Lynn, Charles Lepani and Julie Bishop, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.
The speeches were interesting with a healthy mix of politics and humour and all eyes on Julie Bishop as she took the rostrum to deliver her address.
I must admit to a degree of prejudice and bias regarding the Abbott Government and the Manus Detention Centre and I was not sure how this much-publicised policy would be presented by the Minister.
To her credit Ms Bishop delivered a sincere and warm speech in relation to her small yet personal involvement with PNG, her family connection through a great uncle who set up what I assume was Ward Strip teacher’s College and a friendship with Dame Rachel Cleland and PNG High Commissioner Charles Lepani, from whom she often seeks advice on PNG issues.
Ms Bishop then spoke of the government’s various policies and initiatives related to PNG, including a new ‘Colombo plan’, seasonal work opportunities, support for the proposed PNG sovereign wealth fund, and action towards sustainable economic growth.
Naturally there were more positives than negatives in her presentation, which reinforced the view that the government was not sitting on its hands and doing nothing to foster the bilateral partnership.
However based on the historical facts, particularly regarding Manus, healthcare and corruption, I will wait with interest to see if the Ministers statements will align with reality.
The only reference to Manus was the reduction in the number of illegal immigrants since the detention centre was re-opened.
She stressed that PNG was seen as more than a good neighbour, more as family, and there was a commitment to that relationship. It was a view that was to be repeated by many speakers at the Symposium.
Ms Bishop also acknowledged and praised the work of patrol officers – the kiaps - and the awarding to them of the Police Overseas Service Medal.
The overall response to the Ministers speech was extremely positive and delegates seemed impressed by her sincerity. I suppose that is what makes a good politician.
But what makes a great politician is ensuring the commitments made are carried out. I think that this Minister has the strength and intellect to do this.
Ms Bishop Minister apologetically left the dinner after her speech to catch a flight to New York - to deliver another speech. I think the PNGAA was very appreciative that the Minister made herself available during a difficult time politically to give an address at the Symposium.
The PNGAA Symposium - 18 September 2014
Andrea Williams, PNGAA President, and her committee are to be congratulated on the initiative and the hard work required to plan and organise an occasion such as this.
The list of presentations provided logistical challenges in terms of how much content could be delivered in a 30 minute grab, especially as each speaker was an enthusiastic authority on their chosen topic.
MC Jonathan Ritchie had to intervene diplomatically on only a couple of occasions when a speaker went over time.
The aging demographic of the audience reflected the links with a pre independent Papua New Guinea. Some younger observers, including a couple of Papua New Guineans, may have found comments made during a couple of presentations patronising , but times and attitudes were different during Australia’s early involvement in the development of PNG.
“The Australian flag was lowered with dignity and not torn down,” said Major General Michael Jeffrey quoting the late Sir John Guise at the Independence celebrations in 1975. It was a remark that reflected the good that was done rather than any negatives.
The Symposium presentations provided for an informative and generally enriching day and, of course, some topics had more personal appeal than others.
There were some presenters who I would like to have seen given far more time, as in the case of Jenny Hayward-Jones of the Lowy Institute and her topic A new era in Australia-Papua New Guinea relations.
Jenny covered an enormous amount of material in a very short time, ranging from the “more than friends and family” perception to the thorny issue of Manus, the weakening of bilateral relations, the lack of a strong political opposition in PNG, and Meg Taylor’s election as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Unfortunately the panel discussion (see photo) on The Papua New Guinea Kiap, although not rushed,also suffered froma lack of time.
It was both humorous and fascinating, with panel members Ross Johnson, Bob Cleland, Quentin Anthony and Mark Lynch recalling their life and experiences as kiaps and the eventual loss of power which was described “the fault of Canberra”.
A video, Kiap: The Stories behind the Medal, will be released in the next couple of months. The brief clip that was screened at the Symposium looked fantastic.
The two presentations, The Significance of WWI for Australia and PNG and the Battle of Bitapaka, byAir Chief Marshall Angus Houston and The Loss of Australia’s first submarine AE1 byGeoff Anderson, President of the Submarine Association Australia NSW,meshed well for an interesting historical presentation on Australia’s engagement in the Gazelle Peninsula in WWI.
Military historian and author Phillip Bradley’s presentation World War II - The Pacific War: A lived experience was again a short fascinating history lesson that would have benefitted from more time.
War Trophies or Curios? was presented by Dr Barry Craig, Curator of Foreign Ethnology at the South Australian Museum, and was an interesting if lengthy account on the mementoes and artefacts collected by officers and servicemen in PNG over the years and now housed in museums.
There is a new book on this subject written by Barry Craig, Ron Vanderwal and Christine Winter and published by Museum Victoria.
Oil Search Managing Director Peter Botten spoke on The Oil Search Health Foundation: The role of the Private Sector in Health Service Delivery in PNG. His detailed presentation itemised the challenges, expectations and the need for government and private sectors to work together.
Initiatives being implemented including the ‘Marisin Stoa’ and an anti-malaria program are a sad reminder of how health services have deteriorated.
The need for the private sector to deliver projects efficiently and without corruption was a strong note to finish on.
The WWII Oral History Project – PNG, a paper byDr Andrew Moutu and Dr Jonathan Ritchie, provided an interesting description of a project to collect oral histories of World War II from areas including Kokoda, Hanau, Deboin, Popondetta and Kagi with more interviews planned to include New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville.
Graham Ellis SC gave a quickly delivered a factual and at times witty presentation, Observations on two issues: (1) Law and Order and (2) Corruption, on his rolereflecting on the sad state of affairs in PNG from a judge’s perspective.
The positives were a noticeable improvement in law and order, especially when the lengthy backlog of cases to go to court is eliminated. Mr Ellis also offered a list of recommendations on what is needed to deal with corruption.
The final presentation, White Australia – Black Melanesia, was given by the energetic and forthright Charlie Lynn MLC who spoke passionately about Kokoda, his concerns for the tourism industry and the urgent need for a Wartime Tourism Association to be established.
I look forward and hope that, once the PNGAA Committee has recovered, another Symposium can be organised as this initial event was certainly a worthwhile and valuable exercise.
Perhaps the importance of the roles played by teachers, nurses and missionaries as well as ASOPA where teachers, patrol officers and magistrates were trained for the Northern Territory and the Territory of Papua and New Guinea could be also be included next time.