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The slow, sad death of my wonderful PNG memories

Phil on patrol in the Star Mountains, early 1970sPHIL FITZPATRICK

I first went to Papua New Guinea in 1967 when I was 19, a real babe in the woods. I’ve been going back ever since. Sometimes for work but often just to catch up with old friends.

I’m now close to 68, still a babe in the woods compared to some of the living fossils who went there long before me. Some were there before I was born and are still going strong.

I’ve reached a stage in life when one tends to become reflective. That is, I think about the past a lot, what I’ve done and most importantly why and what it all might mean.

Having a memory that now has no trouble recalling what I did when I was 10 years old but cannot remember what I did half an hour ago powers this change of mental direction.

At least I think I can recollect what I was doing so long ago. I may, in fact, simply be having memories of memories, if you know what I mean. That means that while I can recall what happened back then I can’t really vouchsafe for its authenticity.

There is one thing about those memories, perhaps it’s an inevitable truth, and that is that things have changed remarkably in my lifetime.

At my age, three score and eight, you realise that the end is not as far away as it once seemed. When you know that, the significance of the future diminishes. Somehow there has been a subtle switch to children and grandchildren. Simply put, it is the realisation that you are mortal. If I plant an oak seedling today, I’m pretty sure I will never see it as a mature tree.

When you stop being pre-occupied with the future your mind seems to switch to the past. And, by and large, it is a pleasurable diversion; we tend to forget the bad things but remember the good.

Sometimes, however, it is not so pleasurable because there are regrets mixed with those happy moments. And these regrets are not always personal.

For example, my recollections and musings about Papua New Guinea. Just what has it all meant?

Over my lifetime I have watched a young and vibrant country, with the world and the future at its feet, slowly but surely descend into an abyss largely of its own making.

It’s been like watching a nightmare evolving in slow motion, a stricken ship slowly sinking into the deep ocean….

The popular American writer, Leon Uris, once described my Irish homeland, my asples, at the height of the so-called ‘troubles’, as a land having a ‘terrible beauty’. He may have borrowed that term from somewhere else but I sometimes think it might also be an apt epithet for Papua New Guinea.

It is not every day that you get to watch a whole country slowly unwinding and beginning to fall apart.

Just before I left for Papua New Guinea in 1967, I had second thoughts about what I was getting myself into. I had picked up the scent of redneck among the expatriates in Papua New Guinea and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be counted in their number.

I discussed this misgiving with Fred Kaad, an experienced and enlightened kiap who was teaching at ASOPA at the time.

Fred basically explained that I was about to witness something remarkable, the end of the colonial era in a significant country and the passing of an historic epoch. He thought it was something not to be missed.

Fred had been in a plane crash in Papua New Guinea and was in a wheelchair suffering bouts of excruciating pain. Sometimes in class he would stop talking, grit his teeth and grasp the arms of his wheelchair and buckle up until it passed. He was the kind of brave man who commanded respect and who you took seriously.

So I went to Papua New Guinea. But what happened after that I don’t think even Fred envisioned.

I guess a lot of British colonialists from Africa experienced much the same sad process.

Those seeds of democracy and modernity we planted, and which were strong and vigorous shoots when we left and should have grown into mature and productive plants, for some inexplicable reason faded and then withered away.

The bad old ways came back and grew like weeds, choking the new growth and creating a garden that was neither the old nor the new but a strange and dysfunctional amalgam of both.

As I reflect on this sorry history, I can’t help thinking that maybe I wasted my time after all. All those years of work and sweat and this is what happened!

It is in that sense that I can sympathise with those expatriates who have never been back to Papua New Guinea and refuse to do so. They have good memories of their halcyon days and they don’t want them shattered.

We’re all too old to do anything about it now and nobody listens to us anyway, least of all the people supposedly in charge both here in Australia and in Papua New Guinea.

Anger turns to sadness and, while we think we’ve finally turned our backs, we can’t help worrying about those wonderful people we once knew and those children and grandchildren they must now have. What will happen to them?

All that is left are tainted memories, the good rendered bad and a bleak future for a people we once called friends.


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Phil Fitzpatrick

I'm familiar with the Mac Giolla P(h)adraig, meaning 'son of the servant or devotee of Saint Patrick' Gary but the 'Pilib' looks a bit suss, unless of course you are using tok pisin. I think Philip is a Creek name to do with people working with horses.

We have the dubious distinction of being one of the first of the old Gaelic septs to capitulate to English rule. However, we've got shining lights like the mountain man Thomas 'Broken Hand' Fitzpatrick from Cavan who discovered South Pass over the Rockies and became a sort of frontier kiap dealing with Red Cloud and his Lakota.

I guess I was thinking about a seventh state Paul but there were other options available. The Americans enacted relationships with some of their colonies, like Micronesia, called free associations, that allow easy passage back and forth for both people and trade. New Zealand has a similar arrangement with the Cook islands.

I think the biggest but unstated obstacle to the state idea was the lingering White Australia attitudes. As for the legalities of trust territories etc. I think they could have been overcome. Then again we could have snubbed our nose at the UN, like France did with Tahiti and New Caledonia (Noumea). But then again the French had ulterior motives, like using the Pacific as a testing ground for its atomic bombs (as the Yanks did too).

Best to quietly close that Pandora's box I think.

Garry Roche

Phil Fitzpatrick, or to name you in Irish “Pilib Mac Giolla Phádraig”, you refer to Leon Uris use of the phrase “a terrible beauty”. You are correct in thinking that the phrase is borrowed – it was used by the poet W.B. Yeats in poem “Easter 1916”, referring to the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin, Ireland. The phrase “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born,” is used several times in the poem. Maybe after PNG independence - a terrible beauty was born - . However we live in hope. Good things are still possible here in PNG.

Paul Oates

Well Phil, you insist on reopening Pandora’s box. When I came to PNG I too thought: ‘Why not a seventh state?’

After living and working in PNG for many years I revised my perspective. The examples you give about the French colonies are not holistic. There are still problems that have not yet been overcome concerning the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Metropolitan French laws don’t always work and then there’s the problem of culture and resources. Look at New Caledonia?

PNG’s ethnic mix is in fact one of the biggest problems that still faces the nation. Land and resource ownership is another. Could we have had an Australian State that had so many different laws that there could and would have had to had been an impermeable state boundary to ensure the two didn’t overlap?

What would have happened if the seventh state had been accepted would have been legally difficult as Australia did not own New Guinea. Sure we could have had a plebiscite as we did with our Indian Ocean Territories but their population was minuscule in comparison with PNG. In the early 1970’s when PNG had a combined population of around 3 million, Australia had a population of around the fifteen to 18 million. It would be easy now to accept that the small number of educated PNG people could and would have assimilated and integrated into the mainstream of the Australian population. However, what about the vast majority of PNG people who lived in the bush and did not have the benefit of a comparable education or lifestyle and culture?

Would it have worked? We’ll never know for sure however the distinctly separate enclaves that have evolved by those who have recently been offered the opportunity to settle in Australia and enjoy the available benefits gives an indication of what might have easily happened.

Australia also had a legal responsibility to the UN to work towards an independent New Guinea. Imagine if New Guinea became independent and Papua was offered Australian statehood? I couldn’t see that working either.

What should have happened is that Self Government should have been gradually introduced in an agreed step by step process and an Independence date left open depending on agreed levels of development and opportunities.

As I inferred in my previous comment, this was never going to happen due to the UN being blindly driven by newly independent colonial nations in Africa and elsewhere that clamoured for an immediate anti-colonial withdrawal coupled with a clearly self -imposed myopia in the Australian political leadership. Just look at where most of those nations who clamoured for immediate independence are now?

So could a seventh state policy have worked? Husat isave?

Phil Fitzpatrick

Deep down many of the Australians in Papua New Guinea prior to 1975 knew that independence was never going to work.

They knew that in most cases when a Papua New Guinean was put in charge of something its future became uncertain.

This was not a reflection of the talents of the individuals involved but a recognition that factors, which few people understood, then and now, would come into play and ultimately thwart even the best Papua New Guinean manager.

Many Papua New Guineans at the time also knew it was never going to work.

There was never a referendum on independence. The Papua New Guinean people were never asked whether they wanted or agreed with independence. I suspect that if there had been a referendum it would have returned a resounding no vote, especially in the heavily populated highlands.

Many Papua New Guinean politicians also knew it would never work. Statesmen like Tei Abal and Mathias Toliman in the United Party were not listened to however.

Despite this knowledge the Australians and their Papua New Guinean counterparts were working desperately with grossly inadequate resources to set the country up so that it could at least give independence its best shot when it happened.

That the rug was pulled out from under them too early by misdirected anti-colonial ideology promulgated by both sides of politics in Australia is now history.

What they didn't realise was that the notion of independence for many Pacific island colonies wasn't the only option.

If you look at some of the countries in the Pacific that took up alternative approaches to independence, like Noumea, Tahiti and Hawaii, it is difficult not to notice that their relative stability, well-being and high standards of living.

Those countries simply became part of the country of their colonisers and they are better off for it. There were nascent independence advocators in those countries but they never got very far.

I'm sure that if Papua New Guinea had become part of Australia things would be much better now. The idea was briefly entertained at the time but dismissed as ridiculous. Nowadays it doesn't seem so dumb.

Australia made a mistake by giving Papua New Guinea independence so quickly or at all. The Papua New Guinean agitators for independence, like Michael Somare and the Pangu Pati, made a mistake by jumping on board the bandwagon (or was it the gravy train?)

If Peter O'Neill was now the premier of Papua New Guinea rather than prime minister would life be better?

Now all we can do is speculate what could have been and rue the past.

Papua New Guinea is now broken and no one knows how to fix it.

In Australia no one even cares.

It is a salient lesson, perhaps more so for Bougainville than anywhere else. I can appreciate their desire to break away from a dysfunctional Papua New Guinea but I'm not sure independence is the best option.

Paul Oates

What’s the real problem? Well that might be in the eye of the beholder. I suggest the essence of the issue is one of perspective. When we left PNG we thought we were handing over the power to those who had been trained to do what we did and what we knew worked. Well, we were wrong.

There are some crucially important factors that with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight are now patently clear.

A person’s culture is not something can be sloughed off like an old coat. It is an integral part of each person’s human psyche. Remember when we had to learn that when we asked “Do you understand?” and we inevitably got an answer “Yes” and we thought we had been understood? In fact, the reality of the situation could be anything along a long and broad continuum between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Local culture however dictated that it would be impolite not to understand the person speaking and also, it would be shameful to admit the listener didn't or couldn’t understand what was being said.

Now Australian culture at the time would have required the listener to query anything they didn’t understand, especially if it was an important matter.

The local PNG culture we who lived and worked in the bush came to understand was an important part of cultural awareness that had to be learnt and taken notice of everyday. Not so those who worked in Canberra or the visiting politicians from down south who thought they knew everything and weren’t interested in listening to those who actually did know how things in PNG worked.

Similarly, those newly promoted PNG leaders thought they knew how they would change the operating systems to suit themselves and to overturn what they perceived were foreign and conflicting ideas and ideals.

We were both wrong!

There is no easy way and to manage a nation ethically without graft and corruption creeping in. It requires the use of appropriate methodology that has been developed and tested over hundreds of years.

It’s a bit like giving up gambling, smoking and drinking (or worse). You can’t give up drugs in a marginal way. It doesn’t work. Likewise, either you obey the law or you don’t. Either you follow procedures or you don’t. Either the nation is run without corruption or it isn't.

Take for example the recent admission in the media that the distribution of pharmaceuticals in PNG isn’t working. Remember only two years ago when it was working and working well? What happened? Well the government and the Health Minister and the Departmental Head and his staff all conspired to upset the correct tender process and make a ‘Captain’s call’ and give the contract illegally to a foreign company who didn’t follow correct tendering procedures and was also K70 million over the previously successful tender’s budget.

So now the medicines aren’t being properly distributed and people in the bush aren’t getting the help they had previously had.

The problem is that no one is being held responsible and accountable. Why? Well that’s not the way it works in PNG political culture is it?

So is the problem really one of ‘culture mismatch’ and that can't be solved? No way! But you have to first accept the unpalatable reality that you can’t use anything else but the correct and legal procedures. Justice delayed is also justice denied.

There is no other way.

Chris Overland

One of the features of the post-colonial era has been the descent of potentially very wealthy and vibrant countries into a socio-economic abyss of their own making.

The list of such countries is long but Zimbabwe, Somalia and Angola in Africa, along with Syria and Iraq in the Middle East are, in their different ways, examples of this phenomenon.

It has been convenient for the leaders of these countries to attribute their failings to the former colonial power or, in more recent times, to the USA.

Such fundamentally self serving explanations are sometimes at least partly correct, but they never adequately explain the entirely local contributions made by things like the pursuit of irrational or self defeating policies, institutionalised corruption, rampant tribalism and religious extremism.

The ugly truth is that a great deal that is wrong with the post colonial world is largely a function of failed leadership, an unwillingness or inability to truly embrace the rule of law and a resurgence of age old hatreds.

Thus, in the Middle East, the enduring hatred between Sunni and Shia is a continuing blight, often over laying inter tribal feuds, the origins of which lie in the distant past.

Instead of confronting these truths, it is the preference of much of the leadership of the Arab world to demonise the West, lamenting how the infidels are the source of Arab suffering and discord.

This approach reinforces the well known human tendency to find it always much more comforting to blame others for your troubles than to examine your own thoughts, attitudes and behaviours.

Unless and until there is a sea change in the way in which these countries are led and governed, then the only possible trajectory is a continuing downward spiral.

PNG is not yet in the same category as the nations I have mentioned but the risk is very great that it will join them unless it can truly embrace the rule of law, root out and punish corruption and create a political structure that puts the great mass of the people first, not those who come bearing "gifts" in exchange for tearing the heart out of the country for profit.

Like Phil, I am not optimistic: the track record of the post-colonial world does not inspire confidence.

I hope to be proved entirely wrong and will be thrilled if I am required to publicly admit that I was.

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