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Australia's ignorance about PNG is a loss for both nations

Sean Dorney in 2009SEAN DORNEY | ‘The Embarrassed Colonialist’ | Extract

AUSTRALIA never spent a great deal of money on Port Moresby when it was the headquarters of Australia’s colonial administration.

Indeed, the contrast between what the British had built in Suva during its colonial governance of Fiji and what Australia constructed in Port Moresby for its administration of Papua New Guinea is revealing.

The stone and concrete Suva buildings are majestic examples of colonial architecture. In Konedobu, on the shores of the Port Moresby harbour, the Australian administration consisted of a collection of unimpressive wooden buildings, some quite ramshackle.

Australia, it seemed, was determined to pretend that it was not a colonial power.

“I wouldn’t say that any Australians thought we had a colony,” Dame Rachel Cleland, the widow of Sir Donald Cleland, administrator from 1952 to 1967, told the ABC’s Taim Bilong Masta social history radio series in the early 1980s.

“That was not in any way the thinking. The first time I heard ‘colony’ mentioned was about 1965, and it gave me a distinct shock.’

Bertie Heath, a pioneer pilot in PNG, told the same program: “We are not colonials. The Germans were colonials. The British were colonials ... Am I going to be called a bloody colonial in this country?”

Australia was determined to pretend that it was not a colonial power

Of course, the truth is that Australians were colonials – but it is something that does not fit well with the view that the nation holds of itself. Australia is a nation that evolved from a convict settlement, names Ned Kelly as an iconic figure and its favourite national song is about somebody who stole sheep.

So it is probably no surprise that Australia does not celebrate that as a nation it ruled over another people.

The British readily acknowledge their imperial history and take pride in having had a British empire that is now the British commonwealth. Not Australians.

It is because of our seeming reluctance to fully address our history in PNG and look rigorously at the consequences that I have coined the term “embarrassed colonialist”.

Gough Whitlam travelled to Papua New Guinea as opposition leader in 1969 and made PNG an election issue in Australia – for perhaps the first and only time. He advocated that an early date be set for the end of Australian colonial rule. He proposed that self-government should be granted as early as 1972.

On two highly publicised follow-up trips in 1970 and 1971, Whitlam travelled to the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain where some of the Tolai people were agitating for greater control over their affairs.

There was also trouble brewing for the Australian administration on Bougainville over land matters relating to the opening of CRA’s Bougainville copper mine. Whitlam won power in Australia in December 1972, and PNG became self-governing at the end of 1973 and independent in September 1975.

Australia could not have delayed giving PNG its independence for many more years without witnessing far more strife and consequently far greater post-independence problems. The debate is not “Did PNG get independence too early?” but “Did the preparations start too late?”

Michael Somare, Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister, is fairly blunt about it: “Australia did not put in enough effort to prepare us.”

“Even a lot of people who became district commissioners, some of them have admitted, ‘Yes, it was a mistake we made. We never prepared. The territory was never prepared for those changes.’ ”

There was a lot to be done. The Highlands did not really get opened up until the 1950s, and in 1970 there was still an area of some 170,000ha classified as not being under administrative control. There is no doubt that many of the Australian kiaps, school teachers, health workers, missionaries and others performed some extraordinarily heroic work in often very challenging circumstances.

Will Muskens, who was a kiap from 1958 to 1975, says it has always struck him as a missed opportunity that Australia did not enter into a treaty with PNG so that more of those who had spent valuable years there could have stayed on working alongside their Papua New Guinean counterparts.

He believes that a treaty could have kept doctors, teachers, agricultural advisers, technical and trade specialists and kiaps in PNG for a few more years.

“Such an agreement could have been subject to terms that could be reviewed every 12 months, with salaries paid for by the Australian government,” Muskens says.

“I envisaged a scheme that would transfer all of these Australian officers to a special unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs seconded to PNG, but under the direction and control of the relevant PNG departments.”

But in our haste to leave after independence, we offered all these people golden handshakes.

“While I, and a large number of my colleagues, opted to leave under the terms of the employment security scheme,” Muskens says, “which literally encouraged us to take the money and run, I feel certain that if the Australian government had been seriously committed to retaining our services I would have stayed on.”

Inevitably, those thousands of Australians who did work in Papua New Guinea before independence are fast thinning out.

Fewer and fewer Australians have any real knowledge of this fascinating country to Australia’s north, which we were responsible for bringing to nationhood. This lack of understanding affects our dealings.

The Australian media generally ignores PNG. And too few of those advising on or deciding on policy seem to show any deep, abiding interest.

As one senior figure in Canberra told me in the corridors of Parliament House: “The lowliest adviser and the backest of backbenchers can give you chapter and verse about the Middle East, but you could probably walk into a cabinet meeting and talk about PNG and everyone will stare at you and blink.”

There are exceptions. The opposition immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, who travelled there as a 16-year-old says: “We have on our doorstep the most exotic country in the world. Life is lived in Papua New Guinea in a way that it is lived nowhere else on the planet.”

“It is genuinely remarkable and I think we Australians are incredibly lucky to have PNG as a neighbour. But I don’t think that sort of amazement and that wonder about PNG is at all understood in Australia.”

But the level of ignorance is frustrating, he says.

“We used to be the world experts on Papua New Guinea and now the level of study and literature in Australia has gone down dramatically.”

We should turn that around.

An edited extract from Sean Dorney’s ‘The Embarrassed Colonialist’, a Lowy Institute Paper, published by Penguin Australia


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Vikki John

In 1960, an Australian geologist working for the colonial Australian Administration located gold deposits near Panguna and under the 1967 Agreement, which was then negotiated with the Australian authorities in PNG, Bougainville Copper acquired virtual fiefdom over the island and its resources. At the time, the Administration was offered 20% of the equity in the new company.
Production at Panguna mine started in April 1972.
As stated above, "Whitlam won power in Australia in December 1972, and PNG became self-governing at the end of 1973 and independent in September 1975".
Whilst I have not read Sean Dorney's new book, I am wondering if he expresses Bougainville's opposition to the mine from the very start?
Or how the mining company treated the people of Bougainville?
Does he mention that Bougainville had voted to secede from PNG in 1975?
The newspaper article below says it all... "Australia will oppose Bougainville split", dated 12 August 1975.
There is more to be told about Australia's colonial past and the dirty deals done with mining companies, which still seems apparent to this day.

Charlie Lynn | Facebook

I recommend Sean's book - my own experiences with Canberra based bureaucrats, consultants and do-gooders dispensing aid, are mirrored in Sean's article.

I have a firm belief that if people don’t have any skin in the game by having their salaries or consultants fees tied to outcomes PNG would be better off without them.

We need to re-engage people like Sean who have lived in PNG for long periods and who have developed an empathetic understanding of the country and the people.

We need a dedicated Minister for Melanesia and Melanesian studies to be a compulsory part of our education syllabus at primary, secondary and tertiary level.

We need to allow PNG citizens access to our seasonal markets.

Paul Oates

‘…it may be positively misleading in so far as the people causing many of the country's problems are those mostly likely to be "assisting" official visitors develop an "understanding" of the country.’ – Chris Overland

Perfectly true Chris. In addition, if you follow the logic of many African potentates, it can be an obvious benefit in attracting overseas aid to claim their population are starving or poor even when the foreign aid, when it arrives, never gets to the people but is siphoned off by the very leaders using their active and ongoing subterfuge and corruption.

It is in the interest of some leaders to keep their people poor and possibly starving. And… the African leaders don’t have the current benefit of a ‘Manus’ to use as leverage on the biggest aid donator do they?

But do Australians suffer from a cultural cringe that we were a colonial power, albeit and very small and altruistic one?

Australia is composed of previous British colonies after all. In comparison with other colonial nations, we should be proud of what we were able to achieve rather than be ashamed.

I suggest most Australians today don’t have any clue about our shared history with PNG except a few highlights like Bita Paka and Kokoda.

Our parents may well have remembered Shaggy Ridge, Buna and Gona and the Bulldog track to Wau, etc. but most of them are now dead. Are modern day PNGians any more knowledgeable about Australia and our shared history?

Many Australians are apparently quite happy to soak up the triple filtered, three second grab, news each night, go to the ‘footie’ or have a BBQ and a beer. It’s taking the easy way out that all humans suffer from. That’s because they can’t see why they should be interested in PNG.

So what’s the answer? Do we as concerned citizens who are interested in maintaining and improving good relations between our two nations on either side of the Torres Strait just respond to the direction: ‘drop it’, like a well- trained dog?

Never, ever give up!

Michael Dom

"Embarrassed colonialist" - sounds a bit odd to me. I think it's political subterfuge. They were bugging our government departments after all.

What about Australia's "asylum convicts colony" on Manus Island?

I think it's a bit rich for the Australian government to disregard PNG in the sense of colonial history and yet maintain a neo-colonialist approach when it comes to the Manus asylum treaty.

That treaty mind you was agreed to by two prime ministers in total secrecy, as I recall.

At least neither the PNG parliament nor us people knew anything about it until it was all signed and sealed and the poor bastards delivered to the island.

Chris Overland

If, as Keith has indicated, PNG Attitude is banned on the UPNG campus, I'd very much like to know why this is so.

Are PNG Attitude contributors and commentators so reactionary that the tender young things at UPNG must be protected from our ravings? Alternatively, are we so revolutionary that our writings and opinions are beyond the pale?

As an ex-kiap slowly subsiding into decrepitude, I would have thought I fitted the category of "mostly harmless".

Perhaps Keith or someone else has cast aspersions upon the honour and dignity of UPNG as an institute of learning? If so, I must have missed that.

More depressingly, maybe the UPNG administrators are simply responding to the modern notion that some opinions are simply too disturbing or contemptible to be allowed to be seen or heard.

After all, that redoubtable contrarian, Dr Germaine Greer, was recently the subject of attempts to ban her from expressing her views about gender and its place in society, apparently because her ideas do not accord with modern orthodoxy about "gender fluidity".

We couldn't have arguably the world's foremost feminist rocking the boat, could we?

Perhaps someone from the halls of PNG academe would like to enlighten us all?

While I was informed this morning that the boycott still applied, we've been informed by UPNG academic and PNG Attitude contributor John Kamasua that, following his intercession, the ban has been lifted - KJ

John K Kamasua

PNG Attitude was allowed and is being accessed freely on campus Keith, after I raised the matter with both the Vice Chancellor and the IT Manager.

I am sure many staff here who access it enjoy the discussions and the issues raised.

Thanks for that advice, John, and also for your assistance. I had a message from another academic on campus this morning saying it was still blocked - KJ

Deirdre Pearsall

My understanding is that Russia was applying a lot of pressure to the Whitlam Government at the UN for Australia to withdraw from PNG

Chris Overland

Given the apparent level of institutional ignorance about PNG and its peoples (let alone interest), you do have to wonder how our political and bureaucratic leadership think that they can deliver aid effectively or influence policy making.

There seems, on the face of it, a startling lack of "in country" experience on the part of decision makers, certainly outside of DFAT.

The odd official visit to Port Moresby is unlikely to provide much in the way of useful knowledge about PNG and its issues. In fact, it may be positively misleading in so far as the people causing many of the country's problems are those mostly likely to be "assisting" official visitors develop an "understanding" of the country.

In the colonial era a visitor from Canberra could expect to get a frank and accurate assessment of the overall situation, based upon usually reliable and current information. I would guess that this is much less likely to be the case now.

I think that Sean Dorney is right to describe this country as an embarrassed colonialist. Apart from anything else, being a colonial powers sits very uncomfortably with a country where many people would very much like to erase an inconvenient history in relation to race and the related discriminatory policies.

It seems that only a relative handful of retired colonial officials and missionaries are expressing much concern about PNG and its people. In doing so, we probably add to the embarrassment amongst those who do not wish to allow relations with modern PNG to be "compromised" by any reference to the increasingly distant past.

This is rather sad, as a lot of what Australia did in PNG was very creditable and, just as importantly, showed what could be done with very few resources.

John K Kamasua

We at UPNG, under the program I am teaching, have developed a mutually sustaining and beneficial professional relationship with academics at Monash under the Social Work Program.

I have been impressed with their attitude and genuineness to understand and work with us as academic colleagues. We have achieved much and learned a lot from each other.

This has taught us that better understanding and relationships can develop and flourish between Papua New Guineans and Australians.

The people to people approach has also proved useful.

I am very surprised by this development because at bilateral meetings between leaders of the two countries, emphasis has always been put on the unique history between the two countries.

Or is it a deliberate tactic to eventually erase the historical links between the two countries? Kokoda Track has been overemphasised to the detriment of other areas where mutual collaboration and partnerships exists, or have the potential to exist.

Maybe Australia does not want to be seen as being on equal terms with PNG?

What about the rich experiences of the Kiaps with the local people and culture?

What about the Australians who were here in the pre-colonial and pre-independence era? What about all the teachers, technical advisors, etc who worked in PNG?

To get Australian attention on PNG, maybe close the Kokoda Track and demand that our shared history be written and told properly to both the Australian and PNG public! (Maybe that will be too harsh?).

Australian government needs to admit that as a country, it has never had a similar rich and close connection with a country such as ours.

Both countries need to do better!

UPNG could do better, also. As I understand it, John, PNG Attitude - which for many years has maintained an excellent discussion between citizens of both countries - is banned by the university administration from being accessed on campus - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

Maybe make roughing up tourists a castrating offence Barbara. It wouldn't cost much, just the price of a couple of second hand bricks.

Sean Dorney is pissing into the wind, like the rest of us. He's up against "My Kitchen Rules" and "Home and Away" - not a snowball's chance in hell.

Barbara Short

I'm hoping these cruise ships will stir up some interest in PNG.
The Pacific Aria visited Madang yesterday and Wewak today.
The Pacific Dawn will visit various places in April.
Just so long as some rascals don't bash them and rob them, it should help to promote PNG tourism.

Paul Oates

I once heard a speaker at a conference make a very prophetic statement about what was going wrong with the current policies concerning Aboriginal Australia.

“Don’t ask ‘What can I do?’” he said. “Seek understanding and then you’ll know what to do.”

Having been given innumerable ‘snow jobs’ followed by less polite ‘no thanks’ to eventually the government equivalent of ‘get lost’, to my hopefully positive suggestions about how to improve relations between Australia and PNG, I find some comfort in Sean Dorney’s educated and erudite views.

When publically asked by AusAID for suggestions, I tried to suggest better ways to guarantee aid money is well spent and accounted for. Part of my paper is now on the internet. It appeared that for two years, a scheme to distribute pharmaceuticals in PNG actually worked along these lines but no response from DFAT.

I have contributed to the helpful suggestions from a number of concerned people, co-ordinated by Keith Jackson some time ago. We didn’t get any answer to that one as well did we?

When I followed through with a suggestion that PNG Tok Pisin be taught as a language used by a nation next door I was referred by the Federal Department of Education to the State Department and finally told by the State Departmental head that I could perhaps get in touch with the local high school and see if they would allow me to organise something myself.

The Australian school curriculum for foreign languages steadfastly maintains that the choice of foreign languages taught at Australian schools will be German, French, Japanese and possibly Indonesian. Vietnamese and Korean were also mentioned.

When I responded to PM Gillard’s request for ideas about what to include in the history section of a new Australian school curriculum, I suggested the shared history between PNG and Australia was a must. Guess what? A deafening silence and no mention of it in the new curriculum.

I have made numerous attempts to make helpful suggestions of how those posted to PNG and those from PNG posted to Australia should first undergo recognised selection procedures and then full familiarisation training. These representations extended to the deployment of Australian police in PNG.

Departmental and then Ministerial level responses virtually told me to ‘get lost’ and that there were effective and full familiarisation programs already being undertaken. Feedback from the ‘coal face’ however was that those posted received ‘a half hour of talking to’.

There seems to be a total mind blank when it comes to the Australian government and the public service acknowledging the importance of our nearest neighbour, PNG.

So whether it’s a question of ‘turf wars’ or simply one of total ignorance, the demonstrated intransigence is in itself breathtaking. As Sean quite rightly points out, those of us who were at the coal face and did receive some understanding are slowly atrophying away. Soon those in their Canberra ‘Ivory Towers’ will find their view so much less cluttered. What a pity they don’t live in Torres Strait and look across at PNG?

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