Treated right, PNG literature can help cement the relational bond
My Story: Those halcyon Papua New Guinea years

Australia’s own history of apartheid in PNG

Prof Ron Crocombe

This is a reprint of a 2009 article by the late Pacific academic and commentator

MANY of Australia’s colonial and post-colonial policies and practices are a major factor in the problems of Papua New Guinea today, and cause some Papua New Guinean leaders to have serious reservations about their Australian counterparts.

Despite being a colony from the 1890s, Australia ensured that Papua did not get its first high school until international pressure led to its opening in 1955. Very few others were built for a long time in a country of similar size and population to New Zealand.

Likewise for three generations nothing was done to develop Papua New Guinean leadership, in fact everything was done to block its development and ensure that leadership roles and responsibility were held by Australians and that there was no chance for the development of national consciousness or leadership.

I remember, in about 1964, being on a Qantas flight from Port Moresby to Brisbane seated across the aisle from a Papua New Guinean. It was the first time I had seen a Papua New Guinean on a flight to Australia. No one was seated next to him.

The hostess gave everyone their meal except the Papua New Guinean. I assumed it was a simple oversight so asked her if she could please get his lunch, to which she replied with scorn, “We don’t feed natives”.

I objected but she explained, “It’s company policy, we are not allowed to feed natives”. I took it up with the company and they confirmed that it was indeed their policy – on the advice of the Australian officials who “understood them”. That was consistent with their practices on many fronts.

About 1966 John Guise (later Sir John Guise, the first Governor General of Papua New Guinea) was then an elected member of the Legislative Assembly with the largest majority of any member, and he was Member for Agriculture (a prototype Minister for Agriculture in the lead-up to independence).

He had been invited to study agriculture overseas with all costs paid and visited me to ask if I could help him in relation to the document he (and all Papua New Guineans) were required to fill in to seek approval to leave the country at any time for any purpose. It was an official form entitled ‘Application for Permission to Remove a Native’.

The content was as bad as the title. Guise was offended and humiliated by it but was used to constant humiliation, of all Papua New Guineans, not only by officials personally but by the system as a matter of policy.

I was then Director of the New Guinea Research Unit, a facility of the Australian National University (now the National Research Institute) and knew Guise personally. I saw the Administrator, Mr David Hay, about it and told him I would take it up internationally if nothing was done: not only for Mr Guise but to do away with the document for everyone.

Mr Hay was genuinely embarrassed by the system he was required by Canberra to administer and assured me he wished to have that document done away with and would act on it. He did get an improvement, but restrictions remained tight for years after.

Chris Kaputin was to be deported because she was white and dared to marry a Papua New Guinean, John Kaputin, now Sir John Kaputin, who later became for many years Minister for Foreign Affairs. Only an appeal to the United Nations stopped the deportation. But it did not stop the personal harassment they both suffered.

Any government official who even dared to invite a Papua New Guinea woman to the cinema was whisked off to the most isolated part of the nation or deported back to Australia.

The Konedobu Club was the big club for civil servants at the government headquarters. When Julius Chan (now Sir Julius Chan, twice Prime Minister and a successful businessman and recently Chairman of the Pacific Plan) came back with a degree in commerce from Australia and was appointed to the civil service, he was banned from the Konedobu Club as no non-Whites were allowed. He soon left the service.

When the East West Centre and the University of Hawaii began inviting Pacific Islanders from all over the Pacific to study there, with funds provided by the US government for the purpose, students from all islands attended – except from Papua New Guinea.

The President of the East West Centre told me personally that they wanted to include Papua New Guineans but had been requested by Australia not to do so. We then made unofficial arrangements to get the first two accepted despite the Australian blockage. For fear of international adverse publicity they were allowed to travel. It was a small breakthrough.

When the United Nations Trusteeship Mission issued a blistering critique of Australia for its constraints on education and training, among other things, (and that report was written by the Chairman of that Mission, Sir Hugh Foot, an Englishman and former British colonial governor), Australia could not get enough staff and had to advertise internationally, but it would only do so in White countries.

Every applicant had to send a photo so that, as was confirmed to be by an Australian official in the selection process, all non-White applicants could be weeded out without declaring their racist policy.

And all this time Papuans were Australian citizens and had been since 1906, since Britain required that. Australia had made them citizens without consultation, but would not allow them to enter the country of which they had been made citizens, nor any of the rights of citizens, nor any citizenship of their own.

When, in the 1960s, some Papuans who were part white Australian and part Papuan, asked to enter Australia, the country of which they were citizens, they were bluntly refused, as were all other Papua New Guineans.

My wife is a Cook Islander who had taught in New Zealand and Cook Islands schools and the Teachers College (and she taught at Port Moresby Teachers College). The first time she went to buy meat at the main Burns Philip shop in Port Moresby she was refused service.

She came home in tears after being told that natives can only be served through the outside hatch. She had been in many countries but never treated like that. She never went back, but it was a small part of the accepted code of the Australian system in Papua New Guinea.

One could recount similar examples by the hundred. These were not isolated or atypical events but were rigorously implemented systematic policies. There were many people of good will and good intentions in the government service there. But their best intentions had to be fitted within the policy and practice of full Apartheid.

Past misunderstandings can be overcome, and many on all sides are trying their best to do so. But any feeling in Australia that only Papua New Guineans caused the problems they suffer from can only be based on ignorance.

The genuine efforts that one sees from many people of all ethnicities and persuasions will pay off in the long run, but it will require deep rethinking of the total relationship (not only between governments) and long-term commitment to contributing to a positive and productive future.


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Bernard Corden

"Do what you think is right and let the law catch up" - Thurgood Marshall

Pennie McNamara

I think racism is still very much alive everywhere in every culture. There is racism in Papua New Guinea because of our 1,000 cultures. There's racism in Australian sports and job markets too.

How do we get rid of racism? We apply the golden rule, "treat others as you would want to be treated', that's all you need to do.

Imagine what this world would be like if everyone applies this rule. Just go back to applying the bible's living codes and you will be right.

Michael Dom

Hi Michael.

Ethnicity - understood.

But I don't believe you are right about racism in PNG.

Michael Williams

Michael, An & Phil, Papua New Guineans are no racists. The right term here is "Ethnicity" - We keep to our ethnicity, we never muck people. The bulk of the population can't have an open conversation with any expatriate because its a little strange for a up close contact. If opened up to Papua New Guineans are meek and genuine.

Ross Wilkinson

What should be remembered is that the famous White Australia Policy was essentially about restricting Asians into Australia by virtue of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. With the influx of Chinese Coolie labour into Australia to work the goldfields, there was a fear that, if left unchecked, Australia would be overrun by Chinese.

This continued until well after the Second World War when Arthur Calwell attempted to make a joke in Parliament by saying that “Two Wongs don’t make a White” which was misinterpreted by many Asian countries. The policy was eventually scrapped by a change of law under the Liberal Government in 1966.

It should be remembered that many of the market gardens surrounding the major Australian cities and supplying Australian families with their daily fresh vegetables over these many years, were cultivated by Chinese families. When I was young, in the early 1950s, I and my brothers were each given 2 shillings (now 20 cents) by an old aunt with the warning not to put it in our mouths as “a Chinaman might have had it in his mouth!”

Calwell, at the time Immigration Minister, had encouraged displaced Europeans to migrate to Australia to create a strong labour force. The Snowy Mountains hydro scheme would not have been built without this influx of labourers. Many of the famous 10 Pound Poms also migrated from England after the war seeking new opportunities.

However, despite the accepted influx of white Europeans into the community via the initial immigration camps in the major cities, a form of racism occurred with the names that these “reffos” or refugees from war were called. Apart from the “Ten Pound Tourists” from England, the bulk were from southern Europe and had a variety of names such as Itise, wops, wogs, New Australians and so on.

Once out of the camps, they tended to live in the same communities with the Italians in Springvale and the Greeks in Clayton and Oakleigh in Melbourne and the English in Elizabeth in Adelaide. However, they were industrious, and Australians soon found that the best vegetables came from the Greek and Italian greengrocers and the best fish and chip shops were those run by Greeks. It took many years but they were eventually integrated into Australian communities.

But racism is not all one way. I recall playing cricket on the Murray Barracks oval and being sledged by a national wicketkeeper whilst I was batting. Last man in and trying to protect an end, I was playing every ball on its merits and blocking without scoring. After every delivery came the comment from behind me, “Come on you white bastard, play like a man.” I won’t say what I responded with but, whilst it might have been obscene, it did not include a racist reference.

My former sister-in-law, an Army wife, also related how she was followed by a couple of nationals in Boroko shopping centre who kept enquiring “How’s your lovely white arse?”

So let's keep some perspective to this, as has been said, racism is multi-cultural in its application around the world. One only has to look at the African states as prime examples.

Peter Kranz

Michael - one of the funniest things was arriving at Roma St Station (Brisbane) some time ago and we were assailed by an American black activist making some black power point, who ignored me and honed in on Rose and said 'as an Aborigine don't you feel oppressed by these white people (looking pointedly at me.)

Her reply was short and to the point. 'Fuck off!.

Peter Kranz

Chris - I'm inclined to think that racism is linked to education. The more we know about and understand other cultures the more we are likely to be accepting of them.

However I am disturbed by the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment in Australia currently, such as the growth of parties such as the Australian Alliance and the anti-Mosque, anti-Sharia movement in Bendigo and elsewhere which is clearly racist.

You don't have to go far beyond the tweets of Federal MP George Christensen to see this.

And don't forget that for some years Ela Beach was for whites only - can't have those damn natives swimming in the same sea!

Michael Dom

Good words, Chris, and you spark my thinking again: in some instances when I have 'felt a bit weird' may have been because I was mistaken as an Aboriginee.

Being mistaken by an Aborignee, now that's an entirely different situation.

Chris Overland

It always annoys me intensely when some pompous twit in the media solemnly intones that an act of stupidity or malice directed against a person of colour proves that Australia is a racist country.

While I have no doubt whatsoever that Australia was indeed a racist country for a very long time, the years since World War 2 have so changed the social and ethnic composition of the country that it would be unrecognisable to the architects of the late and unlamented White Australia policy.

Perhaps the most pivotal event in the history of race relations in Australia was the 1967 referendum, which proposed to grant Aboriginal people the same constitutional and legal rights as any other citizen.

An astounding 91% of voters agreed with the proposals. It is impossible to maintain that an entire country is inherently racist when more than 90% of the citizens vote in this manner.

Sure, there are always recidivists but they are now a small minority of the population. The evidence for this is that, at its highest point, support for Pauline Hanson never exceeded 10% of the voting population (other than in an handful of Queensland electorates which, I'd argue, have "special" characteristics).

What we call racism is, I maintain, mostly an expression of our inbuilt and instinctive "fear of the other". In the distant past, this fear was rational and necessary: the others, whoever they were, frequently constituted an existential threat and treating them as such was a rational response.

This is a human characteristic, not exclusive to Australia. In fact, it is easy to nominate countries where xenophobia is much more rampant than in Australia. Decades of immigration have allowed most of us to get used to the idea that Australians now come in a wide variety of colours, creeds and ethnicities.

Now, theoretically at least, the impact of greater knowledge and awareness should result in a marked reduction in suspicion of "the other". Sadly, this is not the case, as the undisguised fear and anger directed at mostly entirely blameless Muslims so clearly demonstrates.

So, it is important to recognise that just because people may initially react to those who are visibly different with a degree of reserve does not mean they are racists. Mostly, they are just being cautious. Typically, once the "ice is broken", most people are willing to be friendly and polite: the trick is to get to that point.

About 30% of Australia's current population were born overseas and about half of the current migrant intake is people from non-English speaking countries.

This supposedly racist country has absorbed those people with the minimum of fuss: there is no equivalent to France's Front Nationale or Germany's AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party in Australia.

We are not perfect of course (especially in relation to Aboriginal people) but, in the main, we are doing pretty well compared to the rest of the world.

So, whenever this topic comes up, we should remember that the White Australia policy is long dead, buried and cremated and that multicultural Australia is an example of how to mostly get race relations right, not wrong.

Paul Oates

Everyone's got memories of being discriminated against by someone else. I have previously commented how I met up with a PNG mate at a party for foreign senior students when on leave in Sydney and my PNG mate was taken to task in front of everyone by some Africans there who loudly said: "What are you associating with this white boy for?"

When I invited my mate, the local police inspector into a local club at Wau I was looked at in no uncertain terms by those present but no one dared say anything.

I think the funniest thing was when on patrol I used to arrive in some villages and be greeted by the many kids who had obviously just been told by their mother's: "if you aren't a good boy/girl the Kiap will come and lock you up!" That then changed some of the smiling little faces into tears and a hurried departure. Not a very happy, welcoming sight.

You could of course then tell who'd been recently naughty.

Garry Roche

In my opinion there is a bit of racism in all of us. The challenge is to recognize the racism, acknowledge it, and work at getting rid of it. Growing up in our own culture we normally are very aware of the richness of that culture. It takes time and effort to become aware of the richness of other cultures. I believe that generally many expatriates do get to know and respect the various cultures in PNG. But of course there can also be racism within PNG. Some highlanders look down on coastals, some islanders look down on mainlanders, etc.
At the same time there is a lot of tolerance and respect, may we all promote tolerance and respect for all cultures.

Michael Dom

Hi again Ann, I agree with Phil, Papua New Guineans are racist too. In fact, I think we all are - or at least I am too, until I make a friend.

Thankfully, I've made many friends - or they've made friends with me - or we befriended each other - somehow.

I think the 'cure-for-racism' is a bit of what perhaps Vikki John was attempting with Bob Marley's lyrics - inject a bit of love into things.

I'm not much of a believer in loving everyone - God knows I have a hard time with that one. And we shouldn't pretend on that count - it's bad for the soul.

But I'll settle for mutual respect any day. That's zen for me.

An Watkins

Thank you Michael, I am saddened to hear that it is only 3 out of 10 who are friendly. I was not denying that Australia has a problem and has always had a problem. Currently, all political parties are a total disgrace and until Australia can find REAL Australians to run the country I cannot see that changing. Both the media and politicians are psyching up the red necked racists and implanting fear throughout the communities and we need this to change now. My original point is that I do not appreciate sweeping statements like the one made here - the TV channels in Oz always do the same. As well as the bad element, there are also good people and they, I sincerely believe, will in time change our country.
If you ever see a whitepela meri with dark hair and carrying a bilum, please stop and say Arpinun or Morning Tru.
Lukim An

Michael Dom

Hi Ann, as a 'black' Melanesian man walking the streets of Adelaide I can tell you that there are two basic sets of reactions from Australians:

(1) hey, who's this: surprise: agitation: suspicion: does he know what he's doing: is he civilized?

(2) hey, hello mate: greetings: openness: curiosity: what brings you here: seen our bogan's yet?

If I was to judge on a numerical scale, say out of every ten people I meet, the score for Adelaide is three in category 2.

But then again I don't get out that much and the people I do mix with, well, they're are an entirely fine and special bunch of people whom I will remember for the rest of my life.

I think that's probably how we fins friends - we sift through the rubble to uncover a few shiny stones hiding there in the dirt.

I don't mid them being whities either.

Ann Watkins

A response to Philip Fitzpatrick from an Australian born whitie - please do not make generalised statements like "Currently everyone hates Middle Eastern people. Years ago it used to be the Vietnamese and before that Italians and Creeks."

I do not hate Middle Eastern people and I have never hated anyone from a different background. I know others born in Australia who also have never hated anyone. None of us are responsible for where we are born or the colour of our skin - we are all responsible for being accepting of others regardless of skin colour, country of birth or religion.

Personally, as a kid I was envious of my friends who came from different parts of the world. My school would hold a "Cultural Day" each year and these kids would come wearing their National Dress and where applicable performing their dances - I was born in Australia of British descent and I had no culture to bring to these days. For me, my friends were the lucky ones.

Chris Overland

I agree with Vikki John that Australia's treatment of Aboriginal people was deplorable. However, when it comes to PNG, the record is more mixed.

First, Australia never claimed to own PNG: there was no legal fiction like terra nullius. It governed PNG on behalf of the United Nations, with the clearly stated goal of supporting it to achieve eventual independence.

Second, right from the outset, the buying and selling of traditional lands was very tightly controlled by the administration. As had been the case in Fiji, the over riding objective was to minimise the alienation of land.

Third, traditional practices that did not conflict with the rule of law were generally allowed to continue, although missionaries did a attempt to stamp out some customs.

Fourth, there was a conscious attempt to support economic development at the village level, primarily through the development of transport networks, education services, health services and agriculture.

Fifth, the people with first line responsibility for oversighting this process actually lived and worked in remote and rural areas of PNG and developed a real understanding of the local environment.

Sixth, the ongoing frontier war of dispossession, despoliation and murder that accompanied European expansion into Aboriginal lands during the 19th century was conspicuously absent in PNG. This is not to say that incidents of violence did not occur because they clearly did.

Importantly, Papua New Guineans were never made strangers in their own land: the white population were always the strangers and most knew this perfectly well. There was and is no equivalent to the 4.5 million Afrikaners who live in South Africa.

The situation of Papua New Guineans was, in fact, so strikingly different to that of Aboriginal people, that I had a difficult time understanding how this could be so until I learned a great deal more about Australia's history.

Australia's colonial rule in PNG was very much a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the indifferent. It is simultaneously a source of both pride and shame. What it is not, however, is a story of dispossession and despoliation such as was inflicted upon the Aboriginal people.

Vikki John

White Australia has a Black history. The major legal claim to the Australian continent is based on the notion of "terra nullius" meaning empty land inhabited by a people with no apparent government, law or economy.
Our own Indigenous Australians were not included in the Australian Constitution (1901).
"When the Australian Constitution was being drafted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were excluded from the discussions concerning the creation of a new nation to be situated on their ancestral lands and territories. The Australian Constitution also expressly discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Australian Constitution did not – and still does not – make adequate provision for Australia’s first peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have consistently fought to have their rights recognised and acknowledged by the Australian Government and the Australian people. Throughout Australia’s history, many Australians have supported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in these struggles. It is upon this historical foundation that Australians are now realising the need for constitutional change to address the lack of recognition and exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation’s birth certificate."
So how can our Indigenous Peoples of Australia feel like they are citizens if they are still not recognised in the Australian Constitution?
White Australia has a black history and sadly, our friends in Papua New Guinea have been treated in a similar way. It is truly heartbreaking.

Chris Overland

As a very junior kiap I remember being instructed that we were under no circumstances to fraternise with Papua New Guineans, especially young women.

It was explained that this was because, as officers holding real authority over local people, this power imbalance created too many opportunities for exploitation (especially sexual), plus close personal relationships would compromise our ability to do our jobs without fear or favour.

As a kiap, because I worked in remote locations and was frequently only in the company of Papua New Guinean colleagues for long periods, I came to know and like many of them very much. Indeed, I often relied upon them for my very survival.

However, I soon noticed that in larger places like Kerema, Mendi and Popondetta, that membership of the local Club was exclusively white and that fraternising with local people was, if not specifically prohibited, strongly discouraged.

There was indeed a kind of apartheid in place, although much less overtly so than existed in South Africa at the time. For example, there was not prominent signage designating which public facilities were for which people.

Most white people I knew tended to treat local people with reasonable courtesy although I certainly saw examples of arrogant and offensive behaviour too, more notably in the larger centres where far too many whites regarded Papua New Guineans essentially as servants.

Sadly, this included some kiaps too, although their positional power, command of either Pidgin or Motu, knowledge of traditional customs and practices and generally closer contact on a day to day basis, often meant that they did not wish or need to behave badly towards people.

Also, it is important to note that "the administration" was not simply an organisation devoted to the suppression or subjugation of Papua New Guineans. Indeed, its main stated purpose was to improve the conditions of the local population through imposing the rule of law, offering education and training, providing health services, developing a national road system and so forth.

The law mostly was applied impartially with both procedural fairness and some real sensitivity to traditional customs and behaviours.

As the rush to independence gathered pace and the rapid "localisation" of services was well under way, both the formal and informal segregation began to collapse. Papua New Guineans began to assume positions of real authority and many did very well in those roles, thus confounding the expectations of the truly unreconstructed Australian racists.

The matters raised by Ron Crocombe are part of the mixed legacy of Australian colonialism and need to be recognised so that Australia's long term relationship with PNG can develop unhindered by the existence of unspoken "dirty little secrets".

Philip Fitzpatrick

Australia is still a racist country, although a lot of it travels below the surface and isn't as overt as it was in the 1960s.

Worse still is the paternalism. People can be very insulting when they are trying to help. Helping without sounding superior is a fine art. Something a lot of our politicians need lessons on.

In Australia racism seems to come in phases. Currently everyone hates Middle Eastern people. Years ago it used to be the Vietnamese and before that Italians and Creeks. The Irish suffered the same thing in the early part of last century i.e. you don't have to be dark skinned to suffer racism.

I find modern day Vietnamese intriguing. They are Aussies through and through. You can't tell they are Vietnamese just by hearing them speak.

Multiculturalism is wonderful but it breeds racism.

Then again PNG is a racist country - to wit, it's attitude to Asians.

Daniel Kumbon

Many Australians I’ve come to know beginning from my early school days have been good. Except one foreman at the National Plant, Works and Transport (PTB) depot in Wabag. This was at the time when I began work with the Media Unit, Department of Enga.
I saw our government issued office car parked outside the Wabag Country Club on a Saturday afternoon. We had put it in for service at the PTB workshop a couple of days ago. Government vehicles were used strictly for government work in those days. No wantoks were allowed on the vehicles either. Drinking in and using government cars on the weekends was a big crime.
I had had a few cold ones and when I saw our office car parked at a public drinking hole, I wanted to find out why it was there. Perhaps my boss late James Sikin was there. I waited. When I saw that it was the expatriate PTB foreman who had driven it there to drink, I got in the front seat and told him to drive me to my house. He shouted in my ears to get off. I shouted back and demanded him to drive me to my house. Instead he drove at break-neck speed to the police station.
There, I wanted to punch him. The police separated us and held me for a while until they thought the foreman was beyond reach. Even in my drunken stupor, I saw this double standard very depressing.

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