Corruption is threat to growth, so how about the death penalty?
Peter O'Neill survives, but PNG's democracy is teetering

PNG governance: Is Australia in a position to cast judgement?


“Everyone seems to have a clear idea about how others should lead their lives, but none about their own” – The Alchemist, Paul Coehlo

WHEN it comes to my offspring, there is but a smidgin of room for criticism.

There was an occasion when my child’s teacher observed him throwing away is homemade lunch.

She informed me that, whilst troubled by this turn of events, she’d decided against reprimand and acted in accordance to the school’s behaviour management policy.

I responded by quizzing said teacher to explain how the school’s policy justified punishing a six year old’s misdemeanour by the binning of an uneaten, greaseproof paper-wrapped ham and cheese sandwich.

Teacher’s response: subjective. My response: objective. Just the way I like my response to be.

And so to the subject of today’s article.

Phil Fitzpatrick’s essayThe curse of the Melanesian way: can Melanesia govern itself?’ generated substantial debate amongst PNG Attitude readers.

One aspect of this that particularly interested me was the tone adopted by Papua New Guinean commentators in their subsequent debate with the author.

To varying degrees, the rebuttals from Tanya Zeriga-Alone, Jay Manaseh, Sil Bolkin and Francis Nii demonstrated an objectivity that aligned with the phlegmatically sensible response characteristic of Papua New Guineans.

In ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’, Malcolm Gladwell meditates on a study in which it was hypothesised that the predictability of a marriage’s longevity is based on parties exhibiting certain emotions, particularly contempt.

Contempt, he articulates, is when one speaks from a ‘plane of superiority’. That is, a statement made from a higher level which puts the other person on a level beneath.

My subjective response to the Fitzpatrick essay scrutinises this ‘plane of superiority’, particularly the premise that Papua New Guineans stance of “blaming previous colonial or outside influences misses the point”.

Such a statement stirs defensiveness as it compounds the ever-pernicious feelings of Papua New Guineans that we are inadequate; that our progress as a people and a nation is not good enough.

And yet I’m inclined to toggle over to objectivity because, having read Fitzpatrick’s other writing (including his novel, heavily based on real experience, ‘Bamahuta: Leaving Papua’) and through private discussions, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that he is an individual who has contempt only for what is unfair, unjust and inhumane.

I agree with Fitzpatrick that perhaps a treaty or a memorandum of understanding would motivate Australia to enable Melanesia’s endeavours towards stronger and effective governance. However, objectivity also requires not being economical with the truth.

In 1962, Aboriginal poet and political activist Kath Walker (who reverted to her traditional name of Oodgeroo Noonucal after 1988) prepared and presented a poem for the annual general meeting for the federal council of the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Entitled ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’, the poem presents a narrative of juxtapositions. It is a compare-and-contrast of the realities of  Australian society for white and Aboriginal Australians. Noonucal included this verse:

Make us equal, not dependants
We need help, not exploitation
We want freedom, not frustration
Not control, but self-reliance
Independence not compliance

Forty-four years later during the annual NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week celebrations, the conversation continues forcing the question, in 2016, has much changed since Noonucal’s impassioned poem?

An honest answer would be, seemingly little. The effectiveness of Australia’s governance of the original inhabitants of this nation rages with contentious and sometimes vitriolic debate.

This begs another question.

If issues ranging from cultural acceptance to service delivery to indigenous Australians is deemed unsatisfactory, then how much oxygen should Papua New Guineans give to criticism from their former colonist?

If Australia has some way to get things right for the first occupants of their own land, how much should we rely on Australians to do a better job for the people of a land in which they were temporary guests?

If we transmit Noonucal’s words to the context of present day Australia-Papua New Guinea relations, they conjure many responses: from visa restrictions to the depredations of the Manus Regional Processing Centre.

The words exploitation, frustration and compliance are resoundingly familiar.

This said, Fitzpatrick’s article ought to be viewed objectively by unlocking and swinging wide open that door of reason and pragmatism.

Shared history is a substantial reason for Australia to contribute to effective governance throughout Melanesia, especially PNG.

However, there is need for mutual recognition that varying ideology and tradition are the basis of the respective systems. And there needs to be a conscientiousness effort to accept the flaws persisting in both models.

Criticism should be confined to areas only where one is outperforming the other and solutions are applicable and beneficial to the improvement of the other.

Perhaps it is more beneficial for Papua New Guineans to view and evaluate criticisms about governance in the same vein as Paul Oates’ assessment that the real issue is how to integrate a possible combined and effective service delivery when those currently in charge are very happy with the largess they are wallowing in and don't want any help at all, thank you very much.”


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Rashmii Bell

Bernard, thank you for the additional titles. I must get to reading Ross Fitzgerald's book.

I've managed to get a copy of 'Life at the Bottom -the worldview that makes the underclass' so I'll let you know how I go. I also picked up ' Spoilt Rotten: the toxic cult of sentimentality' which I think I'll start with first:)

Bernard Corden

Hi Rashimii,
The Spectator Australia is published weekly. The editor is Rowan Dean and it has featured articles by Rowan Callick, Chris Ashton and the late Peter Ryan in past issues.
It is often considered right wing but irrespective of political persuasions its articles are always thought provoking.
I have not read Offshore yet but will pop down to Folio books in Brisbane over the weekend.
One book I really enjoyed was by Ross Fitzgerald - My name is Ross Fitzgerald. He was a director with Queensland Corrective Services from memory and was one of the journalists who exposed the corruption in the Bjelke Petersen government, which led to the Royal Commission chaired by Tony Fitzgerald ( No relation).

Rashmii Bell

Bernard - many thanks for recommending the Theodore Darlyrmple titles. They sound like books I would be quite interested in so will make a point to read them. Is the Spectator a journal? I'll also chase up some writing and interviews of Noel Pearson. I've seen him in a few news interviews but nothing in-depth.

By chance, have you read Madeline Gleeson's 'Offshore' yet? I'm hoping to get to it in the next few weeks. Thanks again:)

Rashmii Bell

Chris - Thank you for your comments, the first part of which reminded me of Nene McDonald's 'Fringe Dwellers'. That book, like Kate Grenville's 'The Secret River', made me overwhelmingly sad for indigenous Australians.

I agree with you that Australia with it's own failings, shouldn't be disqualified from making commentary on PNG- particualrly PNG's government. However, I disagree with you that for Papua New Guineans, the colonial past is but a distant memory.

Whilst used specifically in reference to a comment made by Phil, my use of the 'plane of superiority' was primarily directed at an audience outside the regular commentators of Attitude, hopefully having stumbled across my article.

Here on Attitude, I generally find empathy, objectivity and a genuine desire for mutual understanding. Beyond - it's often condescension, patronising, speaking from a position of privelege. Rinse, repeat.

If I may use your words, I think both Australia and PNG have grown weary and despondent in this relationship. Perhaps it has become one-sided?

As you and others before me have said, both governments must figure out what, and how it can be fixed so that each can benefit from the other (on equal standing) so the people of people of PNG can be provided with the standard of governance they deserve.

Bernard Corden

Hello Rashimii,
Another individual I respect is Noel Pearson. He has experienced a lot of pain during the transition from arrogance of youth to an angry young man to mindful militancy.
He is so articulate and whenever he appears on TV, he has me captivated. He is fully conversant with his portfolio and every word is measured.
Another who puts many politicians to shame with her presentation and communication skills is Linda Burney.
Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Nigel Scullion et al could learn a lot.

Bernard Corden

Hello Rashmii, If you have worked in correctional facilities it is worth reading 'Life at The Bottom - The world view that makes the underclass' by Theodore Dalrymple.

I went to listen to him at the Brisbane state library some months ago. He was a a former prison psychiatrist at Winson Green in Birmingham in the UK and a writes regularly for The Spectator.

The book is extremely thought provoking and he is often referred to by many Guardian readers as a malanthropist but it provides a critical analysis of the breakdown of society in the UK.

His new book 'Admirable Evasions' is also worth a read and addresses how psychology undermines morality.

Rashmii Bell

Hello Bernard - absolutely. Having had this article on published on the same day as the broadcast of the Four Corners report along with my background in Corrections (inc 4 years in Youth Detention (QLD)), I am feeling quite angry.

I caught a bit of ABC's The Drum last night and one of the panelist made reference to the nature of police engagement with youth in NT. I must say my mind kept flashing to the capacity-building relationship between RPNGC and AFP. An op article for another time.

Chris Overland

Once again Rashmii Bell have favoured us with an intelligent and thoughtful article.

I have just returned from a week spent in Alice Springs. I went there with some reluctance because I find the town profoundly depressing.

It is full of indigenous Australians with nothing to do and no where to do it. Amongst those who live in what is called the "town camp", alcohol and drug abuse is rife and violence, especially against women, is endemic.

Most depressingly of all, the children are often subject to sexual abuse, absenteeism from school is normal and effective parenting frequently non-existent.

These people are truly fringe dwellers in their own country.

Enormous resources have been and continue to be devoted to the remote indigenous communities in what have so far proved to be vain attempts to ameliorate the worst excesses of what are very dysfunctional communities.

Huge sums of money and vast amounts of goodwill have produced few positive results. There are large numbers of burnt out and despondent doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, child protection workers and police, whose idealism has been crushed under the sheer weight of their experience working in these communities.

I mention this because, as Rashmii rightly observes, Australia has a simply woeful record in dealing with its indigenous community. The very recent emergence of evidence of the astonishing brutality in the Northern Territory's juvenile justice system is just the latest ghastly example of how badly we are doing.

The Australian Way, whatever it is, clearly is not doing much good for many indigenous people in Alice Springs.

The granting of land rights, the issuing of formal apologies for past sins, the solemn intoning of acknowledgements of traditional land owners, the relentless promotion of indigenous culture and granting of large amounts of compensation have seemingly done little or nothing to help.

Despite our manifest failures, I do not think that we can or should be disqualified from pointing out the failings of others, especially the venal, corrupt and incompetent PNG government.

It is a government that is failing not merely one comparatively small part of the community, but the whole of it.

The Melanesian Way, whatever it is, is clearly doing no good for the vast majority of Papua New Guineans.

A major qualitative difference between the circumstances of indigenous Australians and Papua New Guineans is that the latter are truly in charge of their own destiny. The colonial past is but a distant memory for a rapidly declining number of people: most only know an independent PNG.

So, while I accept Rashmii's proposition that I and others can appear to be commenting from a "plane of superiority" about PNG, I am not sure that we actually are doing so.

As I hope I have demonstrated, we are not unaware of our own foibles and failings which, I think, someone speaking from a "plane of superiority" would not be.

Rather, my impression is that we tend to comment from a "plane of weary and somewhat despondent equivalency", wishing fervently that PNG should not repeat the common mistakes and misjudgements that have blighted so much of the post colonial world, let alone some of our home grown disasters.

If our words are sometimes harsh, I hope that Rashmii and others will accept that our hearts are in the right place.

Bernard Corden

Dear Rashimii, Your article is most appropriate in the light of last night's ABC Four Corners on the Don Dale correctional centre in the Northern Territory.

The treatment meted out to several detainees was barbaric and, to quote Winston Churchill, you can tell how civilised a nation is by the way it treats its prisoners.

Rashmii Bell

I began writing this piece shortly after I finished reading Kate Grenville's 'The Secret River'.

The Saturday Guardian (UK) review of the book reflects my thoughts: 'An outstanding study of cultures in collision...chilling, meticulous account of the sorrows and evils of colonialism'.

Bernard - thank you for the references. Will find my way to them.

Bernard Corden

I like it Lindsay.

Singapore is like a giant shopping mall. Traditionally, religion was used to manipulate the masses, followed by sport, which has lost most of its credibility and now it's shopping via credit card, which is merely a command and control mechanism.

Lindsay F Bond

Bernard, was that buy all accounts?

Bernard Corden

Singapore has a culture of capital, which is there for all to see at The Marina bay development, where a casino dominates the skyline.

Lindsay F Bond

Rashmii, great presentation and of topic for question. Firstly, why follow those who typecast a matter like contempt in terms vertical, when as easily, and as metaphorically, it is of horizontal?

Try too, this kneejerk of horizon: wonderment of a wilder-ness, a commonising of creatures or agencies agin those of 'us'. Example: Humans (H. Sapiens) have succeeded in grouping their species as discrete from all other, including such as Homo Ergaster, etc. now only in taxonomy, not in terms of bullying as perhaps struggle might have been.

Thus, politicians have long used the agency of an 'other' that is more extreme than they themselves, to suggest a togetherness (real or not) whereby advantage might accrue to the combined so to thwart the imagined 'other'.

What of Australians? Early European encounters in Australia, somewhat bewildered by a land of acquisition, might share the experience more especially than could be entertained in Europe. Also, wars brought necessity of trust (against obvious possibility of detriment) to both serving warriors and suffering folk not in uniform. That is not to say it was believed that all were trustworthy.

Bolstered by being befriended in adventure, Australians (and others not indigenous of the now-PNG) bore a brunt of encounter in a place known as New Guinea, and indeed new to those at or near the forefront of discovery. New also to the bulk of folk who only heard and read of each ‘advance’.

Impacts there were of those ‘advancing’ (eg kiaps, conversationalists, etc). Impact was felt by other humans, those indigenous, whose retort (and resort physically) might have adopted the eloquence of a Noonucal, yet not initially. A vast many persons today will align with sentiment of her stance. Recently, globally, violence by individuals and collectives is indicative of the extent to which not all humans are empathetically acquainted nor accountably participant. Past predominates, preventing percolation of pertinent predicament.

Already and for quite some decades, the forefront is of a sharing of scientific endeavour to better manage resource of planet Earth. Dichotomizing humans (H Sapiens) by any demarcation (boundary, biology, brain-output) has a likely enterprise, advantage being sought for a ‘some fewer’ to exclude some newer to such learning.

Shared learning (of history, of humanness, of hopes) can be prospective for commonising.

Back to 2016, flaws pertaining, sapience waning, I thank PNGers for enriching my earlier adulthood.

Bernard Corden

Rashimi's thoughts align with much of Bolman and Deal's four frames philosophy and how the same situation can be viewed in at least four ways.
Another emerging concept is the work of Dave Snowden and the Cynefin framework. Both are worth reading.

Peter Sandery

Before getting to the topic, I will start by pointing out that, since moving to Townsville from PNG in 2008, I have been suggesting, initially tongue in cheek, but over the last five years or so, seriously, that in view of the fact that, in my opinion, Queensland is moving ever faster down the road of failed state status, that it should outsource its government to a country like Singapore which seems to have the runs on the board in relation to effective governance within pretty much a democracy. I have now come to the conclusion that the Federal government should consider the same action. This idea, surprisingly has, to coin a modernism, received no traction to date.
Now, to the point, which I have mentioned before but will repeat again which is that the only way that the current governance issues in PNG can be effectively addressed is by a home grown,legitimate reformation ,in that governance.

Paul Oates

Rashmii raises a very valid point. We tend naturally to see the world through our own eyes and not through those of others.

The comments I've made about PNG politics and government are not intended to create anything more than an appreciation of how I see things based on my experience. Clearly others do the same.

The problem is that we all are consciously or unconsciously prone to exhibit our perspectives just as those who read our comments are sometimes prone to see the comments in a different light.

Over the 10 years we have traded comments and views on The Attitude, I for one have gained immensely from our interaction of perspectives and views. If I have been able to learn from others I hope I may have been able to convey some ideas and thoughts from another viewpoint without hopefully giving any offence.

In another article on this blog today, the possibility that PNG could have been a Japanese colony after WW1 raises the question of what may have happened if that possibility had been accepted and how it would have been for PNG and her people let alone for Australia and Papua during WW2?

The lessons learnt about how powerful nations seek to dominate the less powerful should be never forgotten. This lesson is not anything more than to be able to recognise and understand how human nature works whether it is in the village or on the world stage.

We are currently approaching another hiatus in world and more importantly, in regional politics whether we like it or not.

If we don't recognise this aspect and take appropriate action, in the words of George Satayana, we will doom ourselves to repeat history.

I can't see how that will help either the people PNG or anyone else in our region.

Tarangau istap antap na yumi savi pasin bilo em olsem.

Francis Nii

Thank you Rashmii for your well articulated articles in Attitude.

I don't remember correctly but Bill Standish highlighted a number of valid points in his analysis of Australia-PNG relations in a comment in Attitude some time ago and one of them was "neo-colonialism" and a disregard for the independence and sovereignty status of PNG by her former coloniser.

I think Australia has a lot to improve on in this dynamic of "master-servant" post colonial mentality.

Then both countries can accept one another's failures and cooperatively work toward solutions of mutual benefit and co-existence as sovereign but interdependent partners.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I must admit that I've often felt uncomfortable commenting about Papua New Guinea issues for the very reasons that Rashmii outlines here, appearing to be superior and because our own house is hardly in good order.

We Australians often say we are concerned about Papua New Guinea because we spent a significant part of our lives there but often it is more prosaic than that because I suspect that it also relates to a feeling of frustration about what has occurred there since we left.

This we blame on the mysterious and to our minds malady of the Melanesian Way. We secretly ask ourselves, why can't they be more like us?

At my age I'm prepared to admit that there are many things I don't understand - the older I get the less I seem to know. Added to that is my inculcation into the Australian Way. I've no idea how that works either.

Perhaps that is at the heart of all our comments, the Australian Way versus the Melanesian Way - never the twain shall meet.

The other thing I came to realise, especially since getting involved in the Crocodile Prize is that I had hitherto not really engaged with Papua New Guinea and Papua New Guineans at an intellectual level.

The opportunity to do that has probably been the singular most significant aspect of PNG Attitude.

That said,the relationship between Australians and Papua New Guineans on the blog, although vastly improved from what went before, is still a bit one sided. I was thinking about that the other day.

What I thought would be really good is if we had more Papua New Guineans commenting on what is going on in Australia. I mean, as Rashmii says, if we are to have a relationship it has to be on equal terms. I think she has set up an ideal launching platform for that in her essay.

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