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A meditation on ageing & fading Australia-PNG links

Minister Charles Barnes & kiap Barry Holloway at Aiome, 1960s (Aust National Archives)CHRIS OVERLAND

AS I enter what are sometimes called the autumn years, I increasingly begin to see what Dylan Thomas was on about when he wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

For example, I find myself increasingly annoyed by advertisements for retirement villages or, as they are now more commonly called, “lifestyle villages”.

These adverts, usually shot in soft focus, invariably show a fit looking grey headed couple playing with their grandchildren or walking hand in hand along the beach or engaged in some other highly idealised activity.

There is no mention of the often highly unfavourable financial terms upon which access to these “villages” is based, nor upon the grimmer realities of ageing including but not limited to dodgy backs, fading eyesight, the annoying incapacity to remember where you left the keys or your glasses and various uncomfortable failings of an alimentary nature.

There are some upsides though, not least of which is the capacity to see the world much more clearly for what it actually is as distinct from what you might once have wished it to be. This includes the realisation that a great deal of what you once believed to be true is, in fact, either not true at all or subject to many qualifications and caveats.

My confidence in the inherent virtues of liberal capitalism, and democracy more broadly, has been seriously diminished as it has dawned upon me how little practical influence an ordinary citizen has in a world dominated by disingenuous politicians and the cabal of bankers, financiers, industrialists and press barons whose opinions and interests actually matter in the halls of power.

So, I increasingly fit the image of the grumpy old man, futilely raging against the machinations of the new ruling class, where the power and influence inherent in the ability to deploy vast sums of money has replaced or subsumed the historic power of those once “born to rule”.

I also have grown reflective about how my life has worked out. Somewhat to my surprise, the experiences that matter most to me, other than those related to my immediate family and close friends, are those that I had in Papua New Guinea.

It is my very strong impression that this is also true for many, perhaps most, of those people who lived and worked for any length of time in PNG.

There is a fondness for the country and its people, albeit seen through a haze of nostalgia and adjusted memories, which transcends most other life experiences. Those whom I might reasonably call veterans of PNG often share an incapacity to stop thinking about or paying attention to it.

These veterans collectively constitute a reservoir of good will that helps inform thinking within Australia about PNG and, more specifically, helps generate and maintain a sense that we have a continuing obligation to support and assist our former territory.

It has lately occurred to me that this reservoir is now beginning to diminish rapidly because many of us are, whether gently or raging, going into that good night.

This concerns me because, all too soon, this country’s living memory of PNG as it was from World War II until independence, will soon be gone. History books are fine things for recording facts but they rarely adequately capture the sentiment and feelings of those who lived that history.

When the last of the veterans shrugs off this mortal coil, who will take up the task of advocating for PNG within an increasingly inward looking and, dare I say it, selfish Australian public and polity?

Already, PNG is effectively invisible in Australian political discourse and this situation will not improve as its increasingly geriatric advocates plummet off their twigs.

Hopefully, there are a few new veterans who will take up the challenge but I fear that marvellous initiatives like PNG Attitude and organisations like the PNG Association of Australia will quietly fade from sight.

That will be very sad indeed for both Australia and Papua New Guinea.


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Leo Maso Malala

Hi Chris, I wonder why our government fails to honour and recognise our veterans, colonial masters and government workers in PNG today - because they are the pillars or corner stones of our development, prosperity and achievements to the very present.

With them we have come this far and without them we would been behind the computer world of modernisation in which we are currently living.

Paul Oates

Thank you Daniel. Your comment about PNG culture is something that typifies what really resonated with me when I first arrived in PNG.

I understood and completely empathized with the ability to communicate ideas and concepts in a wonderfully skillful way that doesn't give offence and yet successfully gets the message across. i.e. 'Tok Bokis'

As I reflected about myself to one of your countrymen recently, 'You may take the person out of PNG but you can't take PNG out of the person.'

Bernard Corden

Hi Paul, The Japanese occupation of Burma between 1942-45 has strong synergies with your comments. History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.

Bernard Corden

Hi Chris, I spent only four years in PNG over in Lae and that was relatively recent. My late brother spent almost 20 years, mostly in Port Moresby and a short period in Goroka.

The most enduring memory of my tenure was 'what you see is what you get' and there is very little pretentious credit card wealth. Most of the PNG people I met are the salt of the earth and have so much dignity.

I love the Dylan Thomas quote but my favourite of his was the definition of an alcoholic: " Someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do".

He was certainly well qualified to make such a statement.

Bob Cleland

Chris, as a PNG ancient (1953-76), you've hit our worries right on the head.

I'm happy to suggest that many Queenslanders, and a few others, will learn something about PNG when they visit the current exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Entitled 'Number 1 Neighbour' it's extensive, showing items from the gallery's own and other collections. It's more than just art and artifacts as the curator has set out to show and explain PNG in broader terms.

Any interstaters visiting Brisbane between now and 31 January 2017 should make it a 'must see'.

Philip Fitzpatrick

We are probably not the first or the last generation to rue the impending passing of an era or, indeed to come to the realisation that the world is an unkind place for those of us not on the top of the dung heap.

I was trying to think of somewhere else or some other time that has had such an enduring effect on me but without any luck.

I probably spent more cumulative time with Aboriginal people in the outback than I did in PNG but while there is a nostalgia there it doesn't provide the old familiar memory blanket in which I occasionally like to wrap myself.

Paul also reminds us of the worry for PNG's future that nags us along with the good memories.

Daniel Kumbon

How true and touching this piece is Chris.

I keep thanking Paga Hill Development Company, PNG Attitude and Professor Ken McKinnon for the opportunity to meet some of you ‘veterans’ of PNG last month.

I saw from the distance where Middle Head is in Sydney on a ferry trip to Manly where kiaps, teachers and others trained before they came here to PNG. I met many of the now ‘silver-haired’ men and women who had trained there and still love my country and its people.

I was impressed with people like Ed Brumby who had flown all the way from Melbourne to Brisbane just to meet us – Martyn, Francis, Rashmi, Julie and myself.

And people like Murray Blaswell and friends at the Rotary Club in Brisbane who sent Francis Nii home with a brand new wheelchair.

If that is not a demonstration of true love and concern for a people, then what is?

I am optimistic the relationship we have with former ‘veterans’ of PNG will remain. When they came to visit, they did not come alone – some of their sons and daughters have followed their mums and dads.

But on a government to government relationship, Paul Oates comments need to be considered.

In the highlands a man used to marry many wives but their first wife was considered the foundation of the household.

Paul Oates

Sad as it is to admit you are right, I have to agree with your hypothesis Chris.

There is however one aspect that perhaps those reading this blog should ponder upon. That is the other side of the coin.

In a world fast spinning out of control, those in PNG who value the interaction and association their country has had with their neighbour Australia, should think very carefully about the past actions and intentions of other nations and cultures that are and have been touted as a better and more 'advantageous' alternatives. Advantageous that is, to a few and disadvantageous to the many.

The time is fast approaching when PNG will be asked to take sides in many important decisions and these decisions will be influenced in some way, by the voices of her people and how they determine and select their nation's leaders.

Judge a people and a nation on their actions rather than what they say to your face. Also remember that it's been said that it takes on average 14 positive actions to cancel out a negative action in many people's minds.

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