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Why Australia must restore shortwave radio to the Pacific

John Greenshields
John Greenshields


ADELAIDE - On our Australian doorstep is an amazing place, Papua New Guinea.

Seven of us were there in August, exploring a remote region of islands and atolls in the Massim district of Milne Bay Province by boat, visiting places most people would not think of seeing.

The incredible opportunity we experienced was matched with a grateful appreciation and response from the communities we meet at each of the 30 islands we stopped at. There was mutual respect.

We weren’t there just as tourists, we were interested in their culture and in particular their many different, traditional types of single outrigger canoe. They responded with information, introduced elders who talked of the past, let us look over the craft in detail and even took us sailing.

As Australians we were warmly received everywhere. Australia was the PNG administrator for decades and has left many good things in place. The Australian influence was there in diverse ways, including an inspired wooden Hills Hoist and outdoor bench setting at Boagis village, way out at the extreme end of PNG territory.

But there was a worrying side that we shared. We visited many remote islands where basic services are deplorable, particularly their health services. At one sub-provincial health centre in Guasopa village [Woodlark Island], they had nothing but Panadol.

We shared our first aid resources and knowledge, and treated those we could with spare drugs we had brought from Australia. There are so many issues facing PNG that we despaired at its future prospects.

Australia is the lucky country, but right now New Guinea is not. We were most surprised and quite angry to learn that Radio Australia no longer transmits to the region, or even the wider Pacific. One small service that Australia could offer is the return of shortwave radio.

The island of Panaeati, south of Misima, is typical of many we visited. It has a population of 2,080 people, many well educated, and fluent in English. The missions and the former Australian administration are responsible for this.

Our contacts there expressed great disappointment at the loss of Radio Australia services in January 2017. So much so, that they discussed the prospect of raising a petition at local government level to the Australian government.

There is a patchy and expensive mobile phone service in Milne Bay, and it gets worse as you move to the islands where it becomes non-existent in places. There is no internet or AM/FM radio service for most of these islands. They have no other alternatives for news. We brought the PNG election results to one island 10 days after urban voters knew.

The argument that alternatives are or will become available is not acceptable. That is patently untrue of the 30 islands we visited. These people are well disposed towards Australia, and we have abandoned them. They have a great need for news, comment, and sport, with rugby union, league, cricket and Australian Rules being of particular interest.

An English language news service would also assist retention of English as their communication medium with the outside world.

As Australia increasingly leaves a cultural void in Pacific, it is being quietly replaced by other countries whose interests may not be in PNG’s best interest. A Radio Australia shortwave service is an inexpensive way for our country to extend soft power, give reassurance and keep true friends. Australia can do something simple that will return much more than the effort required.

Late last week, the Nick Xenophon Team announced that it had negotiated “a review of the reach of Australian broadcasting services in the Asia Pacific region, including examining whether shortwave radio technology should be used” to be included as part of the government’s media reform bill.

This is a positive step, but far from settles the matter. Therefore, any advice on how our group can continue to advocate on this issue would be most welcome. Please leave a comment on this post to contact me if you would like to discuss.

John Greenshields is a retired architect who lived in Papua New Guinea working on government infrastructure projects between 1967 and 1982. He has returned often and recently travelled to PNG to record the art and traditional canoe-making practices of the Milne Bay Province


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Andy McNabb

Will, are you the Will Self born 26 September 1961 in London?

Roger Simpson

Sadly, the main Radio Australia shortwave transmission site at Shepparton, Victoria, has already closed.

The aerial towers have been demolished, the transmitters are gone and the area has been sold to be developed as a housing estate.

Radio Australia's other transmission station, Cox Peninsula near Darwin, was sold years ago.

Re-starting large-scale shortwave transmissions will cost millions and the ABC has no interest in the genre.

Why does the Australian government not simply give the contract to SBS instead? They can contract Broadcast Australia (an engineering entity) to build a new, modern shortwave system. And, unlike ABC bosses, SBS actually has an interest in the Asia-Pacific region.

Will Self

Well, if Radio Australia is any guide, we are not missing anything.

In the last 18 months at mid-morning peak listener time, we have been treated to:

1. A "lifestyle" program interview with a chef who wants to eat human flesh but had to settle for his wife's placenta after she gave birth,

2. Another "lifestyle" interview with a disabled gay man describing in nauseating detail how his life was changed after he was sodomised by a rent boy, and

3. An interview with a woman whose enlarged labial lips and consequent urinary problems ruined her life - complete with descriptions of her underwear

4. A religious program presentation of witchcraft as a religious alternative for young people - =this into a region plagued with sorcery killings

All this around 10-11 am, just before lunch.

I am not making this up. This filth might pass for intellectual discourse in Australia, but not to the hundreds of millions in conservative societies in Asia and the Pacific. It does Australia no favours at all.

The ABC has a proud history in PNG. It was the prime and trusted source of news and a window on the world. Not any more.

My father in law is typical. He listens to his radio every day to hear the news and analysis. But to the BBC. He has told me that he cannot listen to the ABC any more because he does not know what his bubus or his wife might hear.

And I agree with him.

So until you improve the content, switch it off.

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