PORT MORESBY – The Papua New Guinean capital is green and misty as the end of the wet season nears with the laurabada gusting, signalling that the dry is not far away.
Mosbi groans under its new infrastructure – grand hotels, public buildings, sports stadiums and highways (that only required some pot holes filled) being ripped up and replaced. The city is full of irritated commuters and signs welcoming APEC.
In some ways the scale of activity is impressive in a nation that is nearly broke given that there seems to be no vision beyond the APEC forum - November’s gala event starring Trump, Xi, Modhi, Abe et al and including whoever at the time happens to lead the world’s largest island to the south.
Meanwhile, Australian trekkers here for Anzac Day and what is known as ‘the Kokoda experience’ have folded their tents to spend some days of rest and recovery in the contrasting splendour of The Stanley Hotel, which is where I make my digs, requiring as I do extreme comfort for the ‘bon i pen, het i raun’ which is the modern lapun version of myself.
After jerry rigging an internet connection that doesn’t reject me as it might a criminal collusion, I finally get this blog struggling to its feet and feel that my responsibility to connectedness is discharged.
Somehow my private visit – which will last 10 days and includes a welcome return to Rabaul – has triggered an invitation to address a gathering of movers, shakers and blog readers on the subject of the changing nature of the PNG-Australia relationship.
Not wanting to appear like some big-mouth visiting wally with no real clue, I spend time each day planning my talk.
In reading, I encounter a revealing quote in a September 1963 broadcast from Port Moresby by Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister who was nearing retirement at the time.
Menzies was dubbed by many Australians as ‘Pig Iron Bob’ because, in 1938 just before World War II, he had agreed to sell scrap iron to Japan as it was brutalising China and readying for war in the Asia-Pacific.
“It’ll come back to us as bombs and bullets,” predicted the wharfies who tried to stop the shipment.
Menzies’ words of 1963 particularly resonated with me because, just a couple of months after he spoke, I was to arrive in PNG to begin my “career with a future”, as the recruitment brochure put it.
As he spoke from 9PA Port Moresby, Menzies had inklings that PNG – one of the last remaining colonies and with international pressure growing to change that – might be headed for self-government but he had no great taste for the prospect, as his words showed:
“In moving towards self-government, speed is not more important than certainty or security. This does not mean that we are to have a ‘go-slow’ policy. I once said that, if and when we reached a point at which we felt that the people were approaching, getting very, very close to readiness for self-determination, but we were not sure, still had a lingering hesitation, it would be better to act too soon than too late.
“But we are as yet a long way from that stage, as the leaders of the indigenous peoples have frequently agreed and as indeed they have stated to me in the highlands in the last 36 hours. We want a sound feeling about the wishes of the people of these Territories. We want security for those who are now there, and for those who are to come.”
Those words were spoken just nine years from self-government and 12 years from independence. It all happened very fast; much faster than Menzies envisaged. When he died in 1978, PNG had been independent for three years.
As an old man, yes the time has come to classify myself as such, I do not find it a chore to prepare a speech that is reflective of the 55 years since I first set foot in PNG as an 18-year old teacher soon to be journalist. The process conjures up so much of an exhilarating past.
Continuing to read, I was reminded that even as late as January 1966 Australia’s external territories minister Charles (Ceb) Barnes ruminated that Papua should be up for becoming the seventh state of Australia, muddying this even further by declaring that, when the time came, the people of Papua and New Guinea could choose for themselves what they wanted. In or out of our Federation.
The PNG people, of course, were not to be afforded that opportunity, and it is tantalising to consider what might have been the case if they were.
So, as I gaze out of my hotel room window across a steamy Waigani valley to the low hills (where despite the damp someone has managed to set a garden fire) with the Owen Stanleys barely visible beyond, I reflect on these matters and, not for the first time, consider how fortunate was I as a young man to be given a chance to develop a passion for two counties so culturally different.
Irascible and grumpy though I may sometimes feel about both places (an old man’s privilege), I do think affectionately of them and wish they had developed more of a mutual partnership not just a dwindling relationship.
Perhaps some prospect remains that, one day, the closeness we felt 40 or so years ago might regenerate and transform into something truly substantive.
Our two countries would benefit immeasurably from developing a stronger bond than a ‘relationship’. We need something more durable. A partnership of equality, mutuality, honesty and authenticity.
I hope it is not too late for that, although I fear it may be.