PORT MORESBY - These days I publish and edit the PNG Attitude blog, as I have for the past 12 years, as a means of maintaining a conversation between Papua New Guineans and Australians and encouraging people to write about Papua New Guinea, its issues, challenges, heritage, society and stories.
Professor David Kavanamur's invitation to give this talk allowed me to crystallise in my mind many aspects of the PNG-Australia relationship over the half century I have been associated with PNG.
In seeking simplicity and context, I have divided my thoughts into periods that are meaningful to me because of where I was located at various times. In the compressed form required by this talk, I have tagged these periods to the constantly evolving relationship between PNG and Australia over half a century.
1962 – 1966: ASOPA & THE HIGHLANDS
In 1963, speaking in Port Moresby, Australia’s then prime minister, Robert Menzies said:
“I want to indicate that Australia is not going to be hurried out. We have a long job ahead of us and we intend to complete it. This does not mean we have a ‘go-slow’ policy. If and when we reached a point at which we felt the people were approaching readiness for self-determination, it would be better to act. But we are a long way from that stage.”
I had responded to a brochure entitled ‘Careers with a Challenge’, and, with my parents exasperated that I had not won a place at university, I rather liked the sound of the words ‘Challenge’ and ‘Career’ and 'New Guinea' in juxtaposition. It was far enough away from my country town to give me the autonomy I craved.
ASOPA was “a red brick building on George's Heights, Sydney, looking out, appropriately enough, on the open sea beyond the entrance to the harbour”. For us kiaps and teachers studying there, it was the beyond – ‘the Territory’ – that we were focussed on.
Back then, the assumption was that Australia would be in PNG for a very, very long time. It was wrong. Australians also thought of themselves as pretty good colonisers. And that was wrong.
Soon after arriving in the Territory in late 1963, I asked an old New Ireland policeman how the Australian and the pre-World War I German administrations compared. “We preferred the Germans,” he replied. “They were severe, but we knew where we stood. With you Australians, we never know where we are.” It was an interesting comment and contrary to how we Australians see our national character as tough, straightforward, clear-eyed types.
My first encounter with racism in PNG didn’t take long to surface and I knew it when I saw it because of the way I had seen Australians treat our own Aboriginal people. In PNG it was more verbal than physical - although not always - but just as ugly.
As a bolshy 18-year old who believed in socialism, I baulked at the idea of getting a hausboi, but soon was glad I bowed to pragmatism because Di Siune became my mentor, fixer and cultural guide for five important years during which I began my lifetime career, married and started a family. When my work took me elsewhere, Di Siune decided he had travelled enough and would return to Chimbu. I had received most of the benefits of that partnership.
And so I was inducted into and moved through colonial society, over time coming to realise that colonialism of any kind is never benign because, no matter how mellow it may appear, its very nature is to classify people as unequal.
In 1964, the school year had no sooner begun than I was told to participate in PNG’s first national election as an assistant returning officer on a patrol that walked up and down endless ridges south of Chuave.
There was hardly a government officer not involved in this major event that was to impact on everyone’s way of life. Western style democracy had arrived in PNG The relationship between PNG and Australia would now change – at first slowly, but then at great speed.
1966 – 1970: PORT MORESBY – RABAUL
Historian Bill Gammage has written:
"In 1967 the Moresby magazine Black & White warned, ‘There will evolve in the Territory a clique of half-baked idiots who, by virtue of their attendance at a university whose degrees mean nothing, will set themselves up as intellectuals and social leaders of their own people’.”
I wrote a few articles for Black & White in 1967 and thankfully that wasn’t one of them because, not long after, I was a part-time student at UPNG studying economics and politics.
The university was much scorned and mocked by Australian ‘Territorians’, as they called themselves, but for those of us fortunate enough to study there in those early days, it was clear that the pace of political change in PNG was accelerating even as disbelief in what was happening mounted.
By now I had been transferred from my school in the highlands to Port Moresby to edit the school magazines and within a year I was recruited by the ABC to produce school broadcasts. But, eager to move out of Moresby and back to the field, after three years I left the ABC to join the government broadcasting service which assigned me to Radio Rabaul.
In the Gazelle, the Tolai people were taking politics very seriously indeed with the community divided between pro-Administration leaders and the newly-formed Mataungan Association – a proto-independence movement seeking greater access to alienated land and strenuously opposed to the establishment of a multiracial council.
In the heated climate of the time, I felt the full force of antagonism to my role as a journalist at the government-owned station.
1970 was the year that Australian prime minister John Gorton, a pistol tucked into his trouser pocket, tried to address 10,000 people gathered at Rabaul airport who were as anxious to shout him down as he was to get away from them.
Never previously had the Australian government encountered resistance like this to its Administration. Later, when Gorton wanted to send in troops to settle things down, he had a heated dispute with army minister Malcolm Fraser which was to ultimately help cost Gorton his leadership.
By 1970, it was clear that the end of Australia’s presence in PNG was not far off and I saw how poorly prepared both sides were for self-determination, as it was called. A shrewd commentator later wrote, “80 years of political stagnation followed by 10 years of haste had not laid a sound base for the move to independence.”
But history’s tide had turned and two years later, when Gough Whitlam was elected Australian prime minister, the pendulum was to swing even more dramatically.
1970 – 1973: BOUGAINVILLE
“When I arrived in Rabaul in early 1970, the man most hated by the white residents was not one of the leaders of the feared Mataungan Association.... It was Australia’s most mercurial politician, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam had visited the town some month before and people would become abusive at the mere mention of his name. ‘I don’t know what kind of Australian it is that settles in New Guinea,’ he had said at a cocktail party. ‘But it’s a very inferior breed’.”
With experience in Rabaul under my belt – including an unfriendly encounter near Vunapaladig plantation with bushknife-wielding Mataungan supporters from whom, not being a brave kiap, I fled at breakneck speed – my superiors in the Department of Information in Port Moresby assigned me to transfer to Kieta as manager of Radio Bougainville, which had also run into problems.
‘Radio Ashton’, as the station was known locally as a slur against District Commissioner Des Ashton, had been established in a hurry to accompany the development of the Panguna copper and gold mine – PNG’s first large scale resource project and a real economic boon in terms of the independence that was coming.
The mine was aggressively opposed by local landowners and the government propaganda that 'giving up your land is good for you' emitting from the radio station was not well received. When I arrived in Kieta, I discovered a storeroom packed floor to ceiling with boxes of radios. In those days, trying to encourage listening, we gave radios away free. But in the villages people were burning them and smashing them with axes and the station had stopped handing them out. The power of propaganda is not just a one-way street. Challenge people’s values and ingrained knowledge and it can backfire explosively.
As manager, with my Department’s approval, I set about taking the station’s news and programs to the middle-ground. In doing so I ran into trouble from the kiaps who, after some time, decided I would be better relocated off the island. With the help of headquarters, and from my good friend Sam Piniau who was being groomed to run the NBC, that plan failed. I even knocked back a promotion to Moresby so I could stay in Bougainville.
They were good years. I was in my mid-twenties, I was in my 'career with a challenge' and I was enjoying it. I also learned much about my profession and its relationship with the audience. And I fell in love with Bougainville and its beautiful people.
Bougainville showed me that Australia was not only ill-prepared to guide PNG to independence; it was lacking a sophisticated understanding about how western politics and economics could successfully be transplanted within other cultures. It was an eye-opener for me. I’d always assumed that, despite our administrative flaws and often deep conservatism, we Australians were better than that.
1973 – 1976: PORT MORESBY
You may recall the words of Governor-General Sir John Guise at the lowering of the Australian flag on Independence Day eve: “It is important the people of Papua New Guinea, and the rest of the world, realise the spirit in which we are lowering the flag of our colonisers. We are lowering the flag, not tearing it down."
That was a great achievement for both PNG and Australia.
In the period immediately before independence, most expatriate public servants ended up in Moresby, and I was no exception.
In early 1973, I left Bougainville on a six-month consultancy with Unesco in Indonesia and, upon my return, found myself directing policy and planning in the new NBC under Sam Piniau, who had just been appointed chairman.
A precise date had still not been set for independence but it seemed 1975 would be the year.
Michael Somare was chief minister and, despite his great political skills, he was discovering that to his left was a Central Planning Office stacked with expats who were talking socialism and to his right was the Department of District Administration – the kiaps’ department – who were generally opposed to early independence and didn’t seem to be trying hard to achieve it. As Phil Fitzpatrick wrote in PNG Attitude earlier this week, “You couldn’t be blamed for thinking the Department was somehow locked in the past and perpetuating some kind of dinosaur policy.”
Somare, pressing on to independence, saw that a strong kiap presence with its foot on the brake pedal would threaten progress. So, around that time, the fate of the kiaps was sealed. An independent PNG would have benefited if there had been the will and the time to transition them to a new nation-building role. But there was neither. They had to go.
As for me, I expected that, given its importance in nation-building, the NBC – an amalgam of government and ABC broadcasting organisations – would be reasonably well-resourced. But the ABC wasn’t up for significant funding and nor was the PNG government. In the circumstances, at my suggestion and under my management, the NBC decided take on advertising to supplement its budget.
The Central Planning Office was furious. Somare intervened on its side. Piniau stood strong. They argued. Again I was told I faced deportation. I saw this conflict as essentially a battle between white men of opposing ideologies, a struggle which I saw as totally inappropriate in a newly independent nation and which distressed me a great deal. I resigned and some time later left PNG.
A few weeks after I had gone, the government tried to change the NBC Act in parliament, lost the vote and advertising was introduced soon after. For me, in the process of setting up a new radio station in Australia, it was bitter-sweet moment. But despite all that – and much other controversy – Papua New Guinea had achieved independence. It was a great time. I’m glad I was there for it. Even the most sour-faced colonials could not hide their pleasure on that day.
Australia lost no international friends when PNG became independent but, inside its borders, many highlanders and many expats were anxious. But I agree with Dr Ron May’s assessment that “notwithstanding all this, PNG made a smooth transition to independence and, in its first decade as an independent state, it performed well.”
1976 – 2006: THE GAP YEARS
Let me quote the grumpy but perceptive John Fowke to fill in my gap years, those years when I was pursuing my career elsewhere:
“As the twenty-first century opens,” Fowke wrote, “PNG is being forced through a process of massive social adjustment more intense than that experienced by almost any other nation. A simply-structured tribal society is becoming, willy-nilly, an incredibly more complex one…..
“Australia has been a humane and unusually generous foster-parent to PNG, both before and after independence. Australia laid solid foundations in terms of a wide appreciation of democratic ideals and principles among the educated of PNG, who are themselves largely the creation of Australia.”
The Australian poet, ASOPA lecturer and friend of PNG James McAuley once said that what it achieved in its relationship with PNG would come to define Australia as a nation. It has not turned out that way. A more prescient observation might be that what defines Australia as a nation has come to greatly influence our relationship with PNG.
PNG was once much more important to Australia than it is today, and those gap years can be seen to have diluted the relationship. By the time 1976 gave way to 2006, the people-to-people contact had drifted apart. Sure there was aid and there was trade but there is more to a neighbourliness than that.
Back near the turn of the century, John Fowke ventured the view that PNG still needed “substantial assistance and it will come from nowhere but Australia”. As we were to soon discover, the “nowhere but Australia” was to be challenged as PNG adopted a Look North Policy. And now PNG and the Pacific are a significant arena of a big power politics between China and the United States.
But Fowke also noted that “Australia must be much more insightful and much more cognisant of the causes of the problems of its close neighbour and ally.” I believe the very existence of Abt PNG's governance project is a sign that we have moved in this direction, but it did take a long time to arrive. Forty odd years after independence it has only just happened.
At the time PNG Attitude was first published in 2006, I was beginning to redirect my attention back to PNG. I hadn’t been entirely absent – I had lectured PNG media managers at the International training Institute in Sydney, maintained continuing friendships and worked to establish radio New Dawn FM in Bougainville. But, a bit like Australia, my attention had wandered. Until social media offered the opportunity for a new kind of conversation.
2006 – 2018: THE ATTITUDE YEARS
“PNG faces many physical as well as social challenges. But the chief hurdle at which it appears to fall is a moral one — that of corruption. Culturally in PNG — and Australia isn’t much better — leaders tend to love deals and ribbon-cutting and shun involvement in the nitty-gritty of competently delivering services and maintaining infrastructure. The choices involved in deal-making lend themselves to personal opportunity.”
Sam Koim recently estimated that about $200 million of PNG corruption proceeds are laundered to Australia annually. “The developed world needs to stop the hypocrisy and start taking real action,” Koim said. For developed world, read Australia.
Just this week, we witnessed an argument about the ‘resource curse’ - the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have less economic growth, less democracy and worse development outcomes. It quickly became politicised, as such matters do, which makes rational discourse difficult and solutions almost impossible.
In this still incomplete decade I have seen the best of the PNG-Australia relationship in the struggle against multi-drug resistant TB and the worst of it in Australia’s dumping on Manus of unwanted refugees.
In the columns of PNG Attitude, in 13,000 posts and 40,000 comments, Papua New Guineans and Australians have recorded their views and their stories about a relationship that always was capable of offering more than trade, aid and refugee deals.
While in official pronouncements Australia states repeatedly that it has ‘a special relationship’ with PNG, the truth is we have fallen well short of being true strategic partners. Over the last 15 years, Australia’s relationship with PNG has drifted from an aspirational strategic partnership to a more pragmatic formulation that is far from the “new narrative encompassing a shared vision” that Julie Bishop once spoke of and which never developed.
On Tuesday this week the former colonial institution I knew as Adcol was rebirthed and rebranded as the Pacific Institute of Leadership and Governance. This has every appearance of possessing the potential to develop as a true partnership of PNG and Australia in the formidable task of creating ethical and capable public sector leaders. And the very fact it exists indicates a shared desire to tackle some tough problems afflicting the PNG-Australia relationship.
The ideal, of course, would be to go beyond a workable relationship, which we seem to have, and to develop the stronger bond of partnership – implying principles that can pass various tests: of mutuality, responsibility, equality, authenticity, transparency, transformational capacity and ethics.
To achieve this will require a joint commitment to the shared national interests of both countries – which means subsuming commercial, corporate, institutional and personal interests to the greater goal of bilateral understanding. I wonder if we know how to do that.
Always interested in strategy, I’ve parsed this notion of partnership to develop seven principles that I believe need to be satisfied to create effective partnerships between our two countries and their key institutions. I leave them with you for purposes of discussion and debate, and – if you choose - further interrogation and enquiry.
TRANSITIONING FROM RELATIONSHIP TO PARTNERSHIP
My ‘CREATTE’ principles of partnership theorises that an effective strategic partnership needs to satisfy each of the following seven principles or, if you like, tests:
Conjointness - Reciprocity & mutuality between partners
Responsibility - Accountability of partners to each other
Equality - Fairness & parity between partners
Authenticity - Honesty & realism between partners
Transparency - Openness between partners
Transformational - Meaningful change & outcomes for partners
Ethical - Partnership based on moral principles
When Papua New Guinea and Australia can look each other in the eye and say, "well, we've managed to do all that", we would really be partners - and what a great partnership that could be.