The challenging cycle of family poverty, violence & breakdown
That ambai - the way she smiles; the way she walks

Neo-colonialism, Palm Island, LNG & the shifting of blame

A Huli man at Ambua in the Southern Highlands
A Huli man at Ambua Lodge near Tari in the Southern Highlands Province


BRISBANE – “2018 marks the centenary of the first forced placement of people on Palm Island and we, the Palm Island Community, are inviting you to ‘Share Our Journey’ as we hold a series of events.”

This handful of words is part of a large, bold statement that introduces the online visitor to a calendar of activities in which the Bwgcolman (‘many tribes, one mob’) of Palm Island will reflect on the past, celebrate the present and look to the future.

Palm Island’s status as former penal colony was never imparted during my Australian school education, and to come across it is revelatory.

Instead, we are exposed to the story of a wayward society lacking in cohesion and a hot bed of violence cultivated in the blackwashed hyperbole with which the Australian media relayed the tragic events of 2004.

Touted as ‘the Palm Island riots’, repetitious coverage of smoke billowing from a police station paired with angry members of the indigenous population walking the streets conveyed the community’s outrage over the suspicious death in custody, less than an hour after arrest, of Mulrunji (Cameron Domadgee).

Missing from the reporting was the turbulent, heartbreaking and unpublicised history of Palm Island, specifically the nature of the relationship between indigenous and white Australia.

Against this backdrop, the escalating outrage of the indigenous community - when their pleas for arresting officer Sergeant Christopher Hurley to be removed from Palm Island - are better understood. After a controversial career Hurley retired from the police medically unfit early last year.

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, in the courtyard of the Avid Bookstore in Brisbane’s West End, the launch of literary journal Griffith Review’s ‘First things First’ afforded another, much-needed occasion to continue unravelling the historical impact of colonisation and, at its centre, the inter-generational implications for the indigenous population of Australia.  

Author and lecturer in Australian social history and health, Dr Joanne Watson, delivered an overview of her featured essay, ‘A century of activism of heartache: the troubled history of Palm Island’.

Watson provided a comprehensive account of resistance to 1800’s colonial intrusion and the subsequent ‘frontier war’ tactics used against the traditional home of the Manbarra and Buluguyban people. She focussed her oration on the language that saturated media coverage of the Palm Island riots.

Watson made reference then Queensland police minister Judy Spence describing Palm Island as a “dysfunctional community” where few people had any sense of social obligation. Then premier Peter Beattie referred to a “dysfunctional council that should get off their bums”. It seems the spin doctors had decided ‘dysfunctional community’ was a useful slur.

The council to which Beattie referred is Palm Island Community Council, established in 1968 after decades of penal rule. Thousands of Queensland’s indigenous people had been deported to the island. Watson’s advocacy over 30 years for the Palm Island community points to white Australia’s continuing failure to address indigenous disadvantage and its brutal history.

As Jack Jeweller wrote in Overland, this lack of progress is due to historical subjugation - systemic control, everyday racism, institutional racism and containment by police.  Jeweller concluded that the outrage surrounding Mulrunjii wasn’t just because of the brutality but also the lack of transparency and the evident collusion involved with the investigation surrounding his death.

The hopelessness experienced by the Bwogcolman people is a logical outcome of nearly a century of containment.

A recent opinion piece by Luke Pearson, founder and chief editor of @IndigenousX, comments on the trajectory of indigenous Australians affairs under the Abbot and Turnbull governments. “Both agendas were plagued by bureaucratic incompetence and malfeasance,” he writes, adding that it is the historical and present-day treatment of Aboriginal people that are causal factors that need to be addressed, not Aboriginality.

We ought to seek out new stories, concludes Pearson, stories that bring depth, understanding and compassion and which seek to find solutions rather than scapegoats.

AS I REFLECT on this point, I cannot help but cast my eyes to Papua New Guinea.

A recent article by Francis Nii looked at the aftermath of Jubilee Australia’s report on the ‘resource curse’ impacts that have descended on PNG since the money started to flow from liquefied natural gas developments.

Right on cue, there followed a volleying of blame shifting and finger pointing between key players Oil Search Limited, Exxon Mobil and the PNG government.

In attributing community discontent and violence to inaction by the government of paying royalties to landowners, Oil Search chairman Rick Lee is reported to have said, “Clearly it’s the lack of distribution [of funds], not the lack of payment [by Oil Search], that is the cause of it”.

Unfaltering in its quest to erase corporate responsibility, the company loftily advocated more transparency in the handling of the gas project royalties and trumpeted the benefits of publishing a detailed public breakdown of payments as a mechanism for curbing corruption.

Simultaneously, in an interview with Radio New Zealand, an ExxonMobil official said it had invested “$US246 million to build infrastructure, develop social programs and implement skills training”.

Huli woman
Huli woman

As fast as lightning, PNG government petroleum minister Dr Fabian Pok issued stern words to Oil Search not to shift blame while doing some blame shifting of his own: “In PNG LNG project, ExxonMobil on advice from Oil Search Limited, rush(ed) on Section 47 requirements and relied on social mapping reports as complete and pushed ahead with the project development”.

Perhaps reeling from the shock, a subsequent media release from Oil Search adopted a different tone and language, segueing to a position no longer isolated from the PNG government and declaring it was “committed to PNG and will continue to work with the State, the developer, its joint venture partners and the communities to ensure the benefits are distributed as soon as possible”.

This back-pedalling by vocal white men was signed and dated by Oil Search communications manager Ruth Waram, a Papua New Guinean woman no less. But this failed to hide who had control over the narrative.

And yet, amongst all the politicking and unravelling of opaque dealings and dismal accountability, the real story is about the Papua New Guineans who have had to live with the consequences of the decisions made by whoever was responsible for this gross mismanagement.

The Monthly magazine’s May 2018 issue delivered a timely snapshot of this through Jo Chandler’s outstanding long form journalism.

Entitled ‘The Resource Curse: Papua New Guinea’s boom gas project is burning up’, he article reviews the US$19 billion liquefied natural gas project from the first meeting between ExxonMobil and PNG representatives in Brisbane in February 2010 to the present-day anger and anguish replete with unpaid royalties, toxic and violent law and order problems and the steady disintegration of the lives of the people of Hela Province who host the LNG project.

While the PNG government, ExxonMobil and Oil Search issue glowing statements of their performance in bringing social and economic benefits to PNG, the people of Hela say otherwise. Men, women and children gaze on a blank landscape, once promised to be rich with tertiary campuses, roads and all manner of other benefits.

Passivity is not within the repertoire of the Huli people of Hela. “We are the women of Hela, but we are not benefiting,” Janet Koriama, president of the Hela Council of Women, tells Chandler.

Koriama recounts her conversation with ExxonMobil and government personnel when she travelled to Port Moresby in search of answers about where the ‘big money’ had gone. Her questions were unanswered, and they remain unanswered. She blames to the government: “Our own sons, who were educated, who were supposed to put it all together.”

Janet Mbuda, a highschool teacher from Hides, drew attention to the young men. “Their mindset is spoiled,” she says, describing teenage boys who left school following the disruption that stalks the gas project. “They can kill anyone. The white men, the black men, they don’t care…”

Chandler refers to an earlier essay when she told of how Powerpoint slides shown by PNG specialists to ExxonMobil in February 2010.

The final slide said: “I will be 18 years old in 2022 and, if I have not been educated and I am still a subsistence farmer living in relative poverty, I am going to be really angry! I may be armed and dangerous!”

The words were juxtaposed with imagery of a small Huli boy crouched by the side of the road with a barefoot youth bearing a high-powered automatic rifle.

The article articulates the feelings of the should-have-been beneficiaries: the women, the young men, the children of Hela Province. It offers a deeper understanding of the plight of those forced into the trajectory of a grim future.

These voices of the indigenous people must be fostered and elevated above all. When the final story is told, it would be ideal if the needs of the people were seen to have overshadowed corruption, blame-shifting and scapegoating and that there had been a steady movement towards inclusive solutions.

This ideal narrative would show that Western operators and the PNG government had eventually chosen to commit to delivering on all those promises made to the people of Hela so many years ago.

This essay was prepared under the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. Attendance at the Griffith Review 60: ‘First Things First’ launch (Avid Bookstore, West End) and the purchase of a copy of The Monthly (May 2018) were undertaken as literary activities of the fellowship. The fellowship commenced in mid-March 2018 and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by fellowship recipient, Rashmii Bell, may be found here or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh


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Rashmii Bell

Attitude readers may be interested in viewing this story on NITV's Living Black, 9pm tonight : The long road to Paradise Street - 100 years on Palm Island.

Rashmii Bell

One of the many privileges of the MWTE Writer's Fellowship has been the opportunity to not only to purchase and read, but also to observe and interact with authors in person.

As I've progressed through the past two months, I've focused a lot of my reading on the experiences of indigenous Australians, particularly on issues of identity and the way forward after the Turnbull government's dismissal of the Uluru Statement.

The points raised in Chris Overland's comments are encompassed not only in the texts I've read but also during the live panel discussions led and delivered by indigenous Australians.

Dr Sandra Phillips has written an excellent essay (in Griffith Review 60) about the steady progress of indigenous Australians' participation in and successful completion of tertiary education. And yet there are many areas that exist where progress is stifled.

As I begin preparing another article under the fellowship, I have re-read Stan Grant's essay (Griffith Review 60) which reflects Chris's comments about those people fixated on raking over the sins of the past rather than looking for viable solutions for the future.

Again, I'm inspired to think, reflect and convey how this applies in the context of PNG.

Rashmii Bell

The debate about who is responsible for for delivering the benefits to people is absolutely crucial but, in my opinion, should not feature centrally.

The implications of mismanagement as it bears on the people should overshadow any excuses, abstract figures, numbers etc.

I think this is important for the understanding of those people (such as myself) who are far removed from the realities of what the people of Hela have endured and continue to endure.

Perhaps increased reporting from this angle would motivate and facilitate faster action from parities deemed responsible.

Certainly Jo Chandler's reporting contains a breadth of facts and first hand accounts that I would appreciate seeing in history books documenting how Hela, as a people and a society, will develop decades after LNG winds up and the Western operators have moved on.

Lindsay F Bond

Momentous, Michael Dom.

At a time in the future, at such erudite tok of errant leaderslip, 'penny may drop' for kina weighs.

How long till? Intelligence incurring insult yet so far without broader harsher electoral imperative.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I disagree. I think that the arguments about who is responsible for delivering the benefits to the landowners are absolutely crucial.

This is especially so when you consider that the LNG project is about to expand considerably.

My personal view is that it is the licensee that bears responsibility for identifying the landowners through the social mapping process and that the government's role is confined to distributing the benefits to them only after they have been identified. Others think the onus rests entirely with the government.

This needs to be tested in court to remove any ambiguity. In particular it needs to be established whether the licensee was remiss in steaming ahead with the development of the project before the social mapping was complete.

Michael Dom

"We are in the business of making monkeys
We defile them and revile them
We educate them in depravity
We domesticate them in poverty

"We are in the business of making monkeys
We mislead them and maroon them
We amputate them from reason
We direct them to self-destruction

"We are in the business of making monkeys
We whore them and devour them
We defy them with our hypocrisy
We deny them true democracy"

Chris Overland

There is a long and dreadful history of prejudice, dispossession and violence directed at Aboriginal Australians.

While overtly prejudicial behaviour is now comparatively rare and widely deplored, the events at Palm Island are symptomatic of a persistent problem within the Queensland Police which, as I understand it, determined efforts are being made to stamp out.

The Queensland Government has accepted that it must accept responsibility for the behaviour of the police force and has actively supported these efforts. As I understand it, things have improved a lot but, inevitably, cultural change takes a long time. It is a labour of decades.

As a general observation, it is clear that the situation of Aboriginal people has improved markedly since the 1967 referendum which extended to them the full rights of Australian citizenship.

Importantly, Australian governments have accepted that they have a duty of care to help overcome the problems now afflicting Aboriginal people, which arise both from what happened in the past and their constitutional and legal obligations towards all Australian citizens.

It is a very under reported fact that there is now an emergent Aboriginal "middle class" who are quite affluent and doing well in life. The number of Aboriginal people graduating from high schools and universities is steadily climbing and they are making their appearance in professions such as law and medicine.

This is not to say that all is well, merely that things are a lot better than is sometimes supposed.

The media prefer to report the very real and apparently intractable problems that still afflict far too many Aboriginal people, especially those living in remote communities like Palm Island.

Alcohol abuse, drug taking and intra community violence (especially against women) remain alarmingly prevalent in some of these communities despite the best efforts of many well intentioned people, both Aboriginal and white.

Also, there are far too many people who prefer to constantly rake over the sins of the past rather than put forward viable suggestions about how to create a better future.

There is a tendency amongst some academics and activists to constantly point to a supposedly collective white guilt for the past. This frequently causes resentment and doesn't help foster debate about how things might be improved, both faster and further.

Based upon Rashmii Bell's excellent article, there appear to be aspects of the Aboriginal experience being played out in PNG, this time perpetrated mostly by its own government.

During the colonial era Papua New Guineans were rarely subjected to the dispossession or violence experienced by Aboriginal people, although both did occur.

The extent of this behaviour in PNG can be argued about but I think that, even accepting that hitherto unreported incidents such as those documented by Mathias Kin are true, such events in PNG were on a very small scale compared to what happened in colonial Africa or South East Asia or Australia for that matter.

There are many reasons for this but, at bottom, the Australian administration always understood that it did not "own" PNG and that its peoples would, eventually, take charge of their own fate.

Now, PNG has its own government and you might imagine that it would not participate in activities that had the effect of dispossessing or doing violence towards or further impoverishing its own people.

Sadly, this seems not to be the case. The PNG government's record for actually delivering on promises made in relation to things like the LNG project suggests that its leadership is either too greedy or too incompetent or both to actually do so.

Arguments about who is notionally responsible for delivering the benefits to the land owners are, as Rashmii points out, irrelevant and futile.

To my mind, just as the Australian colonial administration had to accept responsibility for what its agents and servants did in its name, so the PNG government has to accept ultimate responsibility for ensuring that it citizens actually receive the benefits promised to them.

Arguments to the contrary are just wind: you cannot out source ultimate responsibility for governance, much as modern governments are keen to do so when things go badly.

Of course, even if the constitutional and legal situation is clear enough, this is likely to mean nothing to those in power. Inconvenient truths can be ignored because the people are essentially powerless to do anything about it.

Perhaps they should bear in mind a famous adage of Mao Zedong, the communist leader who proclaimed the Peoples Republic of China, that "political power comes from the barrel of gun."

Someone in Hela Province is bound to figure this out eventually.

Paul Oates

Unfortunately the so called 'blame game' only leads to increased frustration since it doesn't resolve anything except define the problem. Solutions are far more difficult to determine.

Trying to advance by looking backwards only leads to disaster in the future. Learning from the past can however help reduce the chances of making the same mistakes.

Tomorrow is noted on my calendar as 'National Sorry Day'. It marks a significant event where there was recognition that what went on in the past was not right but it should also mark the start of some positive initiatives to improve the future.

Therein lies the crunch point. At that point, most seem to give up, throw their hands in the air and say it's all too hard.

Until someone starts banding together with others of like mind and start leading the group in a cohesive manner, those in power will continue to do what they know works for them.

Daniel Kumbon

'I will be 18 years of age in 2022 and, if I have not been educated and I am still a subsistence farmer living in relative poverty, I am going to be really angry! I may be armed and dangerous.'

Sombre, blood curling words and 2022 is four years away - and when the next national elections are due.

The PNG government must shut its mouth in the blame shifting game and pay the landowners their royalty even if it means to pay them with more dinau moni [loans] from the Export Import Bank of China.

The government must not hold hands with corporate giants and trample on a once proud people.

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