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The visionary Michael Dom nailed it – now I’ll expand on it

Michael Dom


GOLD COAST - There are sometimes times when the mists of myopia clear from our eyes and we suddenly see the world as it is and not as we want it to be.

Without these moments of clarity, it can be easy to lose sight of the obvious if it doesn’t fit the usual blandishments being bantered around.

On 20 September on this blog, Dr Michael Dom offered his views in a post about ex-kiaps and their lamentations over PNG and what could have been.

“When trying to take a middle path through political action, some of us are hamstrung on both sides”, he said.

I suggest that Michael’s statement goes precisely to the heart of the matter that many of us lapun former field staff have been saying for years.

The real issue however is not that we are either right or setting ourselves up as more virtuous than anyone else. The real issue is that either we as a species must either learn from our history or we will make the same mistakes over and over again.

When the acclaimed ‘Father of the Nation’ and the ‘Bully Beef Club’ declared they would lead Papua New Guinea along a Melanesian road after Independence in 1975, the hopes of many rejoiced in a wonderful vision for PNG’s future.

Yet right from the start, the road map seemed to be going in the wrong direction other than to where people said they wanted to end up.

Now there are those who recognise that where they are going is the wrong direction and those who continue to aggressively insist they know better.

It reminds me of the arguments that sometimes take place in the front seat of the vehicle I’m driving. A clear headed, logical person might stop and ask directions or consult a map, these days probably an electronic device.

The result of obstinacy is a belated recognition that, if we had troubled to take some advice in the first place, we wouldn’t have ended up where we didn’t want to go.

So what is the lesson that we need to learn? Surely it’s how we either learn from past experiences or acknowledge that we as a species will continue to attempt to prove we were right all along by doing that which we know doesn’t work. We just refuse to admit we took the wrong road?

So it seems to me Michael Dom has effectively ‘pinged’ the real problem.

It’s not that former Australian field staff and kiaps are being ‘superior’ when they point out where PNG has gone wrong.

It’s that, as a uniquely engaged and concerned group of people who have an abiding appreciation of PNG, we have tried to provide helpful suggestions on how to get the nation and her people back onto the well-known highway and out of the ‘barat pulap lo malum malum’.

So how do we resolve that argument that develops in the front seat of the car when we realise that we haven’t arrived at where we want to go?

Change the driver or suggest the driver to change their outlook.


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Andy McNabb

Martin Auld - You seem to have a good grip on Pacific anthropology. Do you have a website one can visit?

Paul Oates

Phil has commented: ‘We Australians imagined a place called Papua New Guinea comprised of 800 'tribes' and cobbled it together in our minds as a potential nation. Why are we now surprised that it appears not to have worked very well?’

Phil, you’re comment really goes to the heart of why many of us still can’t grasp the reason why PNG can’t just copy what others have found that works as a successful government system that looks after the nation’s people.

Firstly, almost everyone in the PNG bush prior to 1975 did not want Australia to just pack up and leave. Yet in essence, that is what happened after Independence.

We now know why it happened. Gough Whitlam in his wisdom was not interested in listening to those who knew what was actually happening in the PNG rural areas or what the vast majority of the PNG actually wanted. It suited him to listen to the few elites who saw their chance to gain power for themselves so that he could claim: “Comrade, I liberated PNG.”

Those few elites who happened to be at the right time and the right place (thanks to Australia), then took over the reins of power without any real idea of how difficult it was to govern. It was however, understandably a splendid opportunity to rite any previous wrongs and get power back into PNG hands. But as a former PNG High Commissioner confided a few years ago, the then newly appointed PM Michael Somare semi jokingly said when things weren’t then going so well: “What do we do? Bring back the Kiaps?”

We know Whitlam and his senior public servants weren’t prepared to listen to those who actually talked to the PNG people in the bush.

We also now know that you can’t cobble together 800 ethnically different people and expect them to suddenly start thinking collectively as a nation. At the time, those newly independent nations created by the19th Century colonial countries had mostly not yet imploded. Nigeria however, as one of the first to gain Independence was at the time a classic example of how many others would then in turn then follow. Endless civil wars, corruption and exploitation that mostly continues to this day.

Therefore, what can we learn from this known human history? What normally happens when a collection of disparate people end up being as Phil says, ‘Cobbled together as a new nation’? What previous examples are there around that can be used to illustrate how things could work?

Well, a strong man or woman could emerge and try to beat everyone into submission? Read most of post-colonial Africa. Endless corruption and misery for most while those few with power enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labour? Read today’s Zimbabwe.

So is there a more desirable example of another system of government that PNG could or should aspire?

If there is a desirable and successful alternative, there’s never been a better time to start promoting it.

Philip Fitzpatrick

What I'm getting at with changing the bus is actually changing the way PNG is governed.

I know it's probably too late in the day to do that and I don't have any suggestions that don't look like a form of socialism or communism.

In saying this I have in mind the East Berliners and Russians who still rue the passing of past regimes and the introduction of capitalism.

They reckon they've gone from a situation where they were looked after by the state to one of dog eat dog.

To me PNG looks very much like the new, improved PMV in Bob Browne's cartoon that Keith recently used to illustrate my article on political correctness.

Martin Auld

"I suspect that 'Melanesian' might be an anthropological construct rather than a political one."

Phil - The reference to black in 'Melanesia' gives the game away. It was racist from inception, and geographic.

The anthropological evidence was never strong, Austronesians living in 'Melanesia' have both line and circle dances and speak languages from both Austronesian and non Austronesian families.

The attempt by Jakarta to include NTT Maluku (North Maluku) and the two Papuan Provinces in a 'Melanesian' bloc is nothing if not political and illustrates the absurdity of continuing to categorise humans in discredited 19th century boxes.

Just ask the Aboriginal Pama Nyungan speakers in the Torres Strait.

In West Papua they've merely created more community division trying to define who is Papuan and Melanesian, and who therefore is not.

Some in academia have belatedly recognised the mistake. Manufacturing and perpetuating division just serves the few who seek power over many.

By 'changing the bus' do you mean breaking up existing nation states, with the violence, murders, mass refugee movements and trans-generational trauma I hope never again to experience?

Paul Oates

Yep, that's it Phil. Hop on another bus.

But does one exist and if so, can you point it out?

Philip Fitzpatrick

I suspect that 'Melanesian' might be an anthropological construct rather than a political one. Then again, perhaps anthropology is a product of politics, rooted as it once was in colonialism, otherness and race.

I also can't help thinking that Benedict Anderson's 'imagined communities' isn't just a case of stating the obvious.

We can hardly know what actually comprises a place like Australia or the USA but we can imagine what they might look like even though they are constantly fluid things. Isn't Donald Trump and his mates busily imagining a completely new (or old?) America?

The colonialists used Anderson's concept to their advantage and the disadvantage of the people to which it was applied. In Africa the British imagined 'tribes' that hitherto hadn't existed and leaders who weren't leaders and created countries out of them. No wonder they fell apart when they left.

We Australians imagined a place called Papua New Guinea comprised of 800 'tribes' and cobbled it together in our minds as a potential nation. Why are we now surprised that it appears not to have worked very well?

Perhaps we need to think about changing the bus rather than the driver Paul.

Paul Oates

Thanks Martin. Racism is just advanced tribalism by another name.

Once people see through the strings that others use to control them the world could be a lot better place.

Not quite the same as racism, which is prejudice directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own is superior.

Tribalism refers to the behaviour flowing from strong loyalty to one's tribe or group. This may be racist but not necessarily - KJ

Martin Auld

'There is only one race and that's the human race.'

Agree Paul. Race is a discredited 19th century obsession. The term 'Melanesian' is a political construct, now used as a tool by regional nation states to define and legitimise unity, difference, inclusion and exclusion, wealth and power, it's inherently 'racist'and 'othering', regressive rather than progressive.

Strangely and disappointingly left of centre discourse remains uncritical of Benedict Anderson's 'Imagined Communities.'

Hitler's Nazis also had an imagined community, as did more recent separatists in the Balkans.

If you're reading Brother Martin and Franco. Time to ditch the Melanesian bullshit, it's an enemy of the universal humanism we all aspire to.

Paul Oates

Too true Phil but going forwards under the false notion that what hasn't worked previously will somehow work better next time is precisely what I'm banging on about.

In the case where it's painfully clear the driver either won't or can't change direction there's only two alternatives. Change the driver or ensure that you change the direction you are traveling.

Michael has already pointed out that to continue to blindly charge 'forward' when you've already bottomed out is just an inevitable recipe for further disaster.

The so called Melanesian Way where a 'village' type mentality is used to run a nation clearly hasn't worked.

Philip Fitzpatrick

We're a bit like dogs when it comes to race Paul. We may look like a Great Dane or a Chihuahua but we are at base still a dog.

I suppose with dogs it's because of specialised breeding that they look different but with humans its a case of the environment in which they evolved.

Maybe it's a matter of cultures rather than races that look down on each other and think they are better than the other.

The thing about taking the wrong road is that you have to retrace your steps and go back the way you came to get back on the right road. I'm not sure that's possible with governance, everyone wants to go forwards, not backwards.

Paul Oates

Your comments are apposite, Phil, but hopefully they won't divert from the point I was trying to make.

The central issue is whether or not what you are doing works and produces the results you claim you want, i.e., does the road you are on get you to where you want to go?

If the answer is no, then you've taken the wrong road. It's just that simple.

The tragic situation only gets worse when the more you try and prove the wrong direction is the right one, knowing full well it isn't. The further in the mire everyone then becomes.

I disagree with you about race. There is only one race and that's the human race. DNA effectively proves it. There are however many different ingrained cultures and traditional learning experiences that can affect how proven knowledge is used.

The central point I was trying to make is that history has proven time and again that unless we as a species learn from past mistakes we are doomed to repeat those self same previous mistakes.

Clearly, there will be a tendency for some to feel they are being talked down to if they are continually told they are not able to do what others are apparently able to do. That is not my intention.

I suggest that in this particular instance, Michael Dom has correctly highlighted the real issue. Others may choose to suggest we lapuns are being discerning but if they do, in my case at least, that's just not true.

You can't have a half truth. Either it's true or it's not. Likewise, you can't have a system that only works sometimes and for only some people. That's a flawed system if the objective is to help everyone.

The so called 'Strongim Gavaman' and all the other legion of waffles including trying to impose a village culture on a central government system are always going to fail.

There is only one system of government that works for all and that is responsible and accountable government.

Everyone knows that but in many instances, they continue to sprout waffle in order to fool everyone else and possibly even to delude themselves.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This is slightly off track Paul but I've been thinking about a recent tweet by Elvina Ogil in which she says:

"Bar Gough Whitlam’s pre-independence stance towards PNG, every iteration of Australia’s foreign policy towards PNG has been underpinned by an undertone of racism, colonialism and an overriding presumption that Papua New Guineans are incapable and inferior people".

My initial reaction was to dismiss it as another excuse for the parlous situation in PNG but upon reflection I've come to the conclusion that she is right in most of what she says.

My only reservation is the reference to Gough Whitlam. I know he was against colonialism but I'm not sure how he regarded PNG people.

I went back to what she said a couple of times because something there seemed to not only ring a bell but to also offer an explanation of sorts.

The only analogy I can think of, and it's not a good one, is of the child that is constantly told by its parents that it is dumb and will never amount to anything.

As we all know that child will eventually believe its parents and have a less than satisfactory life experience. Only a few children will react and succeed despite their parents.

The irony of this kind of thing is that many parents actually believe that by belittling their child they will create a reaction that will spur the child to greater things.

Some parents of course do it because they are jealous of their children's intellect and want to pull them down to their own level.

It's a depressing human attribute that probably does exist on the much larger scale indicated by Elvina.

At that scale the criticism of PNG by Australia and Australians, not to mention the UN and other agencies, must be similarly wearing in its negative effects.

Is it possible that a nation that is constantly told it is a second rate nation actually become a second rate nation?

I suspect the answer is yes.

I also suspect that Australians are good at such disparagement. They have, for instance, done something similar to their own indigenous people. I hope I might have highlighted this in my recent article about the cartoonist Eric Jolliffe.

If you constantly tell an individual or a race of people that they are inferior they will eventually believe it.

Perhaps that is even why PNG politicians act the way they do. They believe the propaganda about their people and decide that such a scruffy mob of dumb arses is only good for one thing, exploitation.

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