Despite promises, govt continues to condone illegal land grabs
Nearly 60 years ago we attended the famed Chimbu pig kill

Who stuffed up PNG, Australians or Papua New Guineans?

Phil Fitzpatrick recent
Phil Fitzpatrick


TUMBY BAY - As a colonial power Australia was in the unique position of being able to set the agenda for Papua New Guinea’s future.

Systems and institutions that Australia established prior to independence were, whether consciously or not, designed for the long haul and were expected to persist well into the future.

One of these systems was the parliamentary process that prevails today.

If you look back at these developments two things become plain. The first is the heavy hand of Canberra and the second is the outside manipulation or absence of Papua New Guinean input.

In the first case, the decision makers in Canberra, and to a lesser extent in Port Moresby, consistently ignored the advice of those administrators on the ground in PNG.

This is no more apparent than in the wilful ignoring of input from the kiaps and other country-based personnel. Elsewhere I have described one instance where issues of law and order were arbitrarily taken from the kiaps and handed over to a poorly prepared police force.

In the second case, it is apparent that the nascent political leaders of Papua New Guinea were heavily influenced and generally compliant with advice from a range of sources, including Australian politicians, interfering Australian academics at the University of Papua New Guinea and the Australian National University, and various sources mostly emanating from the United Nations.

Given this decidedly heavy influence, it is strange that the road to independence was so peaceful. The potential was there for dissidence but, despite a few small pockets in the Gazelle Peninsula on New Britain and Bougainville, no national movement ever developed.

The Pangu Pati was portrayed in the press as a hotbed of radicals but an examination of its activities puts the lie to that claim, convenient as it was at the time to certain anti-independence groups.

Pangu earned its reputation essentially through media beat-ups and the activities of the aforementioned academics from the UPNG and ANU who were advising it. At the end of the day Pangu can be characterised as a pretty tame outfit.

While at the time often violent dissidence was a feature of many political movements advocating the end of colonialism in many countries, this was not the case in PNG.

One of the main reasons for this was that the systems and institutions set up by Australia were convenient to the new Papua New Guinean elite, especially its politicians. These systems and institutions were, among other things, imminently exploitable by the shrewd.

This is probably the main reason why there were no radical changes made to PNG’s governance after independence.

And, as inevitably happens, anything exploitable becomes corruptible and this is exactly what happened in Papua New Guinea.

The current crop of politicians have absolutely no interest in changing a system of governance that rewards them so extravagantly.

That the current government is rapidly moving towards a corrupt autocracy more suited to the poverty stricken regions of Africa is therefore a logical outcome.

So who should we blame for Papua New Guinea’s parlous state?

Is it the Australians who set up a system bound to fail because of their arrogance and ignorance or is it the fault of a long line of predatory local politicians?

The obvious answer is that it is a combination of the two. It is a classic case of something being set up to fail. Unfortunately that something was a whole nation.

Can it be fixed?

Of course it can be fixed. All it will take is a radical overhaul of the system of governance – something that should have taken place after 1975.

Will it be fixed?

Now that’s a completely different question.


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Paul Oates

Yes Phil. I think we've experienced the selfish stage and are into the time of complacency and progressing through to apathy.

I don't think I've ever experienced a time where the leaders of the so called free world are so totally ineffectual and lacking in any leadership and energy.

If ever we are in danger of allowing ourselves and our countries to slip into oblivion it's now.

Authoritarian leaders and governments around the world must be holding the collective breath and rubbing their hands together in delight.

I see even the Queen has metaphorically given the so called 'British political class' a subtle rocket over the Brexit issue.

Maybe we need our Governor General to quietly take our 'pollies' aside and give them a few pointers about genuine leadership?

William Dunlop

John Boyd Dunlop wasn't the inventor of the pneumatic tyre. That privilege went to another haggis muncher.

However Dunlop's tyre got it up and it stayed up.

He's buried in Dublin in the same cemetery as General Michael Collins, 'The Big Fellow.'

Collins got the word that one of his undercover intelligence ladies had been appointed as private secretary to the General commanding British forces in Ireland: "Jesus," said he, "how did the British ever manage to create an Empire."

Bernard Corden

It was Gore Vidal who stated the United States is the only country to go from barbarism to decadence and bypass civilisation

Philip Fitzpatrick

And PNG seems to be in the eighth stage Paul - from apathy to dependence. I think we've deduced that before.

Presumably the next stage will be recolonisation. Or has that started already?

Thankfully Tytler's stages tend to recycle rather than cease at the end. So PNG is likely to come good eventually but it's going to be a long and hard road.

And they'll probably have good company along the way, the USA, the UK and maybe even Oz.

Philip Fitzpatrick

In the process of picking up the pieces it's very handy to know what works and especially what doesn't work.

That's why history is important.

Unfortunately the PNG government and its elite don't seem interested in history.

Paul Oates

Garry asks: "How can we all pick up the pieces again?"

Heaven knows Garry, in our own small way we have consistently tried and this blog is testimony to some practical and ethical suggestions of how to do so.

The essence however is that the so called 'pieces' are controlled by those who are quite happy and content to leave them exactly where they are.

Unfortunately, we, the readers of this blog, do not have the power to change the ways of those who are in control. That is up to the PNG people who basically seem to be content to allow status quo to continue and merely grumble about it.

When you look at most of the world democracies these days, one is tempted to observe, 'Was it ever thus?'

The real answer to the question Phil poses is the current situation is the result of actions or inaction on either side of the Torres Strait.

Therefore everyone depending on their level of involvement is responsible in either a small or big way. You only have to look at similar examples elsewhere in the world to anticipate where the current situation will end up. To drag up another blast from an old Scot of the past:

'A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith;

From spiritual faith to great courage;

From courage to liberty;

From liberty to abundance;

From abundance to selfishness;

From selfishness to complacency;

From complacency to apathy;

From apathy to dependence;

From dependence back into bondage.'

Attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee (15 October 1747 – 5 January 1813) a Scottish advocate, judge, writer and historian who served as Professor of Universal History, and Greek and Roman Antiquities at the University of Edinburgh.

Lindsay F Bond

If bridge column bases are well enough designed, constructed and embedded, the floods will mostly pass over, and often provide overlays of sedimentation.

If bridge columns are well designed and constructed, the floods might pass without breaking the columns, even if later intact columns are to be found away from designed locations.

If causes of dislocation are forensically pursued, there may be discovered insufficiency of reinforcement, or of quantification (too little) in connection with structure as built.

Alluvial bars, braidings and dispersments are understood well at historical coastal communities, where also meanders are wont to obviate need of bridging, as streaming floods each different course.

This is to say erstwhile bridges have given way and intact bridges are seen languishing. Analogy is of wit, of course.

Garry Roche

John Boyd Dunlop - of Dunlop Tyres fame - was born in Scotland (1840) but spent most of his time in Ireland.
Who stuffed up? Maybe a follow-up question is "How can we all pick up the pieces again?"

Philip Fitzpatrick

Before radials came in the Dunlop Road Track Major was the chosen tyre in the bush.

Any connection William?

Paul Oates

Och Aye Wullie. I understand Dunlops have actually bin McIntyres fo' yearrrs.

William Dunlop

Paul - Ancient Greek also has its moments. One of the Glasgow Dunlops, William, was a professor of Greek at 24 in the late 1700's. He expiring at 28.

He was a son of another William Dunlop, Chancellor of Glasgow University and a Covenanting Minister and follower of the defrocked priest, John Knox, convener of the Covenanters.

Aye Aye, the times we now live in are maybe not so bad after all.

Bernard Corden

Even the ABC News, 7:30 report, Four Corners and SBS have degenerated into passive vicarious entertainment and are no better than A Current Affair or Sixty Minutes.

Philip Fitzpatrick

There's no book Bill.

Instead I've been rambling through various ancient texts as part of research for a novel that I writing.

One of those ancient texts is Ian Down's 1980 'The Australian Trusteeship Papua New Guinea 1945-75'. I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to explore the issues I've raised further.

Unfortunately forums such as PNG Attitude, as great as they are, don't allow lengthy expositions of ideas and generalisations have to be the order of the day.

The lengthy expositions do come however in the debates and comments articles like this create.

There is one point in your comment that I would like to explore and that is that "key PNG decision-makers chose the advisers and advice that suited them".

In my experience many of those decision-makers tended to be dazzled and overwhelmed at the advice provided to them by expatriate advisers and I don't doubt that many went along with the advice they were given without really understanding it.

I was involved in the 1972 Commission of Enquiry into Land Matters and I saw this sort of thing first hand. The Melanesian habit of taking the easy road by agreeing with people rather than arguing with them was a factor here I think.

I also think these issues are important even after 43 years because many of the issues back then still nag at the edges of governance today. The land problems explored in the commission noted above are still very relevant today and people are still unsure how to use customary land in a capitalist system; thus the problems with SABLs.

Paul Oates

'cum grano salis' indeed William.

Apparently, 'salis' in Latin can also mean 'wit' so there's a possible pun in Latin for you.

Bill Standish

Phil, Sorry I haven't read your book yet, where you may clarify the issues hinted at in this piece. But it's 43 years since formal independence in PNG.

Remember that in 1974-75 the Constitutional Planning Committee made numerous recommendations about PNG, especially the move to Provincial Government which after some stops was restarted and later in 1995 totally changed.

Such decisions were made by Papua New Guinean politicians dealing with their own political forces, often against the advice of expats with a variety of experience.

Yes, in the 1970s there were a number of expats involved in advisory roles -- from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, East Africa, UK.... who unsurprisingly often disagreed with each other. And some were kicked out for their troubles.

But the key PNG decision-makers chose the advisers and advice that suited them. That's politics, and it happens everywhere.

So your very non-specific generalisations need to be clarified, and so far in this draft they don't hold water.

Australians did not design PNG even in 1975, and they left a weak and uneven economy, and a flawed state with very limited capacities.

Australians' influences have not been strong for a long time, and others have had a huge impact. While hearing the pain in contemporary PNG voices we can't imply that PNG's political leaders haven't been agents of their own history.

We need more histories of PNG, by PNGns and by others, so thanks for starting this conversation.

William Dunlop

Wherein Paul the pinch of salt becomes relevant.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Remember all that effort Keith and the readers of PNG Attitude put into their submission about media broadcasts into the Pacific, especially shortwave radio?

Seems our prime minister was listening. He's just given his mates in commercial television money to broadcast into the region:

Presumably he wants to confirm that Australia is inhabited by idiots who spend their days watching My Kitchen Rules and all the other inane rubbish that the commercial channels spew into the atmosphere.

Paul Oates

Well said Phil. It's important to the few of us that haven't yet 'fallen off the perch' to at least try and set the record straight. Certainly, no one else will and as is axiomatically proven, history gets written by the victors.

So in a small way, it was quite obvious to many of us at the time that the policy makers in Canberra had no intention of requesting any advice from those at the kunai roots who had daily contact with PNG people and were actually listening to what they were saying. That aspect was clearly irrelevant since it might inadvertently reveal some apparent weakness in the Canberra Department's policy.

Mind you, that's nothing new. In my later experience on both sides of the Canberra divide, unless relevant information about what was actually happening where it mattered, any written report was usually ameliorated down as it went up through the levels of supervision as to make it virtually useless to the Minister. That is, if the Minister, and there were a few, actually took an active interest in what he/she was supposed to be responsible for. Giving personal reports direct to the Minister was like gold rather than the verbal or made up written waffle they were used to.

The next impediment was an intransigent attitude by the Minister if in fact those with pertinent knowledge tried to give some relevant background information. A senior Field Officer at the meeting, told me the then PM Whitlam, told the DC in Rabaul to his face and in front of his staff, to 'Shut up! when he tried to explain the background to the Gazelle Peninsular disputes.

Then there was the obvious agenda of the UN representatives who were supported by the UK rep. They considered that any colonial regime was an anathema that had to be disposed of as soon as possible. We all know hove useful the UN has been in many similar cases like West Papua and East Timor. The UN reps from newly independent nations couldn't wait to use their new found power and were aided and abetted by politicians who had not a clue what else to do. In later life, Whitlam claimed his talk with the Indonesian Minister was mistranslated and he didn't give 'Carte Blanche' to invade East Timor.

So let's reflect on human nature and that it never seems to evolve past a certain point. Consider a quote from Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses where it is attributed to Ajax:

'Denique (quid verbis opus est?) spectemur agendo!'

Or literally translated: 'Let us be judged by our deeds!'

What will be recorded in history however is anyone's guess.

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