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The ascent of Marape – I was sort of there; sort of looking on

As seen from my hotel room - the flat stretch of bitumen foreshore  middle right contains about 150 vehicles purchased for APEC and never used


PORT MORESBY - From the window of my room in the Grand Papua, I have a magnificent westward view up Fairfax Harbour, with the remnants of the Macdhui still visible, but barely, in the middle distance.

Closer to my vantage point is a large flat expanse of freight concourse abutting a wharf.

The concourse is laden with vehicles – perhaps 100 buses and 50 people movers – neatly parked.

These are just some of the conveyances imported for the APEC summit last year. A few kilometers inland, in the less salt corrosive atmosphere near Bomana gaol, are the infamous 40 Maseratis.

It is these expensive, unused, unemployed and now derelict vehicles which an oaf of a minister claimed to have ‘pre-sold’ in a futile and false attempt to escape public mockery and anger.

Their corroding carcasses remind us of the excess that was APEC and, in a wider context, of the pointlessness and gluttony of the deposed O’Neill government, thankfully gone since Thursday.


JacksonsINGRID and I had arrived in Moresby that Thursday, Ingrid ahead of me since I’d booked late after changing my mind that my health would not support the trip.

My ride from Jacksons International takes me along the Hubert Murray Highway, cruising past old stamping grounds and memories - Five Mile, Boroko, Taurama, Badili, Koki - each offering the sweet nostalgia of fledgling family, early career, good friends and the exhilaration of being young.

I had once known this place so well, and now the suburbs I frequented are barely discernible to me amongst the shanties, barred shops, downtrodden depots, and showrooms with little to show. Even the once luxuriant trees of the Boroko garden suburb look tattered and thinned – and this is the wet season.


MarapeBY THE TIME I arrive at the Grand Papua, the government has changed and prime minister-elect James Marape’s 29 core supporters have returned from the Haus Tambaran to the this hotel, which has been their ‘camp’ for some weeks as the bargaining and promising and treachery of political makeover took place.

As you might expect, given that Marape is a proud son of Hela Province, most of the politicians in his 'camp' are highlanders. Short, stocky, serious, besuited men bearing elaborate cellphones, and – contradicting their stern demeanour - always ready to return a smile.

It's here late afternoon, with daylight gifting a final rosy flourish to the harbour, when Ingrid and I reunite with two of our children - Sally, on assignment from the ABC, and Ben, who works here as a communications specialist, and their partners.

It’s been a good day.


THURSDAY night isn’t good, though, nor Friday morning, as myalgic encephalomyelitis (aka chronic fatigue syndrome), which has just given me four days respite, returns with its sickening exhaustion, confusion and emptiness and my repeated mantra of ‘I don’t know’ as a sole tenuous affirmation that there may be something to know.

It takes me some time but I manage to send my good friend the author Daniel Kumbon an email saying I cannot meet him for lunch as planned because I am too ill. Fortunately he does not get it, perhaps I miscued the phone, and he arrives at the hotel at 12 as arranged.

So I take one of the pills I discovered that seem to temporarily reduce my symptoms and, still slightly confused and disconcerted, descend in the lift to meet him.

The hotel lobby is still swarming with highlands politicians and it takes me a little time to spot Daniel in the throng. But eventually I see his pleasant bearded face and ever-present round Enga cap which, not for the first time, I wonder whether he has ever taken off.

We sit at a table in the dining room – I order a beer and Daniel water – and we're soon joined for lunch by Ingrid and then Ben. The lively conversation and the drug do their work and I’m beginning to feel better. We talk about ourselves and our families, politics and change, and, of course, about books and writing.

D & KDaniel, in Port Moresby from remote Kandjep for some weeks, has experienced the political metamorphosis first hand.

The previous day he had even managed  to spend some hours with Marape, who sequestered the only two spare copies of Daniel's latest book, 'Survivor'. The other copy was for me (I wrote the Foreword). Daniel borrows Ingrid’s pen to sign the flyleaf.

I mention to him that I hope his words to the new prime minister might lead to something better for PNG’s writers and readers (a fatuous observation given Marape's huge responsibilities) and Daniel kindly agrees with me that they might. We discuss some ideas for realising this opportunity, which Daniel says he will follow up.

Still discussing writing and journalism, I tell Daniel how much I admire my colleague Sean Dorney and his stoic wife Pauline with whom I had lunch on Tuesday in Brisbane. Sean with motor neurone disease continues to write and just this day I received an obituary he wrote for his good friend Dikana ‘Ten Gun’ Boge, who has died aged 66. Sean last saw him 18 months ago and wrote of the encounter, “Dikana was shocked to see how feeble I was. We shed a few tears together. I was certain that I would be gone long before he was.”


OUR LUNCH continues and the dining room steadily fills with politicians, still mainly highlanders, forming small and constantly changing groups at the tables. Prime minister-elect Marape is in residence upstairs (the executive lounge on the fifteenth floor being pressed into use as a temporary headquarters), and with as many as 30 or 40 ministries to be allocated there is much for these men to play for.

Wera Mori
Wera Mori MP

Ben has met O’Neill government commerce and industry minister Wera Mori who expressed a desire to meet me. He knows of my early career as a teacher in the Gena area of Simbu Province and – more than that – Mori himself was taught as a primary student at Chuave by my good friend Murray Bladwell.

“Is he still alive?” Mori asks anxiously when we meet, and I'm happy to reassure him that Bladwell is not only very much alive at 78 but doesn’t look like going anywhere else any time soon. We chat, exchange contact details and I put him in contact with my good mate.

Then I briefly meet the astute, energetic Bryan Kramer MP who, together with his Facebook’s site’s 120,000 followers, can take his fair share of the credit for this change of government.

But by now the effects of the drug are wearing off and lethargy is beginning to embrace me, so I decide to put my legs under the desk in my room and prepare the articles for tomorrow’s blog.


Park-your-money (PNG Blogs)COMMENTARY from Australia begins to come in about Marape’s ascension to the prime ministership.

Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute opines in the Australian Financial Review that Scott Morrison will "need to work fast to establish ties with Marape”.

He continues that PNG is “our closest neighbour, largest aid recipient, critical security partner and major bilateral trade and investment partner.There is a lot at stake,” he writes.

I must admit to a residual suspicion about the Lowy Institute and some other Australian 'think tanks' and NGOs engaged with PNG and which also seem to be equally engaged with the Australian government, the foreign affairs department (DFAT) in particular.

I don't know whether there's money in it for them, but my observation is that they choose to be on the side of the status quo even when the status quo is demonstrably bad for the people of PNG.

Australia has invested much in what it claims is PNG’s 'stability' and  has backed the O’Neill administration wholeheartedly without a hint of disapproval. DFAT never mentions (and the think tanks rarely mention) the word ‘corruption’. It is airbrushed away as if of no significance.

Yet the corrupt O’Neill regime had seen the lot of ordinary Papua New Guineans – the people who PNG Attitude is most concerned about - go backwards, indeed go very far backwards.

DFAT is said to have been most displeased with, and held back for many months, the Australian National University’s comprehensive and scrupulous report on the corrupted 2017 PNG election; the election about which foreign minister Julie Bishop complimented Peter O’Neill.

The unhappy fact is that, despite what it may say behind closed doors, Australia has been prepared to openly tolerate a corrupt PNG so long as it felt its interests are being served. It's been a poor message to send to PNG and the world. If a relationship is driven by moral vacancy, it's not much of a relationship.


"PETER O'NEILL was an effective partner for Australia on a number of fronts from enforcing Manus Island policies to protecting Australian business interests," writes Pryke. "He also played an adept game at balancing Australian and Chinese interests, which are no more pronounced in the Pacific than in Papua New Guinea.”

So there you go. Foreign affairs students quickly learn there's no morality between nations. But are Australia’s interests really best served by a corrupt and compliant-to-our-bribery PNG? What if Marape turns the whole show on its head and tells Australia to get out of the way.

In his same article, Pryke writes, “Australia wants to be a leader in the Pacific, and the rest of the world expects us to be so” – which is a breath-taking line really. Does the 'rest of the world' really want that.

And he continues, “Touting a new narrative of the Pacific family, Morrison has taken ownership of a Pacific ‘step up’ that is profoundly changing where the Pacific fits into Australian foreign policy. Let’s hope this trend continues with James Marape.”

China aidWell, maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but there is a strong body of opinion amongst PNG intellectuals – some of whom are close to Marape – that Australia has not been as good a friend to PNG and the Pacific as we say we are.

For Morrison and others to use language like  "taken ownership" or "stepping up" and asserting some form of "‘leadership" is not only not going to play, it serves to constitute a reminder of the arrogance that makes Australia so disliked.

Pryke says personal relationships are important in the Pacific, and of course he is correct, but these relationships need to be based on mutual respect, recognition, reciprocity and consensus, not on some assertion of leadership resonating with neo-colonial hubris.

If Australia ever understood the underlying animus towards us in the region, it has ignored it and, in ignoring it, it has not established a platform for anything other than PNG and the Pacific continuing to regard us with concern, distrust and disdain.

 Interviewed by the ABC's Natalie Whiting, Marape said he was interested in shifting away from "traditional partners" and expanding relationships with "other neighbours". He said these days relationships are "about commerce not politics".

Now I don't agree with him on that, but before the recent Australian election I did hear Scott Morrison express similar views on our relationship with China.

And so, with my visit here about halfway through and the afternoon deepening, it is time to rest awhile.


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Martin Sullivan

You may be interested in my flip book completed project that is on my website. It is the report to Papua New Guinea Parliament on the 1987 Voter Education Program that I created for the government. It's interesting in that it has lots of photos from the time (we used them as a proofing process to show we were really there in those villages). It shows how it was created, where we went and what it cost. Martin Sullivan go down the front page to the PNG section, click on the rectangular button and you will be taken directly to the book.

Danny Gonol | Mount Hagen

Keith - l'm pleased you were in Port Moresby last week. You were on hand to witness the change of government from O'Neill to Marape. Your commentary of what happened at Grand Papua is informative.

You have been a good friend of PNG through PNG Attitude over the years. You created a forum where writers openly express their views. Some of those views are educational and thought-provoking. Worth reading.

Enjoy your brief stay in PNG. Wish ýou good health and continue to do what you are doing.

Bernard Corden

Which side did the sports minister take?

Barbara Short

I admire you travelling to PNG despite all your health problems.

I was amazed to be able to sit at my computer here in Epping Sydney and for two days watch the goings on in the PNG Parliament via EMTV on Facebook.

I could also "talk" to MPs on Facebook during these days. I could tell them off if I didn't agree with the way they voted.

I am still interested in all the political forces that were in play behind all the events that took place. Somebody one day must write a book about it!

I notice that at the moment there is still some disagreement about what went on.

We may not have the best man for the job yet but at least we have removed one man who seemed to be headed in the wrong direction.

I hope you survive this visit and can continue to play your vital role in running PNG Attitude which we all value so much.

I shall continue to contribute, where I can, through Facebook.

Thanks Barbara. Bryan Kramer has just posted a detailed and fascinating insider's report on his Facebook page here - KJ

Ed Brumby

Excellent piece, Keith - with a troubling ending. Take care, mate.

Chips Mackellar

Superb story, Keith. Tell us more, particularly about what Marape intends to do about the 40 Maseratis, and the other vehicles donated for APEC and now rusting on the wharf.

Also I think we all want to know what he intends to do about those rural hospitals without medicines and the rural schools without books.

Also I think we would like your opinion on whether Marape will be a new broom sweeping clean, or if his government will just be a mirror of the previous one.

And best wishes for your recovery. All the best.

Paul Oates

"Commerce and not politics" eh? Since when did these two bedmates not go hand in hand?

I guess it depends on who is getting the actual benefits of 'commerce' and whether that helps influence that recipient's 'politics'.

'Oh Lord its hard to be humble, when I'm perfect in every way', according to Chad Morgan.

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