TUMBY BAY - Some time ago I was sitting in the international departure lounge at Jackson’s Airport in Port Moresby waiting for the big balus to arrive from Brisbane.
It’s always interesting when a big balus lands because you can watch the new arrivals go past the glass doors on their way to immigration and customs.
On this occasion I spotted a bunch of tall, lithe and dark-skinned men dressed in stockmen’s finery.
They all had glistening boots with Cuban heels, tight skinny jeans, wide leather belts with big shiny buckles, checked cowboy shirts and ten-gallon Akubra hats.
I guessed they were from somewhere in Australia’s Northern Territory and wondered what they would be doing in Papua New Guinea.
I’d never heard of rodeos in PNG so they probably weren’t going to be riding any bucking bulls or broncos.
As it turned out they were on their way to a church convention in Goroka.
I was reminded of this incident when reading a report related to the Australian government’s decidedly half-arsed attempt at promoting its “Pacific step-up” as one of the country’s “highest foreign policy priorities”.
The report relates to Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands but is relevant to the rest of the region, including PNG.
It concludes that people in the Pacific nations are concerned Australia ignores their perspectives, lacks cultural sensitivity and does not know how to engage successfully as part of the Pacific community.
Interestingly, the report also shows that Pacific peoples have an interest in Australian domestic affairs that contrasts sharply with the lack of the average Australian’s interest in Pacific affairs.
Climate policy is obviously of major interest but so too is Australian policies towards Indigenous people.
“Our participants felt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were almost invisible in Australia’s relations with the Pacific and this has limited our understanding of – and potential for engagement with – the region,” the report observed.
The reason for pointing this out was to highlight Australia’s lack of a clear sense of identity and connection to place and how this is hampering its relationships to the Pacific.
The report also suggests that Australia needs to expand its engagement beyond traditional diplomatic and government links.
“For many respondents, cultural and faith communities represent international linkages that are at least as important as nation-state relations,” it said.
It suggests that “strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and participation” could be very relevant to Australia’s relationships with its Pacific neighbours.
There are, of course, traditional and informal ties between Indigenous Australians and Papua New Guinea, particularly in the Torres Strait but also elsewhere in Australia’s ‘Top End’.
Despite what federal minister Peter Dutton says, Papua New Guineans travel freely throughout the Torres Strait and are largely unhindered by his black-shirted Border Force. This is especially so in the waters between Daru and Thursday Island.
Papua New Guineans, Torres Strait Islanders and Indigenous Australians also intermix in places like Cairns and Townsville.
There are further historical connections between Indigenous Australians and people from Vanuatu and other island nations because of the early ‘blackbirding’ trade in labour for the Queensland sugarcane plantations.
This is apparent in places like Maryborough and Hervey Bay in Queensland where many families of mixed islander and Indigenous heritage still live.
On the other side of the continent, in places like Broome and Wyndham, there are still people descended from Papuans, Aborigines, Cubans, Malays and Japanese who were involved in pearl diving.
I’m not quite sure how it would work, but there seems to be opportunities to improve Australia’s relationship with its near neighbours through these sorts of links.
Those Top Enders in their Cuban heels and big hats are pretty laid back and as friendly as most Papua New Guineans and other Pacific peoples.
Maybe the stitched up and paranoid Australian government should try listening to its Indigenous people a little more carefully.
But haven’t I heard that suggestion before somewhere?