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PNG too close to ignore, but what to do?

| DevPolicy Blog

Too Close to Ignore: Australia’s Borderland with PNG and Indonesia’ by Mark Moran, Jodie Curth-Bibb, Melbourne University Press, March 2020, pp 312. ISBN 9780522875478. Hardback $69.99. Paperback $34.99. Ebook 16.99. Available here from Melbourne University Press

CANBERRA - Edited by Mark Moran and Jodie Curth-Bibb, ‘Too close to ignore: Australia’s borderland with Papua New Guinea and Indonesia’, is a fascinating book, with detailed, rich descriptions of life in the South Fly of Papua New Guinea and of Australia-PNG interactions in this part of the world.

The border puts all the Torres Straits Islands in Australia and is a creation of the 1970s, but the border, along with the Torres Straits Island Treaty (in force since 1985), now rule everything.

This has created a strict hierarchy that, in the book, Peter Chaudhry’s chapter describes as “a four-tier system of privilege, with Torres Strait Islander residents at the top, followed by Australian citizen Papuans in the Torres Strait Islands next, then Treaty villages, and non-Treaty villagers at the bottom.”

Treaty villagers are those who live in one of the 13 villages of Papua whose residents are entitled under the treaty to travel to the Australian islands, strictly speaking only for “traditional” purposes.

In practice, these vary from seeking health care to accessing ATMs and selling goods and labour – the latter often for as little as $10 a day. (Note: travel is currently banned due to Covid-19.)

Australian-citizen Papuans are those originally from the PNG mainland who have been living on the Australian side for at least five years prior to PNG’s independence. They were allowed to stay on.

There are four tiers, but the greatest inequality by far is between the top two and the bottom two, that is, across the border.

To quote from Chaudhry once again: “[T]here are few places in the world where such stark inequality exists between two places that are so close.

“On the one hand, Torres Strait Islanders enjoy material conditions and level of public service provision comparable to mainland Australia…

“Just across the borders, villages in the South Fly … face government corruption, crippling water shortages, a lack of basic infrastructure and services, and limited employment and livelihood opportunities.”

A key difference is that there is no welfare system in PNG: no “free money” as the South Fly residents call it. But it is more than that, as the editors write: “The people of South Fly District of PNG endure a near-total failure of governance and service delivery.”

Too-close-to-ignore-paperbackThis inequality is in your face, and growing. The two sides of the border looked very similar at independence. Now they couldn’t be more different.

The authors’ surveys reveal stark poverty in the South Fly. One respondent put it simply: “I’m still living in a biri [leaf] house while the Torres Straits people live in luxury houses.”

The authors explore a range of topics from livelihoods to governance, from fishing to trade, and from mining to NGO projects.

They are united in their view that Australia should do more: it should relax the rules to allow more travel, and it should provide additional aid to “address the vast socioeconomic disparity” on either side of the border, as author Kevin Murphy puts it.

It is in Australia’s interests, and it is our moral duty, they argue.

I am less convinced by these normative arguments than the authors’ analysis.

Start with the recommendation that the treaty should allow more travel – by more people, from more villages, for more reasons. As a supporter of migration, I certainly support this call, but politically it seems like a non-starter.

Nearly all travel is now one way, south. On the Australian side, Kevin Murphy concedes that “many Torres Straits Islanders would prefer the number of Papuan visitors be reduced rather than increased.”

On the PNG side, easier access to Australia is an issue often raised by PNG politicians, but not on behalf of the people of the South Fly.

PNG potentially has a lot of leverage: several of the Torres Straits islands are within PNG maritime boundaries. 

But Murphy notes that “[t]he PNG Government has shown little interest in representing the interests of its citizens in the border region,” failing, for example, even to put in a submission to an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the treaty.

Without political support on either side, any relaxation in treaty-related provisions and practices seems highly unlikely.

What about supporting development in the South Fly? This is certainly more doable.

Australia has already carved out particular areas of PNG it gives disproportionate amounts of aid to: Kokoda (because of World War II); Bougainville (because of its history of conflict, and push for independence); and Manus (when we want PNG to take some of our asylum seekers).

And Australia does already provide some aid specifically for the South Fly, in particular to Daru Hospital to combat drug-resistant TB.

Should Australian aid be more focused on the South Fly? It sounds like this is the direction in which the aid program is going.

The most recent Australian plan for aid to PNG says that Australia “will pilot a more integrated approach to engagement in South Fly district, Western Province, reflecting our shared strategic and development interests in this region.”

I’ll leave aside the strategic interests, except to say that they are unclear. If our aim is to reduce migration pressures, supporting development can have the opposite impact.

In terms of development, it is certainly true that the South Fly remains a relatively poor region of PNG, due to its disadvantaged geography and poor governance.

In their 1997 paper, ‘Poor rural places in Papua New Guinea’, Bryant Allen, Mike Bourke and John Gibson pose the question: “Should funds be invested where the returns will be highest, or where the need is greatest?”

The authors note that the dilemma is acute, but also that persistent geographical inequality in PNG makes the latter strategy unlikely to succeed.

Both the South Fly, and the Western Province of which it is part, benefit from the Ok Tedi mine. That mine has certainly been a mixed blessing, with some horrific environmental impacts, well documented in the book’s chapter on the subject.

But the province and affected communities, including in the South Fly, are now major mine shareholders. Because of its access to mining revenue, Western Province has been assessed by the PNG government as one of the few provinces not to have a gap between its internal revenue and its minimum spending needs.

Moreover, the Sustainable Development Program, one of the biggest NGOs in PNG, is now active again (after a political and legal dispute with the O’Neill government). It has a $US1.5 billion endowment, funded from its earlier majority stake in the mine, and now operates with an exclusive focus on the Western Province.

Whether or not you agree with the authors’ policy proposals, by reading ‘Too close to Ignore’ you will gain invaluable insights into these two closest yet furthest apart of neighbours, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

For the stark inequality between the South Fly and the Torres Straits Islands is simply a version in extremis of the inequality between the two countries of which each is a part. After all, as the authors remind us, Torres Straits Islanders are themselves “disadvantaged relative to the remainder of Australia.”

Indeed, one can go further. Reading this book will bring to life and surely motivate the reader to act on that abstract but fundamental fact about the world today that, as Max Roser puts it in ‘Our World in Data’, “what matters most for your living conditions is the good or bad luck of your place of birth.”


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Stephen Charteris

Philip is absolutely correct. I engaged a mother and child health (MCH) team in 2013 to survey the Lake Murray communities for maternal health issues.

From 15 communities they recorded 40 deaths in childbirth in the previous 24 month period, none of which had been reported to the health authorities. The ages of the deceased ranged from 15 to 45.

The MCH team conducted the survey using the standard department of health maternal death form. The last question on the form is "Was the Death Preventable - YES / NO" .

In all 40 cases the MCH team circled YES.

This is happening 3-4 km from Australia's northernmost border.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The whole of the Fly and Strickland Rivers system and the Torres Strait are victims of a malfunctioning geo-political anomaly.

The people of the Torres Strait are Melanesians, just like their counterparts up around Kiunga and Ningerum. If you travel all the way from Thursday Island to Kiunga you will hear the same greeting and farewell - iawo!

One of the more curious facts coming out of this situation is that Native title in Australia is based on a Melanesian precedent.

As far as Port Moresby is concerned the Western Province south of Ok Tedi doesn't exist.

In a logical world the people of the Fly and Strickland Rivers would have access to the facilities in Torres Strait.

Our paranoia about borders prevents this and people die.

Martin Kaalund

If kidney dialysis is needed then it is very hard on health staff to inform the patient.

Repatriation to PNG is a death sentence. This is an example of the practicalities.

Stephen Charteris

I read with interest Professor Howes' assessment of the huge disparity in the provision of services between communities in the Torres Strait Islands and the Middle and South Fly Districts in PNG.

I had the good fortune to visit and work with many communities in Middle and South Fly in 2006 and between 2009-2014 and offer these thoughts.

Communities along the tributaries to the Fly, Strickland and around Lake Murray are for all practical purposes extremely remote. There are no roads owing to the near permanently flooded nature of the landscape and families are often days by canoe from the nearest competent health service. Because of a lack of support and supervision most community health posts and schools closed decades ago when their health workers and teachers returned to their home provinces.

Even if through arrangements between government and OTML funds for health and education are available the logistics of servicing riverine communities in Middle and South Fly, sometimes hundreds of river kilometres distant from the government centres in Balimo and Daru is beyond their capacity or budgets.

However, there may be ways to deliver essential services to these remote settings. But it entails recognising that the possible solution involves working in close partnership with the communities and with their rubber cooperative, (North Fly Rubber) which has been working to empower them economically in some cases for over fifty years.

Over the decades NFR has established the transport logistics to visit hundreds of remote communities along the Fly, Strickland, Herbert, Lake Murray and major tributaries, the Suki and the Aramia rivers and most importantly their trust. The NFR rubber support vessel makes a round trip, all in fresh water, of 2,700km from Kiunga to Balimo return with a side visit to Lake Murray to support growers and purchase their rubber.

I believe a potential solution to the enormous deficit of services in the Middle and South Fly riverine communities may be for the relevant authorities sit down with the Board of the rubber grower’s cooperative and explore the possibility of adding the delivery and supervision of essential services to their existing scope of operations.

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