| Academia Nomad
The death of Michael Somare on 26 February renewed interest in the Papua New Guinea about its own history. To advance this mood, Academia Nomad invited reviews of books about PNG – KJ
Sean Dorney: The Embarrassed Colonialist
Link here to details of how you can buy the book
PORT MORESBY – This 140- page book was published in 2016 by Penguin Books for the Lowy Institute in Australia.
The book is short and easy reading but its eight chapters are packed with much insight about the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship.
I was curious about the title. Who was embarrassed? And for what?
In PNG, there is already a feeling of shame and anger at being labelled as a failed state, a violent nation, a hellhole and much more.
As the author married into a PNG tribe, was he embarrassed at the way PNG turned out – a 40-year-old wayward man-child?
Or was he being a mouthpiece for the collective view held by Australia – PNG’s former colonial master.
Or was he expressing his own embarrassment about the deteriorating state of the PNG-Australia relationship that had been forged in colonial days?
It was an interesting read for me. I was born after PNG independence and therefore had no memory of events before that time and the two decades thereafter.
This book put into perspective the Australia-PNG history.
The main emotion that ran through my veins as I read the book was pride, but when I eventually closed it, I was angry…. then sad.… then resolute that change for the better must take place in my lifetime.
Change has been very rapid for PNG since independence.
Its vortex has sucked our country from one of isolated primitive tribes and connecting it with a global village made small by virtual reality.
The physical changes have been enormous in the last 80 years, but sadly the psyche of the Papua New Guinean individual is yet to assimilate those changes.
The continuous transition from a thousand cultures to the western culture is a growing pain.
As rightly stated by author Sean Dorney, the symptoms of this transition are everywhere – corruption, poor development policies, law and order challenges and attitude problems.
But PNG has made commendable progress on many fronts: economic development, the justice system, a free media and women’s empowerment, to name a few.
Indeed, PNG’s challenges started at independence, when it was a big ask for a thousand tribes to exist as one.
In retrospect, the author observes that the Australians, including the kiaps packed up and left too soon. But they left a legacy behind.
The kiaps left behind their colonial policies – policies that are outdated for the 21st century; policies that favour colonial power.
Translated to this day, these policies favour those in power (modern day kiaps) and outsiders.
This is most obvious in PNG’s natural resource extraction policies.
Given this insight, it is indeed not ignorance but self-serving and blatant indifference to PNG when Australian projects and even, in some cases, aid money is given to implement projects based on such old policies.
Australia left behind a leadership vacuum. The kiaps were a government unto themselves in the villages.
But when they left, they transferred everything to a committee of parliamentarians in Port Moresby.
Without direction, people came up with their own definition of leadership – mixing the new and the old. This may have also contributed in the self-serving, indefinable concept of ‘the Melanesian Way’.
I disagree that PNG is Australia’s illegitimate child as asserted by the author.
The inhabitants of the island of New Guinea were nations running their own affairs until colonialism unceremoniously dumped this land of a thousand nations onto Australia.
At the time the island of New Guinea was made a territory of Australia, white Australia had attained its own independence just a few years earlier.
Australia was a very young nation of united colonies when it was given the task of rearing an unruly and primitive nation of a thousand tribes.
Unlovely as it may have seemed, the island of New Guinea had natural resources for exploitation. Australia had forsaken the class system of its motherland and was embracing capitalism – and here was a goose that could lay golden eggs.
Long before the World War II, Australians were prospecting for gold, timber and oil in New Guinea. These prospectors were the ones that opened New Guinea’s interior to the world.
When World War II broke out, the Japanese threatened Australia, which needed to win that battle in New Guinea, away from their home front.
As valuable as it was, PNG was reared at arm’s length. The evidence exists in the many policies from the colonial days. Then again, in defence of Australia, PNG was its first-born. Like a new parent, Australia was unsure how to bring it up.
What I still don’t understand is why, in this day and time, Australia is still keeping PNG at arm’s length compared with how they treat other Pacific Islanders.
How else can we explain the unjustified challenges faced by Papua New Guineans with issues such as visas and the fruit picking scheme and the latest project – the Colombo Plan?
It is true that many Australians love and have adopted PNG as their second country and, like Sean Dorney, may have married into the Melanesian culture.
But the overall machinery in Australia uses in dealing with PNG seems so old fashioned and racist and patronising.
Evidence? How else would one describe the five-word admonishment by a representative of the Australian High Commission to Sean Dorney to “stop thinking like a Papua New Guinean” (p 76).
I have read and reread seeking insight but the author does not elaborate anywhere in the book what it means to “think like a local”.
Unfortunately for white people who have been in the PNG sun too long, they start thinking differently - like Papua New Guineans.
So at the end, who was the embarrassed one?
Sean Dorney is an Australian with over 40 years of family ties to PNG.
He may be regarded as a renegade to his birth country because he has started to think like a local.
This inside knowledge, however, makes his voice one of the most authentic to discuss PNG issues. With his leg in both societies, he has judged for himself and has spoken.
The rules for re-engagement as recommended by the author are spot on.
Seeing eye-to-eye is very important for the way going forward.
PNG has been forced to grow up fast in the last 40 years. At 40, PNG is old enough to navigate its own waters. But put into a nation building perspective, 40 years is still infancy.
Indeed, PNG needs a guide, and if not Australia then who else will do it?
As a re-engagement recommendation, PNG also needs to take responsibility for its own growth and start behaving like an independent nation.
This book, even though written by an Australian, is the PNG voice speaking to Australia. It will serve Australia well to take this work seriously.
I also highly recommend this book to Papua New Guinean readers.
Young people, you need to learn your history and only then can you chart a better way forward for your nation.
Tanya Zeriga-Alone is the lead researcher at Menggeyao Morobe Consultancy. She also blogs frequently here