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Review: Sean Dorney’s book is full of insight

Pauline and Sean Dorney
Pauline and Sean Dorney. "This book, even though written by an Australian, is the PNG voice speaking to Australia"

| 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


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Patrick Deegan

I wish you well Sean. I may have met you back in 1967 onwards. I was working at the Mackay Daily Mercury as a linotype operator. Years later I was the staff artist.

Sadly the Mercury no longer exists. It is really missed here by all. There is just nothing better than a good read of a newspaper.

One of my colleagues at the Mercury, a compositor, contracted the motor neurone ailment.. Matter of fact his widow lives right next door here at Cascade Gardens Andergrove. She was in charge of ICU at Mackay Base Hospital. John and Maureen Fuller.

I read the novel, 'Tuesdays With Morrie'. Somebody, to this day, I do not know who, stuck the novel in my screen door knowing I was travelling to Vancouver Island to visit a former apprentice compositor friend who recently left Mackay.

Reporter Loris Walz had let me know he was looking for me. He was living in Canada and visiting his son here in Mackay. He invited me to his home in Canada. He was working as a comp at the Times Columnist at Victoria, BC Vancouver Island.

I took that book with me, read it on the plane. Pete, my mate, also had MN. He asked for the book just before I left. Pete left us in 2004.

I looked into the fact that we all worked with lead. You probably did also. The Canadians said there was no correlation with lead and the printing industry.

My friend Peter Hill lived on Vancouver Island for 15 years. His ashes were scattered at the Southport Spit in Queensland. His last job in Oz was at Gold Coast Bulletin. Prior to that was the Sydney Morning Herald.

Hope this finds you well.

Chris Overland

This is an excellent review and I endorse the sentiments expressed in it.

That many Australians were embarrassed about being a colonial power is undeniable. This was one of the motivations for the Whitlam government's decision to very abruptly shed such an unwanted and unloved role.

There ought to have been more embarrassment, both then and now, about the failure to properly prepare PNG for a necessary and inevitable transition to independence.

Successive Australian governments were unwilling to put the necessary time and resources into this process, leaving a relative handful of kiaps, agricultural officers, teachers, engineers, doctors and nurses to do what they could on a proverbial "shoe string" budget.

Now, the problem is political indifference to PNG and our so-called "Pacific family" more broadly. This has been accompanied by a failure of imagination too, whereby the potential benefits of forging much closer relations have been missed by governments obsessed with relations with and immigration from almost anywhere in the world but the Pacific nations.

I have long maintained that Australia ought to have worked much harder to create some sort of Pacific free economic zone whereby, for example, labour could flow back and forth much more freely between the member states. We have such an arrangement with New Zealand, so why not PNG or Tonga or Fiji?

The recent decision to import labour from Pacific countries to fill the gap left by the disappearance of a predominantly European "back packer" workforce is clear evidence that such an arrangement can work to both Australia's advantage and that of the workers as well.

I am certain that a Pacific Common Economic Community would not necessarily be easy to organise, with many complicating factors to consider, but it ought to be done nonetheless.

In the long run, we would all be hugely better off (economically, socially and culturally) if such an arrangement were to be introduced.

Paul Oates

Good article Tanya. You raise some excellent questions and underline others already raised by Sean.

If you wonder why PNG seems to be below the Canberra radar, you are not alone. There are many who contribute to this blog who also wonder about the reason for this? It's not for the want of trying to raise PNG issues with the government of either persuasion.

I suggest however that it may not be totally due to a cultural cringe or leftover whiffs on colonialism. It's more to do with the Canberra view of the world.

Anyone who has lived and worked in Canberra experiences a strange sort of malaise that starts to inculcate itself after a few years and comes into full bloom after 5 or 6 years residence.

Being relatively isolated from the rest of Australia, not to mention the world, Canberra people start to relax in their world of mostly two incomes, two cars (SUV's with no dust on), readily available medical and other facilities and relative bureaucratic affluence, where everything is so parochial as to push away consideration of far places and what's happening there into the media background.

Even DFAT staff tend to submerge their experiences as they are transferred around and then back home to Canberra.

Unfortunately, it was Canberra people that helped install a mini-Canberra in Waigani.

PNG ended up 'betwixt and between' two worlds when the transition to Independence was rushed at the last 2 years and left a power vacuum that was filled by those who naturally saw an opportunity.

The really disappointing factor is that those who have PNG experience before 1975 are rapidly passing on and the opportunity to discuss PNG's shared history will be lost when they disappear.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A very good review. One comment though.

You have to distinguish the kiaps from their bosses in the Department of Territories in Canberra and Port Moresby.

While those bosses were certainly thinking like colonialists many of the kiaps, just like Sean Dorney, were thinking like Papua New Guineans.

Given they were embedded in the communities they administered it was the only way to make things work. There was, in fact, a continuous internal war going on between the kiaps and their colonial bosses about how to do things.

One of the proofs of this situation is the difficulty a lot of kiaps had in settling back into Australia after they finished up in PNG.

Their values and mindset had changed through their experiences in PNG and it just didn't fit in with the ordinary Australian way of life. Its something they have carried through to their old age.

Wendy Glassby

An excellent review and valuable commentary, Tanya. A challenge to Australia to push its embarrassment at being a coloniser aside, and revisit its relationship with PNG as a neighbour with whom it shares over a century of history. Thank you.

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