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The colony Australia tries to forget

Hoisting the British flag at Port Moresby
Hoisting the British flag at Port Moresby, 1888

| Pearls & Irritations

MELBOURNE - Australia’s ham-handed history of colonialism, in what today is the independent state of Papua New Guinea, began in 1883 when Queensland pre-emptively annexed the southeastern corner (Papua) of the great island of New Guinea in the name of the British Crown. (The British were not amused).

Late in the nineteenth century, the Australian colonies were fearful that Germany (Britain’s rival) was about to colonise the entirety of eastern New Guinea, posing (so they imagined) a threat to Queensland’s northern reaches.

So, they timorously backed Queensland’s move. In the end, the British acceded, if reluctantly, to Queensland’s claim on Papua with the proviso that the Australian colonies would accept full responsibility for administering the territory.

In 1902 the new Commonwealth Government took over this responsibility from the colonies (now states).

At the end of World War I, the League of Nations mandated administrative control of the former German New Guinea (the vast northeastern part of New Guinea) to Canberra. Up until World War II, the two territories were administered separately.

During and after the war, the two administrations were merged into one.

Under successive conservative Australian governments very little was done to develop the territories, resulting in one of the most shameful aspects of Australia’s white settler-colonial history, comparable only to the treatment of Indigenous Australians since the arrival of the first fleet in 1788.

After the Whitlam government set PNG on track to independence – achieved, or some would say imposed, in 1975 – Australian governments have more or less washed their hands of their former colony.

Under the guise of an overseas aid program, billions of Australian dollars over the years have been thrown at PNG to prop up a succession of bungling, incompetent, and increasingly corrupt governments.

The fact that the vast majority of that aid has been misspent, misappropriated or simply disappeared is evident in the governance failures that have been mounting exponentially in PNG since 1975.

Today those failures are catastrophic. On almost any measure, PNG has become a failed state.

Meanwhile, Australia continues to throw more aid money after bad, while turning its back on the serious development of underdevelopment that is the grim fact of PNG today.

This is especially evident in two vitally important areas where Australia needs to become immediately proactive.

The first is health. The back of the PNG health system has been broken by a huge lack of trained medical professionals and allied workers, inadequate facilities and an extraordinary absence of basic resources.

Already on its knees owing to the HIV-AIDS and TB epidemics raging across the country, the health system is now being overwhelmed by the Covid pandemic which is out of control.

The country’s hospitals, doctors and nurses are collapsing under the strain. Some PNG citizens are already being flown to Australia for treatment.

Meanwhile, the notoriously porous border between Queensland and PNG poses a real and present danger for Australia.

The second area is education. Many schools and universities are completely dysfunctional.

The University of PNG, which claims to be the primary university in the South Pacific (a hollow claim if ever there was one), is literally falling down.

Buildings are crumbling and windows are broken. The library’s books are rotting in the humid tropical heat. Laboratories are falling into disrepair. Student residences have become disgusting slums.

What is to be done?

Australia has to stop wanting to forget what is really happening in PNG.

The fact is that our national interest demands that PNG be a central part of Australia’s overseas development aid (ODA), foreign affairs and defence policymaking.

Two joint government taskforces should immediately be established to plan how to stem the disastrous declines in the PNG health and education sector respectively.

Unless both of these sectors are resurrected, and very soon, then further reforms in the PNG economy and society will simply be impossible.

The health task force should be allied with the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Along with a senior Australian expert, it should be co-chaired by Professor Glen Mola, one of (if not the) leading public health experts in PNG with years of experience in the country. The task force’s mission should be twofold:

(1) To map out an immediate comprehensive vaccination program to vaccinate the majority of PNG citizens as quickly as possible;

(2) To plan and resource the restructuring of the entire public health system in PNG. In both cases, this will require massive logistical and resource support from Australia’s defence forces.

The education taskforce will also have a twofold mission:

(1) To develop a strategy for reviving primary, secondary and technical schools across the country;

(2) To completely rebuild the country’s higher education sector.

This task force should be chaired by Professor Ross Garnaut (whose knowledge of the PNG economy and education sector is second to none), along with a PNG co-chair (for example, Dr Thomas Webster, one of PNG’s most honourable citizens) and be resourced by the graduate schools of education at Monash and Melbourne Universities (both ranked among the top 20 such schools in the world).

Qualified Australians should be recruited to work in an Australian version of the old US Peace Corps, to work on the ground to do the rebuilding so urgently needed in health and education in PNG.

Instead of forgetting Australia’s miserable complicity in the reasons PNG is failing, Australians need to realise that their very own interests are at stake.

Not only will disease (and future pandemics) find their way into Australia via PNG, but as the country’s governance failures continue to mount up, already simmering civil conflicts will explode and Australia will see a flood of refugees pouring across its northern borders.

Forgetting PNG is not, nor has it ever been, an option for Australia.

Dr Allan Patience is a principal fellow in political science at the University of Melbourne and was Professor of Political Science at the University of Papua and New Guinea


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Chips Mackellar

Irrespective of whatever the pros and cons were of PNG's colonial experience, the fact remains that PNG is beset with problems which could impact upon Australia.

We could solve these problems both for PNG and for us but as Dr Patience might agree, throwing good money after bad in the form of misdirected foreign aid is not the way to do it.

The way to do it is what the cruise ships do, and that is to bypass Port Moresby, and visit the Provinces directly. And, as Stephen Charteris has suggested, deal directly with 'community governance networks.'

Whilst DFAT is constrained by diplomatic niceties to deal directly with Waigani and its associated corruptions and divergencies, private companies and NGOs are not so constrained.

So the answer is a kind of Peace Corps which would deal directly with Provincial Governors. With a non-government Peace Corps funded by the Australian Government but independent of it, DFAT could then claim deniability for any diplomatic short-cuts the Corps might take.

For starters, the Corps could begin with Daru, which is likely to be the departure point for the expected flood of refugees across the Torres Strait when things get worse in PNG.

But a single phone call to the Governor of the Western Province could see the beginnings of a well structured rescue package supplied direct from Cairns to Daru without any interference from Waigani.

This could be the beginning of a good future PNG - Australia relationship.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Writers and commentators on PNG Attitude have been pointing out the shortcomings of the Waigani-centric emphasis of the Australian government and aid programs for many years.

Even the current piss weak assistance that Australia is providing with the pandemic is concentrated in Port Moresby.

If PNG could somehow contrive to have an Airways Hotel set up in each provincial capital the situation might improve.

Chris Overland

There are some points Dr Patience makes that I would take issue with, but the general thrust of what he is saying is difficult to dispute.

Like Ray Weber, I think that comparing Australia's colonial rule in PNG with the way in which Aboriginal people were treated is a big stretch.

Not least of the differences is the fact that traditional land rights were respected in PNG, whilst the entire Australian continent was simply declared terra nullius and its original inhabitants dispossessed, displaced and, all too often, simply murdered.

It is certainly true that Papua New Guineans were killed during the pacification process that preceded colonial rule. There is ample evidence to this effect.

I think that it is also true that there were unsanctioned extra judicial killings, if not by kiaps then by some members of the RPNGC.

Daniel Kumbon and others have presented anecdotal evidence to this effect and, while the true scale of such killings will remain unknowable, the fact that they occurred is, I think, hard to dispute.

Setting this point aside, I think that Dr Patience is correct in his criticism of Australia's tardiness in properly preparing PNG for independence and in his reasoning in relation to education and health services.

His suggestions for both areas seem very sensible to me, especially in relation to health which is an area where I have some significant experience and (I hope) expertise.

My friend and former colleague David Vorst, CEO of the Mount Hagen Hospital, will be better placed than I am to comment on both the sheer scale of the task of rolling out a comprehensive vaccination program let alone reforming what is a highly dysfunctional and corrupt Health Department.

Stephen Charteris has also made a useful contribution in shedding further light on the true nature and scale of the problems that now beset PNG.

We can only hope that someone within the Australian government, probably buried in the bowels of DFAT, is actually taking some notice of what has been said by Dr Patience but past experience suggests that we should not get our hopes up.

Dr John Christie

If only it was so simple as outlined by Dr Patience, with whom I essentially agree.

There can be no doubt that education and health reform (and material support of that reform) along with PNG government accountability, is essential if positive change is to happen.

The complexities of dealing with the issues facing PNG are mind boggling, not the least of which is that PNG is an independent sovereign state. Unless invited by PNG, Australia can do very little to assist.

Until (or if) PNG becomes a recognised 'failed state', as can be argued happened in the Solomon Islands with the intervention of RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands), Australia will continue to be little more than an interested bystander.

I would conjecture that most younger Australians know next to nothing of the shared history of PNG and Australia and have little or no interest in such knowledge.

Ray Weber

Comparing 'colonial rule' in PNG with the treatment of Aborigines? There were no massacres of Papua New Guineans and the policy was 'we shall protect your lands'.

Where did he learn his history?

In the right place, I'd say, Ray. Here are three accounts of massacres against Papua New Guineans. There are more - KJ




Stephen Charteris

Wow. The first half of Dr Patience’s article is a gritty reminder of the checkered history of Australia’s association with its former colony. Something not forgotten by older Papua New Guinea citizens I have known.

The second half, a forthright but largely accurate summary of the parlous state of health and education services today, a fact also acknowledged by the older generation. So yes indeed, what is to be done?

Firstly, may I suggest that the good citizens of Papua New Guinea might like to be consulted about that.

Last I looked, Papua New Guinea had been a sovereign independent nation for close to half a century with a population of young people aged 20 or under comprising nearly half the total.

Young people increasingly connected by social media and looking for the sort of future portrayed on their phones.

The politics of the day reflect the values and expectations of the voters. I believe that the people who follow this forum are well acquainted with the enormous complexity and diversity that is Papua New Guinea society.

They would know how the Westminster system of government and governance anchored largely around a common history, language and vision of the common good (sometimes), inherited at independence has slowly and inexorably evolved to reflect the vastly greater granularity, diversity and regionalism of Papua New Guinea society.

In the absence of meaningful human capital development across the broad spectrum of Papua New Guinea society since independence and in the absence of anything better, people have abandoned the notion that 'big government' can in any way serve their interests and instead applied a cultural perspective: 'I will support you, if you support me - now'.

If there has been one great weakness in the model that Australia has pushed so doggedly since 1975 it is the assumption that all roads lead to Waigani: strengthen the base and the rest will naturally follow.

That view overlooks the fact that Papua New Guinea is a thousand nations speaking almost as many languages cobbled together under an alien system.

I would defy anyone to find a person living outside Port Moresby who would acknowledge that Waigani has any relevance or agency in their lives – not a scintilla of influence. The sad state of health and education services are a reflection of this.

With respect to the much-maligned aid dollar, can we return to first principles. Can we place as much emphasis on working with community governance networks as we have on working with Waigani and provincial agencies.

To work with local expertise and identify ways to empower end users in their place to have some input into the service delivery process and output that is supposedly for their benefit.

This is where Dr Webster and his team at the National Research Institute could have real input into the process.

There are many possibilities to strengthen the delivery of primary health care and basic education services at the community interface, but they boil down to a recognition that community governance and input matters equally as much as the contribution from central and provincial agencies.

A sea wind shift in the aid model that recognises this and which sees development as shared journey of participation and ownership for outcomes with end users would be a positive start.

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