TUMBY BAY - In the years leading to self-government and independence in Papua New Guinea, a range of options were discussed about its future political status.
One of the least discussed was about Papua becoming the seventh state of Australia.
And until it was revealed recently, it seemed no one had taken this proposal seriously.
Although by 1966 the Menzies and Holt Governments had effectively dismantled the White Australia Policy, it still lingered in people’s minds, even after the Whitlam Government passed the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.
The persistent racism that continued to permeate Australian people’s thinking despite changes in the law pretty much ensured there was no way Australia would accept a new state populated by Papuans.
It therefore surprised me when I learned recently that the possibility of Papuan statehood exercised the minds of politicians and bureaucrats in Australia in the period prior to PNG self-government.
In a confidential document circulated from Canberra in 1971, it was noted that, “Some expatriate members representing Papua electorates (e.g. Counsel [VB (Bert) Counsel, MHA for Gulf Regional]), appear to have a naïve belief that Papua might become the seventh state of Australia or that it is in some way entitled to something special because of its people’s legal status as Australian citizens”.
This was disclosed in a recent book, ‘Australia and Papua New Guinea: The Transition to Self-Government 1970-1972’, edited by Bruce Hunt and Stephen Henningham that I recently reviewed for PNG Attitude.
In the media and elsewhere it had been suggested that if Papua became a state of Australia it would only be natural for New Guinea to follow.
It is interesting to speculate not only what might have happened if independence in PNG had been delayed by another decade or so, but what PNG as a seventh state might have looked like.
Since the late 1970s, Australian immigration policies have promoted diversity, seen the country develop as a multicultural society and become one of the world’s major ‘immigration nations’.
Would all of the problems that have developed in Papua New Guinea, such as the breakdown of law and order, political corruption, erosion of infrastructure, and inadequate educational and health services exist if it was a state of Australia?
If the answer to that question is a qualified no, would Papua New Guineans have been happy to be part of Australia - or would such a goal have led to strong movements for separation?
This is all speculation of course but the way Papua New Guineans living in Australia seem to have seamlessly integrated themselves into Australian society, like other ethnic groups, suggests there might have actually been some merit in what was once regarded as a naïve suggestion.
And like those other groups, wouldn’t Australia have been enriched by the Melanesian presence as part of our society?
If it was an opportunity lost, is there anything redeemable from the idea?
Would a relationship of open borders and free passage, as is enjoyed between Australia and New Zealand, be a possibility?
We can only hope.