The people of Milne Bay have a point. They have the makings of prosperity and connectivity. But a road from the capital would not necessarily bring them anything but strife
ADELAIDE – Not long ago, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape convened a stakeholder meeting to discuss Connect PNG – a 20-year plan to increase strategic road connections across the country.
Australian high commissioner Jon Philp told the meeting that Australia continued to support strategic and high-quality infrastructure projects as a tool to promote economic prosperity.
One of the major projects funded by Australia is the K38.5 million upgrading of the Magi Highway from Port Moresby to Kupiano, a road which some people hope will eventually connect with Alotau.
But in Milne Bay there is strong resistance to this connection being made.
The opposition is characterised in this social media comment by Robin L Baloiloi: “Making way for pigs and dogs to enter the peaceful town. We had enough of law and order problems. The link will allow immigrants to migrate and erect settlements here.”
Milne Bay has plenty of problems including overwhelming unemployment, a struggling economy, land shortages, failing infrastructure and poor public health and education – issues by no means unique to that part of PNG.
One can understand the concern of what is probably a majority of mainland Milne Bay.
They require the issues they’re struggling with to be properly addressed before Milne Bay is opened up to the urban chaos of Moresby. They have already experienced some of this in the ruthless crime wave – murder, arson, robbery – of the Tommy Baker gang.
There is considerable resentment even with the relatively modest incursion of Highlanders and other Papua New Guineans into Milne Bay. This has led to growing support for Papuan independence.
The people feel that major expenditure on this particular road link must instead be put towards fixing these endemic problems.
I’ve had an association with this splendid part of the world and its beautiful people since 1966 and I can recognise that these matters are legacies of smaller problems in colonial days.
Back then Alotau was new and a tiny outpost but the national government of an independent PNG has had half a century to create a thriving community here.
Instead we see problems perpetuate and the government seems incapable of doing much about them.
Building a highway to make them worse doesn’t really seem to cut it.
A more relevant, if ambitious, project would be for Australia to obtain PNG government approval to take over the health and education sectors in Milne Bay on a long-term basis.
As Chris Overland wrote recently in another context: “The best solution is for Australia to simply take control of the entire system on the basis that it will fund it if the PNG government gets out of the road.”
Australia could earn huge kudos for getting the basics right in Milne Bay before a road is pushed through creating more chaos. Such a scheme staged over 10-20 years could see mutual benefits to both countries.
For a deeper insight into the aspirations of Milne Bay people I commend Melissa Demian’s excellent book, In Memory of Times to Come, from which I have taken this extract on the Suau people from southernmost Milne Bay:
“PNG’s independence in 1975 [is] an event that is viewed as a positive development by no Suau person I have ever discussed it with. The Papua New Guinea state simply has not been able to deliver what the colonial or military enterprises did: mobility. Here I am not just talking about physical mobility, but a mobility of the imagination.
“Towards the end of nineteenth century, Suau people … converted to Christianity with a speed even missionaries found remarkable. They seized upon education and wage labour opportunities with both hands. And then a century later, the foreigners had almost gone, and the PNG state has never been able to replace or replicate the promise of that initial relationship.
“The problem is that they know it is possible for their world to attract the attention of others with whom they might conduct fruitful relations – because it happened once before, and was sustained for several generations. So they know it is possible. The question vexing them now is how they might make it happen again, to realise a future that will be filled with others to mobilize their imaginations anew.”
So we are discussing a resetting of the relationship in modern terms between the ex-colonial power and the people of a highly promising but undeveloped region.
One place to start would be in the much-ignored and underfunded local government.
This democratic, community-level voice should perhaps be reweighted in authority vis a vis the national MPs with large electorates who cannot easily deal clan and similar groupings.
This would be bottom-up, not top-down, development.
In colonial times and for good reason, Milne Bay’s capital, Samarai, was regarded as the Pearl of the Pacific.
There remains great potential for activities and projects that could make Milne Bay self-sufficient, even a place of world significance. Let me itemise some clear existing components for the development of a grand strategy for the province.
Improved air links. Ten years ago the PNG government approved Alotau Airport at Gurney as an international entry point for overseas flights, but Air Niugini did not taken up the opportunity.
It would seem feasible at some stage for a flight from Cairns to Alotau and on to Rabaul or Bougainville and return. There’s much tourism potential in these routes, and avoiding Port Moresby will appeal to many people.
Milne Bay coral seascape. A mixed cultural and natural sites including largely uninhabited atolls and islands with numerous coral reefs and Samarai Island, heritage listed by the PNG government.
This seascape has more marine diversity than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, being a largely untouched wonderland of coral reefs, island chains and friendly people.
Restoration of Samarai Island. The PNG cabinet approved this in 2006 but for various reasons it has not occurred. This historically important inhabited island has great investment and tourism potential.
The seascape of surrounding islands and the mainland are stunning. Samarai lacks a modern wharf, and the old one is in disrepair, and it lacks a marina, important elements of any marine tourism strategy.
Also lacking is visitor accommodation – an opportunity for private domestic investment.
Eco and cultural tourism. The three D’Entrecasteaux islands of Normanby, Ferguson and Goodenough, being extinct volcanoes, rise spectacularly from the sea. On Normanby guides take bird lovers to see Goldie’s Bird of Paradise, unique to that island.
And there are the geysers, boiling mud and hot springs of Fergusson. (Read Keith Jackson’s notes of a visit there in 2006.)
Nearby the Trobriand Islands are famous for their unique culture, that attracted legendary anthropologists and were largely resistant to missionaries. Back in Alotau the annual Huhu war canoe festival is a 20-minute boat ride away and organised by two villages as their own cultural celebration.
The southern Massim, stretching from Samarai east to Rossel Island, is a rare marine and tropical paradise. Remoteness is its enemy and its friend. Charter a boat with friends, stay in a village, go fishing or snorkelling.
One tourism venture was attracting P&O cruise ships until Covid came to the Conflict Islands [Panasesa]. This is scheduled to recommence this year. While such short-stay tourism doesn’t bring a lot of benefit to local people, it does open possibilities.
These are projects Australia could most usefully part-fund and facilitate with other entities over a five year timeline to start the province off in building a sound economic base.
Start with one province, and maybe others will follow.
The people of Milne Bay have a point. They have the makings of prosperity and connectivity.
But a road from the capital would not necessarily bring them anything but strife unless they had the ability to cope with what the road would bring with it.
They have the makings of something better. There are opportunities in such places.
All they need is good governance, well harnessed enterprise and well directed social and economic investment.