White Australia – Black Melanesia – The Great Divide

I first went to Papua New Guinea in 1979 on a mission with the Australian Army. Since 1991 I have been leading groups across the Kokoda Trail and have established a Foundation to have the track proclaimed as a National Memorial Park. We are working with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Papua New Guinea, the University of Technology Sydney, the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority and the Kokoda Track Authority to develop a model of sustainable tourism for Papua New Guinea.

As a Member of the New South Wales Parliament I have elected to use my Commonwealth Parliamentary Association research entitlement on our relationship with Papua New Guinea. I have travelled to Port Moresby, Goroka, Lae and Madang as part of my research and have held numerous meetings with Ministers, Members, Departmental Secretaries, Provincial and Local Level Government representatives and numerous clan leaders and landowners.

There is no doubt that we have made serious mistakes in our relationship with Papua New Guinea since independence was granted in 1975. There is also no doubt they are a very difficult people to ‘help’ given the complexities of their ‘wan tok’ system and their adherence to ‘the Melanesian way’.

I doubt that we will ever understand these complexities and we certainly will not solve them in our lifetime. What we can do however is to begin to workshop ideas that allow us to better understand each other; to develop pilot programs based on educational-economic partnerships; to develop political partnerships to administer our aid budgets and to develop long term leadership programs for leaders yet to be born.

‘Given the youth bulge in most island nations, the issue of employment generation will become increasingly urgent in the Pacific in coming decades, and there is growing discussion about the potential to address it through greater international labour mobility.

‘The pressing need to find jobs for Pacific Island workers coincides with the emergence of gaps in the labour force of developed nations. In countries like Australia, lower birth rates, the aging demographic profile, increased personal wealth, the provision of social welfare, sustained economic growth, low unemployment and higher levels of education have combined to reduce the supply of workers who are available (or willing) to undertake physically demanding labour for relatively low pay. This has opened up the debate about the potential for temporary employment schemes for Pacific Islanders to work in overseas labour markets, particularly in seasonal pursuits in agriculture.’

The Australian Senate inquiry into seasonal labour from the Pacific Region is a welcome initiative however the terms of reference seem to be limited because they do not address the impact of labour mobility on our relationship with our Melanesian neighbours in the Pacific Region. These nations comprising the island chain from Timor in the northwest through West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Solomons and Fiji have been referred to as our arc of instability.

It is certainly our international area of responsibility.

Recent reports from the Centre of Independent Studies, the Menzies Research Centre and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have traced our historical ties with each of these nation states and the impact of our withdrawal from anything smacking of neo-colonialism in the 1970s. More ominously they have highlighted the failure of our aid policies over the decades since they were granted independence from their colonial administrators.

Those with expertise in the region warn of catastrophic consequences for Australia and the island nation states if the impending crisis is not arrested.

This realization has led to our direct intervention in Timor and The Solomons, a change in our aid policy from a ‘magic pudding’ concept to a ‘tied-aid’ policy formula, a more forthright role in the Pacific Forum, and the implementation of an Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP) for Papua New Guinea.

Our relationship with Papua New Guinea is particularly important given our historical links as a colonial administrator, wartime ally, fellow Commonwealth member and closest neighbour. More recently the threat of terrorism, the sharing of a border with Indonesia, the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, crime and widespread corruption has led to many commentators issuing dire warnings about its future.

The ECP program has been implemented in response to these concerns but many of the problems are now so entrenched that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argues the program should be regarded as only the first phase of a process that will take generations to resolve. Former Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Sir Mekere Morauta, Kt MP expressed a word of caution in his response to the Australian Security Policy Institute report:

“I am worried that the Enhanced Cooperation Program is too much at once, and expensive for what it might achieve. What is critical for any measure of success is for Papua New Guinean officials to be deeply involved in it and for people to see tangible accomplishments soon.”

This is a prescient warning for Australia in considering the value of any programs under this initiative.

Each of the reports from the Centre of Independent Studies, the Menzies Research Centre and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has made a significant contribution to the debate about the significance of our relationship with PNG and our international responsibility as a leader in the region.

Apathy or Empathy?

In my view there is a growing empathetic gap between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Up till independence in 1975 Australia had an active patrol officer/kiap program involving young men working throughout Papua New Guinea under our colonial administration. Many of them stayed on after independence, married and became PNG citizens. They developed a good understanding of the complexities of Melanesian culture and are much more understanding of their ways and their needs. At the same time students from Papua New Guinea came to Australia to complete their tertiary education and came to better understanding the complexities of our western culture.

The Australian ‘kiaps’ are now approaching retirement and Papua New Guinea now has its own university. We do not have any exchange programs where young leaders from either country can develop a proper understanding of each other. Our corporate knowledge is therefore diminishing and our empathetic gap is widening.

This gap is reflected in our attitude to urgent visa to vietnam the administration of aid. Here in Australia we often beat ourselves on the chest with announcements of how much we provide in aid each year. In Papua New Guinea they are more circumspect as they realise that most of the aid money ‘boomerangs’ back to Australia. Sean Dorney’s description of a two- day forum regarding our change in policy to ‘project’ or ‘program’ aid in Brisbane in 1993 is instructive:

‘This switch was explained to 400 hungry-eyed Australian consultants and representatives of various NGOs all with ideas on how to get in on the action. A year or two prior to this, Australian aid officials had set up ‘joint’ committees covering the agreed sectors into which Australian money could be channeled – health, education, infrastructure, renewable resources, law and order, and the private sector. The chairman of the Sectoral Working Groups presented their reports on what was planned in their area of expertise. It was stunning just how much basic policy on fundamental issues, such as the future of education and health in PNG, had been appropriated by these committees. Admittedly they did have PNG representation but given the shortage of skills in the PNG bureaucracy and the multiple demands on talented manpower it was inevitable the Australian ‘experts’ dominated, working under the imperatives of deadlines set by the Australian aid authorities.

Sir Julius Chan, who was Finance Minister at the time, told me during the forum that it was “a very cumbersome, very tedious, very unnecessary load of work”. Australia’s then Development Cooperation Minister, Gordon Bilney, put the alternative argument. He asked whether the untied aid arrangement agreed to at independence out of “respect” for PNG’s sovereignty might have been the wrong decision. “Would it have been better.” Bilney said, “[for Australia] to have remained engaged in some way? Would it have been better to use Australia’s more developed technical and human resources to work together with Papua New Guinea to develop their country? Would that have ensured more rapid and more equitable development?” Chan’s answer was a flat no. “We are concerned,” Sir Julius told the forum, “that the decreasing real value of support could lead to be of less and less tangible benefit if it is frittered away on too many programs and projects which have excessive bureaucratic and administrative costs. “He was particularly concerned about the rake-off to consultants. The then Secretary of the PNG Prime Minister’s Department, Brown Bai, after hearing the presentations by the Australian chairman, expressed surprise at the amount of work the teams had done planning PNG’s future. “I am supposed to be the PNG Government’s chief adviser,” he said, “but I know nothing about this.”


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