by Jonathan Ritchie,
Dr Jonathan Ritchie is Senior Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University
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In the last week Papua New Guinea (PNG) has received more exposure in the Australian media than it has for a very long time indeed.  Ever since news of the ‘Regional Resettlement Arrangement Between Australia and Papua New Guinea’ agreement between Prime Ministers Rudd and O’Neill appeared on 19 July, discussion and criticism of the so-called ‘PNG Solution’ has been widespread on the internet, on television, radio, and even in the few newspapers still being published.  Media outlets which negligently had let their regional coverage slip away – preferring to invest their remaining funds into reportage of last night’s Masterchef – are now scrambling to find copy from anyone with either opinions on the subject, but little knowledge, or some direct knowledge of PNG, alas in short supply.

The avalanche of reporting and commentary has masked the complexity of the issues involved here.  On the one hand, we have Australia’s response to boat-borne visa-less immigrants: there is a whole universe of pain tied up in this, as any quick glance at the commentary will demonstrate.  On the other, there is Australia and its place in the world and in the region: are we embarrassed to be Australians, or proud to be Aussies who ‘grew here’?  And within the region, there is Papua New Guinea.

What can one learn from the reporting of PNG so far in 2013?  Well, it doesn’t seem a very pleasant place (unlike Nauru, according to Tony Abbott).  Violence against women, a drug-resistant TB epidemic, rampant government corruption, squatter slums to rival anywhere else in the third world – who would want to live there, other than the seven million Papua New Guineans who have no choice?  And yet this is the country to which our Government (and the alternative government) is proposing to send asylum seekers from now on.  What, it is being repeatedly asked, are we thinking?  Surely this is the last place we should send the defenceless and vulnerable?

It seems that for many Australians, the less they think about PNG the better.  Especially for the majority who live in the cities of the southeastern corner, ignorance is boosted by Australia’s stringent and cumbersome visa regulations which mean that it remains unlikely they will ever actually meet a Papua New Guinean walking down the street of their manicured suburbs.

But by contrast, for many other Australians, PNG has never been more prominent than at the present time.  This is not referring to the refugee deal and all its vexed and wretched complications, including its impact on the long-term strategic direction of Australia’s aid program.  It is not widely reported that, as well as the half a billion dollars in development assistance the Australian Government provides each year to PNG, in 2012 the value of bilateral trade between our two countries exceeded $6 billion, and total investment by Australian companies totalled more than $18 billion.[1] Every year, thousands of Australians travel to PNG for work, primarily in mining and energy related activities but also in a host of other pursuits.  The social problems that the PNG nation faces – poverty, poor health, low levels of education, corruption, and so on – mean that many Australians engage with the country and its people, on a regular and frequent basis.  Defence ties are close and PNG, despite its own internal challenges, has an increasingly prominent role in regional, particularly Pacific, affairs – often in close collaboration with Australians, as in the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (or RAMSI as it usually called) which has just marked its tenth year since it began.

So it should be clear that Australians need to be more aware of what goes on in the country that is closer, geographically, to us than any other: no more than a few kilometres separate PNG’s mainland from Boigu, the northernmost of Australia’s Torres Strait Islands (and Saibai is even closer).  What happens in PNG matters to Australia, as Queensland’s Health Minister has noticed with some alarm recently.  The reverse is true also, with even greater emphasis: PNG is bound up in Australian society, culture, and of course our economy.

But, as the 6 billion Kina loan deal made with China’s Exim Bank last year indicates, PNG’s eggs are not all sitting in an Australian basket.  Despite its closeness to the Australian Government and people, demonstrated perhaps most vociferously in its embrace of the annual Queensland-NSW State of Origin Rugby League series, PNG jealously guards its sovereignty and separate identity from the country which has in the past seen itself as a ‘big brother’.  Australia’s long occupation of PNG as a colonial overlord, which officially ended with independence in 1975 but which some Papua New Guineans see as continuing in a neo-colonialist relationship, is never forgotten, and the legacies of a century of administration by Australians remain at the heart of our relationship.  One vital aspect is PNG’s system of government, which relies on a democratic and constitutional tradition instituted by the Australians in the early 1960s and complements robustly egalitarian indigenous decision-making practices.  Since independence, PNG has had its share of political dilemmas; but it remains a nation which embraces the highest ideals of democratic representative government as embodied in its Constitution.  The current Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, successfully forged a coalition of political parties following last year’s national election and, despite the ever-present naysayers, is thus PNG’s democratically elected leader.  O’Neill and his Ministers have every right to feel empowered to represent PNG on the international stage, in negotiations with Australia, China, or any other country.

PNG has many challenges (some of which have been listed above).  As a sovereign nation, with a complex social, cultural, and economic composition, and a democratically elected government, it demands the right to be allowed to address and with luck overcome its challenges, in ways that are most suitable for its own inhabitants.  It may well be that the refugee deal with Australia will go seriously wrong, thereby making an unpleasant situation even more difficult.  The Rudd Government, as the likely political beneficiary of the refugee deal, must be duty-bound to help PNG resolve the problems that it may cause PNG.  Indeed Australia must continue to stand by its nearest neighbour, former colony, and future regional partner, refugee deal or no.

Australians should know PNG much more than they do.  This is not just a matter of expediency, but something that is desirable for its own sake.  The more we know about this often spectacularly beautiful country and its sometimes crazy, usually deeply spiritual, and always welcoming people, the better off we will be.  Knowing PNG and Papua New Guineans might even help us to make more informed decisions about such troublesome issues like Regional Resettlement Agreements.

[1] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2013).  PNG Country Fact Sheet.  Accessed 31 July 2013.

Citation: Jon Ritchie, How much should Australians know about Papua New Guinea?. Australian Policy and History. August, 2013.


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