Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 09:59 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 09:59 | SYDNEY

Good news about Papua New Guinea


Graeme Dobell

28 January 2011 16:20

Here are some reasons to be optimistic about Papua New Guinea:

  1. PNG is reaching for a golden era of economic growth, fueled by gas, copper, gold and nickel. After 35 years as a nation, PNG has the chance for economic maturity.
  2. Having completed seven post-independence national elections, PNG has a raw but robust parliamentary democracy.
  3. PNG has rule of law and an independent judiciary with the demonstrated power to force the Prime Minister to step down.
  4. HIV/AIDS is imposing extraordinary costs and suffering on PNG, especially in the Highlands where it is concentrated. However, a full-blown AIDS crisis of African proportions is being averted and latest figures show the epidemic may be leveling off.
  5. The peace process that began in Bougainville in 1997 is working and evolving. The success is even more significant because of the deep traumas suffered during the conflict that tore at the island from 1988 to 1997. The Bougainville vote on independence, to take place between 2015 and 2020, will ask questions of Canberra nearly as much as it will challenge Port Moresby.

Those five good-news points are detailed in a Policy Analysis I've done for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Since the paper was posted, all the brickbats and bouquets have started from the same point – it is an optimistic analysis. To look at PNG and come away smiling is apparently a novel approach.

There are all sorts of caveats in the paper about corruption and PNG's woeful performance on health and education. Starting with the statistics always highlights the misery equation. In the 2010 UNDP Human Development Report, PNG is in the bottom category (Low Human Development) ranking 137 out of 169 countries. Such accounting explains the default position usually adopted by journalists and strategists in writing about international issues: Always look on the dark side of life!

The realist reversal of the song advice from 'Life of Brian' is a common position for an Australian discussing the dilemmas confronting PNG. The usual menu is one of woe and worries. And in 40 years of journalism, I have done my fair share of woe-is-PNG yarns, with one of my first long-form efforts — before PNG got its independence from Oz — tapped out on a mechanical writing machine called a typewriter. (Technical explanation: a typewriter was an early digital device, in the sense that it was driven by the operator's digits.)

As I've mentioned before, my reflex position on the South Pacific for several decades has been one of optimism. Make that sunny optimism, reflecting the climate and character of the people. The people of PNG and the Islands may have weak states (more on that in moment) but they boast strong, vibrant societies. The smarts and the social strengths of the people of the Islands are a good basis for optimism.

Even with Fiji as the great exception, the Islands have been more successful at democracy than any other developing region in the post-colonial era. And Australia – truly the Lucky Country again – gets to attempt leadership in one of the most beautiful parts of the globe. We help with nation-building in places where the rest the world would like to go for a holiday.

Australia's luck and its sense of responsibility are joined to a peculiar failing – a great amnesia about our colonial past in PNG and our many different roles in the history of the Islands. Perhaps one mark of a vibrant, multicultural society is its ability to forget things; my rumination on Australia’s Pacific amnesia is here.

Australia may forget about its colonial past or even its recent involvements, but the South Pacific suffers no such memory lapse. PNG and the Islands probably have the deepest understanding of Oz of any group of countries in the world – and even then, they quite like us! Using a 40-year time scale shows that PNG has exceeded Australian expectations in cementing its political and legal structures. (Granted, some of Australia's dire fears at the time of independence in 1975 had a distinct Heart of Darkness tinge.)

Politically, PNG has done better than Australia was entitled to expect because we treated PNG as an administrative task, not a nation creation exercise, almost until the moment we furled the flag and flew south.

When Australia lectures Port Morseby about what a poor job it has done of nation building, a bit of Oz amnesia kicks in. Canberra ran a good, pragmatic, hard-working administration in PNG – delivering lots of important things — but it did precious little to build a state. PNG's leaders have done better at the central task of creating a sense of nation, not least because Australia did none of it. We were more than woeful at this task – we didn't even see it.