IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED that PNG Attitude contributors who may have expressed ideas on Australia’s role and its effect on relationships and social welfare in PNG should take up the pen again.
At the same time it was suggested that such contributions may be viewed with interest by Richard Marles, a senior political functionary within the DFAT/AusAID complex in Canberra. Others will also peruse our Attitude and take note.
Well, friends, have I got news for you. Of course you all know that my news is not new news. The complex within which Mr Marles casts his shadow daily has been well-described as “the citadel of solipsism” - a title which it has earned through the assiduous application of a deaf ear for many, many years. Throughout the halcyon Keating and Howard eras as well as the embarrassing regimes of Rudd and Gillard.
Ever since the mid-nineties I have been penning and sending suggestions and proposals for various changes in the Australia’s aid programs in PNG. Since the dawn of PNG Attitude it has published a number of these pieces, some of which have also appeared in The National and in Australia’s Quadrant.
A number of these pieces have formed the basis of written submissions addressed to the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby and to AusAID in Canberra. They have been acknowledged in most cases, but I have no evidence that any serious consideration has ever been given to them.
My appeal to John Howard many years ago was acknowledged by his parliamentary secretary, but it was not noted that my missive was accompanied by a copy of my book Kundi Dan, published in 19956, described to Howard as a book which covers the history and cultures and social makeup and mores of PNG as well as Australia’s place in its history.
As is well-known, the book is the life-story of the late Dan Leahy of Kuta and Korgua, near Mt Hagen. Dan’s place in PNG history is well-known, but the socially-descriptive and culture-defining sections of the narrative provide a good briefing for a foreigner proceeding to work in PNG.
The book has been used in this role by Barrick Gold, the operators of the Porgera gold-mine, and by Curtain Bros Ltd., major civil contractors involved in the construction phase of the current Esso Highlands project, the mechanical mining of the ore-body at Ok Tedi, and many other major civil works in PNG.
The CEO for Australasia at Barrick’s HQ in Perth was amazed that DFAT and AusAID seemed to have no valid or valuable preparatory course for its messengers and contractors before these are despatched to the coalface.
Not that the wire-enclosed Highcom, known locally as “Fort Shitscared” - complete with its barbecue areas , pool and gym, and guard-accompanied shopping-expeditions - reflects an industrial image; nor one suggestive of actual industry, especially if one is a PNG citizen applying for a visa to visit Australia.
Over the years there were a number of submissions to Mr Marles’ predecessors and to the residents of the “Fort” in PoM. I am not boasting when I say that I have quite a broad knowledge of the coffee industry in the PNG highlands. I have been involved in it for 40-plus years.
A submission on a particular coffee problem addressed to a third-secretary (there are many) in charge of Australia’s contribution to agriculture in PNG, a lady said to be “quite switched-on,” was acknowledged and interest was expressed.
Six weeks later a brief enquiry from me elicited the response, “ Oh, sorry, John. I’ve been flat out but I’m off on holiday and I’m taking your paper along to read while I’m relaxing.” That was the last I heard.
When I had discharged my obligations to Barrick Gold, comprising the writing of a 30-page introduction for newcomers to PNG, vetted both by Jim Sinclair and a UPNG graduate friend, Barrick generously gave the rights back to me, they having turned the document into a day-long Powerpoint-based presentation for use at Porgera.
I trimmed and improved the booklet, had an attractive cover designed and offered it, free-of-charge, to the High Commissioner in Port Moresby for use as a pre-service briefing device. I mentioned that the booklet could easily be prepared as a Powerpoint presentation.
At length I was called by someone with a very Irish name, Sean something-or-other, in which suspicion was implied. What was my angle? We don’t buy directly from here. Are you proposing that you present this thing yourself?
These questions and doubts about my motive were obliquely expressed, and politely, but I was quite put-off. Ultimately I was thanked for my offer by Mr Kemish, and that was the last I heard.
I am ready to recognise that my reputation may be established within sectors of The Citadel as “that red-necked old colonial, Fowke…..”, but I am not an aggressive or contentious person and my efforts have all been generated by my feelings for PNG, a place which my late wife loved as much as I did, where we spent most of our time on plantations or else in Goroka, happy years for both of us.
The major themes which I have taken up have been firstly, the great need for the establishment of a non-academic pre-posting training institution for Australians being posted as DFAT employees or as AusAID contractors, both to PNG and to other island neighbours.
Secondly I have written often about the inappropriate nature of a conceptually-class-based western parliamentary system such as grew (it was not pushed overtly by the Australians) in an almost totally egalitarian, non-hierarchical society such as PNG, where ownership of land and the burial-places of the ancestors underlies every facet of psyche and belief.
I have written stressing the deleterious effect of neglect and non-funding of the 300-odd Local Level Governments (originally Local Government Councils) which, because they are firmly rooted in the villages and settlements, and because the common denominator is a usually well-respected and socially-accepted local man elected as Councillor who sits in convocation with similar men to express the needs, the questions and the priorities for development and service of the electorate.
This as opposed to MPs, who are largely selfishly, ambitious, exploitative and eventually become totally isolated in their pursuit of wealth and influence.
I have painted the picture of an adaptation of the grass-roots-based chain of political control by the voter encompassed by the old, pre-1964 system of Legslative Council, District Advisory Councils supported as the basic building-block by Councils. This is well worth putting up for discussion on a wide stage. There would be no major constitutional problem.
May I quote something written by the late Ian Downs, sometime District Commissioner, the brains and push behind the building of the Highlands Highway, coffee industry pioneer, Member of the House of Assembly, and talented writer.
Difficult in many ways, Downs was a man of high intelligence, and a decision-maker who never hesitated to act in what he believed was an appropriate measure. Writing upon his departure from PNG in 1969, Ian Downs said;
White men in Papua and New Guinea will have to learn to live with blame which they may properly feel they do not deserve. Blaming the white man for everything may not necessarily be either rational or pleasant; but it is now emotionally essential for Papuans and New Guineans.
Blaming the white man, the Administration and the Missions, and the Commercial Institutions gives the people a stronger sense of unity and identity. Blaming the white man is particularly important to coloured people who have come from more than 500 different primitive groups and societies in which their own design for living has long since been irreparably disturbed by us.
The grafting of a complex material culture onto the illiterate shoots of a primitive society is a most painful process. The pain has to be understood to be believed. With all their faults and difficulties in alien eyes, the people of Papua-New Guinea now need the understanding of Australians more than they can ever explain.
Forty-three years later Downs’s words resonate with great depth and meaning. Forget the paternalist expressions, for this was a man who came to PNG as a youngster in 1935; an era which few now live to recall.
A youngster who assisted the late Jim Taylor on the epic Hagen-Sepik Patrol of 1938; and who, with scrap-iron and empty petrol drums gleaned from wartime airstrips, and second-hand lift-cable from tall buildings in Sydney, somehow caused long, strong swing-bridges to be built over swirling rivers; who caused the most important developmental project ever executed in PNG, the Highlands Highway, to exist; built with spades and pick-axes, buckets and wheel-barrows; never a bulldozer or a grader in sight.
Ian Downs’s words have great meaning when viewed today, where an increasingly well-educated and vocal middle-class in PNG is not only forming its own views amid the disintegration of a disgraced oligarchic rule, but also beginning to express and form opinion by means of the internet, with blogs, and with the almost universal cell-phone, now to be seen everywhere in the land.
There is much criticism of Australia’s administration of PNG, mixed with occasional praise. Downs and others like him understood the nature of the huge social upheaval which white colonists, church and state, and men of mammon alike, caused to exist. The process goes on today, but there is a dearth of understanding among the outsiders who are a part of it.
This is but one exemplar, one story, the retelling of which will be salutary in the education and preparation of Australians of all trades and professions who are asked to do work for their country and for PNG, up there in that great Land of the Unexpected.
Bring back ASOPA, but an ASOPA modernised and informed by the inclusion of Papua New Guinean lecturers like Charles Yala, once at ANU and now lecturing at Duntroon. In The Australian of 14 March (page 39), see the piece written by Dr Richard Herr and Dr Anthony Bergin headed White Paper must revive Pacific Studies.
Talk to Dr Michael Wesley at the Lowy Institute, a pragmatic and very well-informed friend of PNG. A mixture of intellectual understanding and pragmatic, experience-based views needs to be sought by any who dare to seek to make the Tower of Solipsism work with objectivity, effect and accountability.