SHARON ISAFE | Papua New Guinea Mine Watch
IN 1975 PNG ACHIEVED political autonomy, but the struggle for independence continues. BHP is the first of many dragons the government must slay.
But first things first, the O’Neill government has been slammed in the Australian media for placing a travel ban on Prof Ross Garnaut, the outgoing Australian Chairman of Ok Tedi Mining Limited.
“A low point in Papua New Guinea’s democracy”, Garnaut called it. A “misuse of immigration powers”, he claims.
Let’s put aside for one minute the Australian government’s criminal asylum seeker policy – which is described by Amnesty International as cruel and inhumane – Australia frequently denies entry to those people it judges to be of poor character.
It is ironic then that Prof Stephen Howes from ANU believes his government must come out publicly and condemn PNG for its action.
Can you can imagine the hysterical laughter from international audiences were Australia to sermonise over the proper use of “immigration powers”, after a decade of shamelessly using asylum seekers as a political football.
But hypocrisy aside, let’s move beyond the predictable international headlines, and get to the nub of the issue emerging from Garnautgate.
Sadly, it is long in origins. Let me be curt, historically PNG was at best a glorified colonial buffer for an Australian state in fear of invading European/Asian hordes.
And on that buffer the colonial administration set up a few plantations and a few mines, but not much else (sadly, many Papua New Guineans perished under the brutal labour regime imposed).
By the time they left, PNG had the vestiges of a state, but it lacked the fundamental instruments needed to exert independence internationally – i.e. nationally owned industries, a highly functional education system, skilled localised civil service, etc.
So, since 1975 our leaders have had to bow – often with excruciating servility – before the likes of successive Australian governments, foreign companies, the world-bank, in the hope a few scraps from the global economy will be thrown onto PNG’s table.
And on those occasions when a scrap is indeed thrown PNG’s way, those same leaders have contented themselves by tearing at these meagre morsels through scams, malfeasance and theft – to the detriment of the people.
The mining multinationals, and to an extent the Australian government, are happy with this arrangement, providing that the former get sweetheart deals – they have, mostly – and the latter does not face any unforeseen security dilemmas (if they can make a few bucks on top, so much the better).
Now let’s be very clear, prime minister O’Neill is no Hugo Chavez, he is not seeking to seize the country’s mineral wealth in order to enrich its people. But that said, he is a nationalist, and at the moment he is waging a nationalist struggle against foreign hyper-exploitation.
Indeed, it would seem prime minister O’Neill has had a light bulb moment of sorts – it’s been too long in coming – PNG’s elite do not have to feed off the scraps thrown to them by foreign financiers, whatever form they take. They can, in fact, seize the golden goose for themselves.
And if they succeed, will the golden goose be used to enrich the national elite? Almost certainly yes, this happens in all independent capitalist nations – but it is a far better arrangement than the enrichment of foreign multinationals and their governments.
I am no cheerleader of prime minister O’Neill – my memory is a long one – but if PNG is to enter the world stage with a shred of independence, it must take ownership of its assets, simple as that. This will be the first step towards a better PNG – but many struggles lie ahead!
In this respect, O’Neill’s duel with Prof Garnaut, and BHP, is the first shot over the bow. Whether the prime minister has the mettle to get off his knees and take a serious stand against foreign interests, remains to be seen.