Australians in Papua New Guinea 1960-1975, edited by C Spark, S Spark and C Twomey, University of Queensland Press, 2014, 339pp, ISBN: 978 1 9219 0243 7, $38.50
AS I write this, my son is in the Papua New Guinea Highlands working with people new to the country teaching them how to get along with the locals.
As the resources boom develops in PNG this orientation process is becoming a more frequent need.
There are Papua New Guineans who can do the same job but the newcomers seem to feel more comfortable with one of their own. Hopefully that’s an attitude that Luke can help change.
He is one of many Australians who are the children of men and women who were in PNG prior to independence and who are maintaining and continuing the relationship. I sometimes think of him as “Son of Kiap” or “Kiap II: The Sequel”.
Australians in Papua New Guinea 1960-1975 was compiled by Ceriden Spark and Seumas Spark, people who had a prior connection with PNG.
I’m not sure what relationship Christina Twomey, the third editor, has with PNG but the foreword is by Lara Giddings, the ex-Tasmanian premier and daughter of kiap Rick Giddings. Lara was born in Goroka.
I know that we old-timers revelling in our reminiscences can bore the pants off people and it is something we have to be aware of. When someone begins a sentence with, “When I was in (insert colourful PNG location) in 1963…..,” the eyes in the room glaze over.
This book has given free rein to an interesting collection of oldies to indulge in their memories. They include some Papua New Guineans.
There are some big egos in there but mostly the stories are measured, thoughtful and constrained even if the balance is a bit out of whack with medicos, academics and public servants predominating.
The business community, among others, seems to have been overlooked. And something from an old policeman or the legal fraternity would have been interesting.
Across the various reminiscences there are themes very familiar to most PNG Attitude readers.
There are a couple of telling accounts, like that by John Langmore, who drafted a foreword for Michael Somare to a 1974 document called Strategies for Nationhood: Policies and Issues.
The foreword addressed the propensity of newly independent nations to rely on the trickle-down effect in their economies to take care of everyone. In the foreword that Michael Somare put his name to, the idea is expressed that this wouldn’t happen in PNG because “we are concentrating our efforts directly on rural development, equality and self-reliance”. Wonder what happened there?
The consensus in the book seems to be that PNG went along quite swimmingly until the 1990s when Somare seemed to decide, “Bugger it, this is too hard, I think I’ll start looking after number one instead.”
Another interesting theme is a perplexed exasperation with Australian politicians and the Australian public for not recognising the special relationship forged between the two countries.
As Meg Taylor says, when Australians look north they don’t see PNG instead focusing on Bali or Fiji. This really bugs me too. I can’t see any reason whatsoever why our relationship with PNG shouldn’t be like our relationship with New Zealand, where travel between the two is visa-less and open.
There are a few interesting surprises in the collection. The interview with Carol Kidu is one. When asked, “So what are your personal recollections of the role played by Australians in PNG in the period 1960-75?”, Dame Carol replies that she doesn’t have any. “I had no contact with them.”
She explains, “I never lived in the Australian community. I lived completely in the Motu society.” And, of course, she did and still does.
There are other interesting gems to be found as you troll through people’s memories. From my own point of view, the kiaps come up looking good. There is none of that boorish kiap-bashing that academics indulged in immediately before and after independence.
I think the post 1990s problems in PNG have finally put paid to the furphy that it was all the kiaps’ fault.
There is nothing really new in the book and I imagine that the only people who will read it are those who have a close association with PNG. That’s a shame, but what can you do?
Our current foreign minister says that PNG is one of her favourite places. It is a pity that she and the Australian people can’t see a bit deeper into the relationship than that.
It would be nice, too, if the PNG government itself could get its act together on behalf of the whole nation.