"WE throw heaps of money at this illegitimate child and hope it will never come home."
This comment from veteran Papua New Guinea observer Sean Dorney sums up Australia's attitude towards its nearest neighbour, former colony and now troubled western Pacific state.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, by having just a one-day stopover in PNG this weekend on his way to India, typifies this Australian attitude.
As he takes in the vistas, Mr Turnbull should ponder that while Australia's relationship with the US is fundamental, ties with China are critical, and links with Indonesia are pivotal, relations with Papua New Guinea are the most sensitive.
As Peter Varghese, a former head of the Foreign Affairs Department, noted: "Our relationship with PNG is a barometer of the success of our broader foreign policy."
Jonathan Pryke, Research Fellow and Director of the PNG Network, Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, says "we're wedded to PNG by geography; their problems are our problems."
But for accident-averse Australian politicians, the problematic history of our involvement in PNG, plus the blistering sore posed by the Manus Island refugee detention centre, make it expedient to pigeonhole Port Moresby, the capital, as a stopover.
The twin purposes of Mr Turnbull's visit are to commemorate the wartime heroism of Australian soldiers and locals on the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda Trail, and upgrade bilateral business relations.
Worthy causes in themselves, but there's so much more. Like all governments since Australia granted PNG independence in 1975, the Turnbull administration understands how vital it is for Australia to have a stable PNG on its doorstep
But an Australian foreign policy elite giddy at having a seat at the table of the great and the good through the G20 may, perhaps unconsciously, view the neighbourhood – dotted with small and troubled states like PNG, the Solomon Islands, and Nauru – as relatively unglamorous.
And what if PNG, a country of about seven million people that sits just above the tip of Cape York Peninsula, becomes a failed state?
The prospect of thousands of people fleeing a dysfunctional Papua New Guinea and heading south is worrying to say the least.
It is also ironic given the Manus Island detention centre, the subject of a PNG Supreme Court closure order, was established to house refugees who attempted to reach Australia by boat.
A mountainous state with great natural wealth in gas, copper, gold and timber, Papua New Guinea has become an economic basket case. Rampant corruption, lack of jobs, a bleeding budget, minimal infrastructure, depleted health, education and police services, and pervasive violence are roiling one of the most extraordinary countries in the world.
A disconnect that shows up between natural wealth and abject poverty, hallucinatory beauty and everyday despair, potential and reality, recalls a PNG proverb: "Knowledge is only a rumour until it is in the muscle."
But as Jonathan Pryke says, PNG "continues to muddle through and find its own way", although he poses the question: "How much of that is muddle through and how much of that is muddle down?"
Sean Dorney, attached to the Lowy Institute as a non-resident Fellow, and a one-time ABC Pacific correspondent, and author of a book on Australia and PNG titled The Embarrassed Colonialist, says the paradox of the country is that "the multiplicity" of languages and tribes "is also beneficial in that democratic sense. There is no one tribe that is going to take over."
It is also sobering for any observer promiscuously spraying around the word "instability" to recall that in the last decade Australia has had five changes of prime minister while PNG has had two.
The current challenge for PNG is to mould its democracy to suit the Melanesian culture, where bartering acts as a salve in the economic life of a self-sustaining Highlands farming community. Once money is introduced in urban areas, that exchange culture metastasises into massive patronage and corruption.
This is the dilemma facing an Australian government under pressure to grant more cash "aid" to PNG. Recently PNG's treasurer, Patrick Pruaitch, said the country's economy has "fallen off a cliff".
After years of declining revenue following the collapse in commodity prices, a government spending spree exacerbated the budget crisis. Public debt has almost tripled in the last five years.
"All Papua New Guineans would be better off today if our government had given more consideration to the quality of its spending than in promoting extravagant projects built at highly inflated costs," Mr Pruaitch said recently, in a comment that may have had more to do with pre-election manoeuvring than any formal mea culpa.
Royalties and dividends from natural gas, copper and gold mining projects formerly accounted for a large part of PNG's state revenue. But closures, scaling back projects and reduced export prices sharply dented that fiscal buffer.
Richard Curtain, an international consultant on development strategies, and specialising in labour market mobility in Pacific island states and Timor Leste, says aid "has to be based on understanding the political economy" of the recipient country.
The donor state should respond "to the ways things are rather than operating from a position of 'how do we control this in a way that doesn't mean we have exposed ourselves'."
"If you continually get preoccupied with the corruption you end up going to tightly controlled project aid programs that don't have much impact. You've got to engage. The big issue is how you do that.
"In some ways handing cash over provides an opportunity to work out how to do it in a way that puts pressure on the government to deliver what it says it's delivering."
As the Bard once put it, "there's many a slip twixt cup and lip". An alternative is to adopt the Jonathan Pryke aid model, where a specialist body, like, say, the IMF, acts as a filter for delivering Australian aid to PNG.
Let's hope that, either way, for people in PNG the "rumour" about "knowledge" will sometime get translated into "muscle".