“Everyone seems to have a clear idea about how others should lead their lives, but none about their own” – The Alchemist, Paul Coehlo
WHEN it comes to my offspring, there is but a smidgin of room for criticism.
There was an occasion when my child’s teacher observed him throwing away is homemade lunch.
She informed me that, whilst troubled by this turn of events, she’d decided against reprimand and acted in accordance to the school’s behaviour management policy.
I responded by quizzing said teacher to explain how the school’s policy justified punishing a six year old’s misdemeanour by the binning of an uneaten, greaseproof paper-wrapped ham and cheese sandwich.
Teacher’s response: subjective. My response: objective. Just the way I like my response to be.
And so to the subject of today’s article.
Phil Fitzpatrick’s essay ‘The curse of the Melanesian way: can Melanesia govern itself?’ generated substantial debate amongst PNG Attitude readers.
One aspect of this that particularly interested me was the tone adopted by Papua New Guinean commentators in their subsequent debate with the author.
To varying degrees, the rebuttals from Tanya Zeriga-Alone, Jay Manaseh, Sil Bolkin and Francis Nii demonstrated an objectivity that aligned with the phlegmatically sensible response characteristic of Papua New Guineans.
In ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’, Malcolm Gladwell meditates on a study in which it was hypothesised that the predictability of a marriage’s longevity is based on parties exhibiting certain emotions, particularly contempt.
Contempt, he articulates, is when one speaks from a ‘plane of superiority’. That is, a statement made from a higher level which puts the other person on a level beneath.
My subjective response to the Fitzpatrick essay scrutinises this ‘plane of superiority’, particularly the premise that Papua New Guineans stance of “blaming previous colonial or outside influences misses the point”.
Such a statement stirs defensiveness as it compounds the ever-pernicious feelings of Papua New Guineans that we are inadequate; that our progress as a people and a nation is not good enough.
And yet I’m inclined to toggle over to objectivity because, having read Fitzpatrick’s other writing (including his novel, heavily based on real experience, ‘Bamahuta: Leaving Papua’) and through private discussions, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that he is an individual who has contempt only for what is unfair, unjust and inhumane.
I agree with Fitzpatrick that perhaps a treaty or a memorandum of understanding would motivate Australia to enable Melanesia’s endeavours towards stronger and effective governance. However, objectivity also requires not being economical with the truth.
In 1962, Aboriginal poet and political activist Kath Walker (who reverted to her traditional name of Oodgeroo Noonucal after 1988) prepared and presented a poem for the annual general meeting for the federal council of the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
Entitled ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’, the poem presents a narrative of juxtapositions. It is a compare-and-contrast of the realities of Australian society for white and Aboriginal Australians. Noonucal included this verse:
Make us equal, not dependants
We need help, not exploitation
We want freedom, not frustration
Not control, but self-reliance
Independence not compliance
Forty-four years later during the annual NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week celebrations, the conversation continues forcing the question, in 2016, has much changed since Noonucal’s impassioned poem?
An honest answer would be, seemingly little. The effectiveness of Australia’s governance of the original inhabitants of this nation rages with contentious and sometimes vitriolic debate.
This begs another question.
If issues ranging from cultural acceptance to service delivery to indigenous Australians is deemed unsatisfactory, then how much oxygen should Papua New Guineans give to criticism from their former colonist?
If Australia has some way to get things right for the first occupants of their own land, how much should we rely on Australians to do a better job for the people of a land in which they were temporary guests?
If we transmit Noonucal’s words to the context of present day Australia-Papua New Guinea relations, they conjure many responses: from visa restrictions to the depredations of the Manus Regional Processing Centre.
The words exploitation, frustration and compliance are resoundingly familiar.
This said, Fitzpatrick’s article ought to be viewed objectively by unlocking and swinging wide open that door of reason and pragmatism.
Shared history is a substantial reason for Australia to contribute to effective governance throughout Melanesia, especially PNG.
However, there is need for mutual recognition that varying ideology and tradition are the basis of the respective systems. And there needs to be a conscientiousness effort to accept the flaws persisting in both models.
Criticism should be confined to areas only where one is outperforming the other and solutions are applicable and beneficial to the improvement of the other.
Perhaps it is more beneficial for Papua New Guineans to view and evaluate criticisms about governance in the same vein as Paul Oates’ assessment that “the real issue is how to integrate a possible combined and effective service delivery when those currently in charge are very happy with the largess they are wallowing in and don't want any help at all, thank you very much.”