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17 January 2018


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Let's not call the spade a shovel. This discussion has seesawed around the 'what ifs' when no one can change the past. We can however learn from it.

The real issue is the obvious contrast between what seemed to work in the past, as Rose has pointed out, and why it doesn't seem to be working today.

Phil and others have rightly highlighted the the possible alternatives that existed at the time. A seventh state wouldn't have worked and would only have led to an under class in Australia. It couldn't have worked.

To suggest there could have been a split between Papua and New Guinea was also totally impractical and was rightly rejected.

The only alternative was what was enacted. Disputes over maintaining trained Australian public servants for lengthy periods in PNG could well have led to the situation Phil suggests where there could ultimately have been conflicts of interests.

In the event, the handover was rushed through due to political expediency. You can do something well and something quickly but not both.

The real issue is why effective government in PNG appears to be failing the people. The reasons are clear to those who are on the outside looking in but do not seem able to be fixed by those on the inside looking out.

In this issue alone, the fast diminishing number of those Australians who did work well and effectively with the PNG people they met and worked for seem to be ignored by both the PNG government and the Australian government, no matter how hard they volunteer to offer unpaid help.

So as the Yanks say: Go figure!

The following link to Wicked Problems from the Australian Public Service is quite an interesting read:

I think I agree with Rose, Peter. It's something I've heard echoed around the country ever since independence.

On the other hand I can't help thinking that even if Australia had stayed another 20 years PNG would have still ended up in the same position as it is today.

And if we had stayed that extra time there would inevitably have been an active independence movement born that would have eventually resorted to violence. Same thing if we had never left or made PNG a state of Australia.

I'm not sure that dwelling on these issues is particularly useful. It would be better to dwell on the current problems and seek to fix them.

Unfortunately, given the PNG character, I'm not sure they are fixable.

I'm not suggesting that we have to atone for the actions of our forbears Chris. I'm suggesting that we should learn from the mistakes they made. In doing so we have to analyse those mistakes, both in the past and the present contexts, to understand why they occurred.

Many Papua New Guineans and Aborigines, as you say, are their own worst enemies. Many Anglo/Celtic Australians are also their own worst enemies. Why that is so is what needs to be understood.

That's a simple proposition until the issue is picked up by politicians and activists, on both the left and right.

Some of these characters go out looking for causes and when they find them they model them to their own requirements. That's pretty gross, using someone else's bad luck to promote yourself. Believing that you are helping them by stirring the pot is pretty cynical.

That's the problem with so many of these things. The water becomes so muddied and murky that it obscures any opportunity for effective resolution.

I think this is the case for Manus, for instance. It's the case for the recent problems with Sudanese gangs in Melbourne. The press and the politicians have so mangled the facts on these issues that any reasonable solutions are now impossible. Instead, we have knee-jerk and simplistic suggestions that will never work.

I posted this on Facebook on behalf of Rose some time ago. So far this has encouraged around 300 comments, so I think is worthy of discussion.

Well I'm going to start something controversial. Is PNG better off after becoming independent in 1975? Or should it have remained an Australian colony, or even become a state?

My PNG wife says no. She remembers a time of clean roads, free schools, medical centres within half a day's walk and reliable public services. She says "You Australians left PNG too early, when we weren't ready to run our own country".

I have learned not to comment. But she has a point. What do you think?

Phil and Keith, I take your respective points.

Australia's stewardship of PNG was far from perfect but, compared to the efforts of other colonial powers, it was pretty impressive.

In relation to moralising, I am not against concluding that, for example, the historic treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia was immoral, callous and not infrequently unjust, both by the standards of the day and of today.

What I object to is the idea that, somehow, we who have inherited the consequences of our ancestors actions have a moral duty to retrospectively set things right.

Sure, there are things that we can and should do, such as restoring land rights where this is sensible and possible and making efforts to remediate the disadvantage that Aboriginal people still suffer.

However, all too frequently, politicians and commentators feel the need to lambast us all about how evil "we" have been and demand what amounts to constant public abasement, self flagellation and contrition for the sins of the past. The very real positive achievements of our ancestors are cast into the long, dark shadow of their worst selves.

These demands, which tend to emanate from the left of the political spectrum, have fed the rise of the angry, resentful and belligerent right, who don't feel any guilt, let alone compassion, for those who continue to suffer from the impact of historic wrongs.

Aside from the obvious racists and nutters who tend to cluster around right wing groups, there is, I believe, a much larger group of citizens who privately have major misgivings about what is now called "identity politics".

I am one of those people. I want a peaceful, fair and just society and accept some level of responsibility for achieving this outcome. So, I tend to support cautiously progressive efforts to ameliorate if not eradicate social wrongs.

However, I am not well disposed to the special interest bleaters and shroud wavers who now seem to infest our body politic. I detest the way in which, all too often, the solutions they offer involve the payment of public monies to them and their clients.

Also, I reject as wrong headed the persistent attempts of social advocates to attribute all human ills to social causes, with little or no regard for the fact that people can and do make bad decisions that have very adverse consequences for them and others.

No amount of education, information, support and nurturing will deflect some people from making stupid decisions that they live to regret.

Sometimes, people strive to attribute their poor circumstances to someone or something else in an effort to avoid having to acknowledge their culpability.

The most egregious examples of this arise when the perpetrators of some hideous crime will be described by their defence counsel as being "mentally ill" at the time and, often, having been the subject of treatment as a child that has traumatised them. The victim's interests are entirely subordinated to those of the defendant.

There are many other examples of things like neglect of children, child abuse, theft, bankruptcy and so forth where "social causes" are offered as the principal explanation for appalling criminal behaviour.

I am not saying that such causes may not exist in some cases, merely that they are now almost invariably offered as the most significant factors involved, with personal culpability being minimised.

Thus, in a PNG context, it is much easier to blame the long departed colonial administration for not getting things right than to acknowledge the profound impact of traditional culture and practices on how things have worked out.

The same can be said about Aboriginal people too. It is far too easy to blame the very real sins of the past for every ill that besets Aboriginal people today.

I acknowledge that there was and remains prejudice against Aboriginal people. They are unfairly stereotyped and stigmatised far, far too often and they are right to point to this behaviour and call it for what it is. I strongly support efforts to suppress racism in its many forms, overt and covert.

That said, I also know that some of the problems besetting some Aboriginal people are primarily of their own making. This is a painful truth but has to be acknowledged (as it increasingly is by Aboriginal leaders) before we can have any hope of effectively dealing with those problems.

The same can be said of PNG. Papua New Guineans can, if they so choose, begin to deal with their problems. Nothing constrains them from doing so other than the choices they make about who they elect, the sort of governance and behaviour they accept and what they as individuals choose to do to help overcome their problems.

History shows that our ancestors had to struggle, sometimes in the face of extreme violence, injustice and deprivation, before the sort of world we now live in today could be created. Even into the 20th century, grave wrongs and injustices persisted in the so-called "civilised" world.

Our history is the story of an ongoing struggle for what is right, just and fair. Democracy is a work in progress, not a completed task. There will be, as I think there are today, serious set backs for the democratic process. There will be Donald Trump's as well as Barack Obama's as we struggle for, as the Americans say, "a more perfect union".

So, that is the context for my comments about moralising. Certainly, we need to make moral judgements but these ought not cloud our thinking about both the past and the present. Such thinking can often lead us into error, as the lessons of history all too often attest.

I think that "moralising about the past based upon current standards" is absolutely essential Chris. Otherwise we're not going to learn anything from the past (not that we seem to do anyway).

I think the same thing goes for interpreting the past. We should do that based on the standards of the time and on our present standards.

Although you might have noticed that our overall standards have suddenly begun to decline with the advent of Trump and Abbott, Turnbull, Bishop, Dutton etc the contrast is the bit we need to take notice of if we can ever hope to progress and get better.

There are heaps of examples that can be used when considering the 'what if' scenarios. The French in New Caledonia (which is a pearl in the Pacific) and the Americans in Hawaii come to mind.

On the other side of the coin are the Indonesians in Papua and Timor and, in terms of indigenous people, the English in Australia.

PNG was lucky and in good nick when Australia left. Unfortunately they themselves screwed it all up. They have to acknowledge that fact if they are to turn their fortunes around.

When Australia bailed out of PNG there was much good work in progress but it was in an incomplete state. For example, I was sitting across a considerable chunk of infrastructure (the broadcasting system) when independence came. The system was getting there but was certainly not in good nick. OK, so Oz felt a political need to cease administering its PNG project - but it could have kept on the required personnel for longer and ensured an effective transition. It did not - KJ

In relation to Peter's questions, I think that Paul has given the sort of answers that I also would have given.

That said, and looking at the history of imperialism more broadly, it seems to be British and European historians, predominantly if not exclusively, who spend time ringing their hands over the coulda, woulda, shoulda type questions about the past.

So, for example, the Chinese devote not one bit of time to expressing any angst about their imperial past. Indeed, they are busily reasserting what were, until very recently, the historic prerogatives of the Imperial throne. Witness the seizure and subjugation of Tibet and, more recently, the building of bases on the Spratly Islands.

Similarly, without compunction or remorse, Vladimir Putin dispatched an army to seize and hold the Crimea, solely on the basis that was, historical speaking, always part of greater Russia. The West tacitly agreed to this. No western government clamoured for a military response. Shades of Munich there.

History is what it is and the actions and events of the past need to be judged by the standards prevailing at the time. Moralising about the past based upon current standards is a waste of time and leads to grave errors in conceptualising, interpreting and understanding the past.

The task for historians is to dispassionately do the work required to understand what happened, why it happened, who made it happen and what can we learn from the events that occurred, especially about ourselves as a species.

Sure, there is always a moral or ethical dimension to history that needs to be understood and made plain, but that is rarely the sole or even most influential factor at work in determining how events proceed. Greed, hubris, personal ambition, madness, stupidity, misunderstanding and many other factors are always in play too.

PNG had the incredible good fortune to be subject to colonial control at the very end of the European imperial era. As a direct consequence, its peoples avoided the large scale murder and dispossession that might well have happened only a few decades earlier.

In this context, there were many Germans, Japanese, Britons and Australians who would have loved to simply annex PNG, seize its lands, reduce its peoples to effective if not actual servitude and, in their minds at least, create what would undoubtedly have been the richest, most productive and most beautiful state of the Commonwealth.

The early colonial administrators were absolutely determined that this would not be allowed to happen and they set in place laws and policies specifically intended to protect the lands, rights and general well being of the people.

This manifestly was not the fate of American Indians, Africans, the Incas or the Aztecs, whose peoples were often slaughtered or enslaved, their lands seized and the survivors reduced to penury.

So, while it is fair enough to quibble about the process of pacification pursued in PNG and recognise that extrajudicial killings occurred, the colonial regime was fundamentally tasked with securing the country until such time as the indigenous people could assume responsibility for it themselves.

This is, in fact, exactly what happened when PNG peacefully, without rancour or bloodshed, became an independent, self governing entity in 1975.

To my mind, notwithstanding arguments about the timing, this represented a triumph for Australia and for PNG itself.

This is not some sort of colonial revisionism on my part, and certainly not an argument that colonialism was invariably a good thing, merely a statement of the plain facts of the matter.

Here’s some suggested answers to the questions you pose Peter:

Q1. Would the local people have been better off if left alone?

A. What yardstick are you going to use to measure this query? Given health, education and almost every other benefit a modern society has, the logical answer must surely be no. If the yardstick is to remain in a traditional village society with none of the modern benefits that the villagers at the time wanted, perhaps many PNG people these days appear to have almost turned the full circle?

Q2. Who else would have come if we were not there?

A. Clearly Australia arrived in PNG at the extreme end of the 19th Century colonial period and it was only the threat posed by Germany in claiming New Guinea that caused the colony of Queensland to claim Papua as a British colony. Clearly, the Japanese almost captured all of New Guinea and would have stayed as colonial masters if they hadn’t been defeated. It was only Australia’s presence that prevented the Indonesians from taking over the whole of the island of New Guinea. Contrast what has happened in West Papua and ask would PNG have been better off?

Q3. And what gave us the right to play God?

A. As to playing god, that depends on one’s perception. Australia ended up with a duty to the UN to manage New Guinea and bring that external Territory to Self Determination. Clearly it would have been impossible to separate Papua from New Guinea since both were totally integrated by the time Self Government was achieved. The methods employed by Australia have already been contrasted with her contemporaries and any anachronistic view as to this query should be compared with the available alternatives already discussed. Could Australia with hindsight have done better? Yep, you bet. However, it could have been far, far worse.

Three abiding questions for us colonials.

Would the local people have been better off if left alone?

Who else would have come if we were not there?

And what gave us the right to play God?

Chris - A balanced objective viewpoint of history is rarely found as most historians quickly lose their moral objectivity when they record earlier historical events as is evident when one reads the works of Manning Clark whose interpretations of Australian history show wildly different points of view in their tracing of past events.

I guess it is a little like undertaking family genealogy research.

One starts of with a mild interest but as past family secrets are uncovered the time traveler becomes immersed in the subject and sentimentality quickly overtakes objectivity.
Witness that TV show aptly named “ Who do you think you are” ,

As the subject discovers some ghastly event that befell some past forebear emotion takes hold and tears flow which requires the genealogy expert to quietly remind their client.

“You have to remember that these events took place within the context of the time”. Em tasol.

History is awash with brutality, mass murder and extermination agendas all across the world in every shape and form.

In the 21st century we all need to be vigilant against the replay of such evils coated with nice sounding words such as drug policy, incarceration, medical experimentation and plain plundering of natural resources in the name of development - decimating people's way of livelihood.

There is an issue that hasn't been raised as yet on this forum. That is the blurring between civilian crime and actual warfare.

The concept of police investigating criminal activities and prosecuting those perpetrators who carry out these activities starts to become somewhat unclear when whole areas may rise up and conduct traditional warfare.

At a Kiap reunion, notable former Kiap Des Martin raised the question that under certain circumstances, if an act of war had been committed then shouldn't the rules of war apply?

The role of the Kiap and of rural police, as has been mentioned, was more like that of the French Paramilitary Gendarme or the Italian Carabinieri than that of a normal civilian police force.

Leaving aside the emotional arguments and undoubted historical bad actions of a few, broadly speaking, Kiaps and rural police could easily find themselves in what could easily be described as wartime emergencies. There was no backup nor could there be any and the safety of those under the command of a patrolling Kiap was his responsibility.

Often, communications were also either non existent or in later years, very limited to Army portables with aerials that had to be set up and tuned and batteries that could easily be drained. There were no mobile phones.

Those who pass judgements on the actions of the past may not fully comprehend the context of what it may have been like at the time.

Chris Overland is quite correct in making the point that to judge what went on in the past should be viewed in the context of the past and against other comparable actions.

Would the Kiaps and their rural police detachments have been better served if they had of been covered by the rules of war as they applied to an armed paramilitary force?

The proposal is hypothetical but clearly is outside the usual domain of police recruited from a metropolitan country. Many of these police also didn't spend any time working and talking to the 97% of the then PNG population that lived in rural villages. Many of these village people had only recently been contacted and were often under the traditional rules of engagement as understood in their culture.

History is awash with brutality, mass murder and extermination agendas across the world in every shape and form.

What the 21st century needs to be vigilant against, are the replay of such evils coated with nice sounding words such as drug policy, incarceration, medical experimentation and plain plundering of natural resources in the name of development - decimating people's way of life and livelihood.

Chris is quite right. To put things in perspective between 1824 and 1908 white settlers and native mounted police in Queensland alone killed more than 10,000 Aborigines (Raymond Evans).

Aboriginal people were officially regarded as vermin and sometimes even hunted for sport and were classified under 'flora and fauna' by the Queensland Government.

Yes the colonisation of PNG was remarkably bloodless by colonial standards.

That said, it does not make it right. Is killing 1,000 less bad than killing 10,000?

I am currently editing Mathias Kin's epic 'History of Simbu' in which the collision of traditional indigenous culture with intrusive colonialism is a central feature - KJ

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