NOOSA – I had a pleasant enough visit to Papua New Guinea these past 10 days, although mobility-limiting spinal problems and my old chronic fatigue companion severely restricted adventuring, including having to bail out of a much anticipated return to Rabaul.
Still, I did manage two important activities – a presentation to Abt PNG governance professionals at the invitation of director Dr David Kavanamur and meetings with PNG Attitude friends I had previously encountered only in these columns – although not as many as I would have liked.
The governance facility is a relatively new Australian aid program to support the PNG government in strengthening its institutions and processes, especially those that contribute to security, stability and economic growth.
You’ll find my talk here, which focuses on the PNG-Australia relationship in which the governance facility has great interest as it works at the formidable task of creating ethical and capable public sector leaders.
In the presentation, I issued a challenge for our two countries to work towards a true partnership, and I set out criteria by which progress towards that might be measured.
‘Partnership’ is a much-used word in PNG-Australia relations but it is an area of considerable under-achievement for both nations. Indeed at present it is hard to discern anything approaching true partnership, as my presentation pointed out.
One of the many issues canvassed with me during my visit concerned how the people of both countries could build a better relationship from the grassroots up.
This issue resonated with me because it was a matter I sought to address some years back in my brief term as president of the PNG Association of Australia.
My belief was that if we could institute a structured exchange of Papua New Guinean and Australian journalists, who would be released by their news organisations for two or three months at a time, the foundations could be laid for a more understanding and better informed media coverage of PNG and Australian affairs in both countries, while also establishing a solid basis for continuing individual relationships.
So I obtained a meeting with Australia’s then Pacific parliamentary secretary Richard Marles (now shadow defence minister) and proposed that part of the government’s PNG program should be organised exchanges between PNG and Australian journalists to build skills, knowledge and greater mutual understanding.
He seemed enthusiastic at the time but, despite it being such an obvious and straightforward proposal, nothing happened.
It was clear that neither country wanted it. They didn’t want to encourage journalists snooping around issues affecting both countries if they could possibly avoid it.
One of the results of this is that – with the possible exceptions of killings, disasters and rugby league – the media and public in both countries are not getting the information that would provide them with any sense of a strong, inclusive relationship and with the fact that our two peoples – despite superficial differences – share much history in common.
From time to time I idly reflect on what it might take to develop a media agency or clearing house with a foot in both countries.
It’s far from an unworkable idea in a practical sense but there would be no change from a million dollars a year to establish and maintain it, an amount clearly beyond the reach of minnows like us or anyone I know outside of government and corporate business.
In such circumstances of unconcealed caution, entrenched political conservatism and unwillingness to understand that partnership requires both candour and open-mindedness, a true partnership – as differentiated for rhetorical one – is going to be impossible to achieve.
Still, despite illness and feelings of slight frustration, I enjoyed my time in Papua New Guinea. I always do.