TUMBY BAY - As a colonial power Australia was in the unique position of being able to set the agenda for Papua New Guinea’s future.
Systems and institutions that Australia established prior to independence were, whether consciously or not, designed for the long haul and were expected to persist well into the future.
One of these systems was the parliamentary process that prevails today.
If you look back at these developments two things become plain. The first is the heavy hand of Canberra and the second is the outside manipulation or absence of Papua New Guinean input.
In the first case, the decision makers in Canberra, and to a lesser extent in Port Moresby, consistently ignored the advice of those administrators on the ground in PNG.
This is no more apparent than in the wilful ignoring of input from the kiaps and other country-based personnel. Elsewhere I have described one instance where issues of law and order were arbitrarily taken from the kiaps and handed over to a poorly prepared police force.
In the second case, it is apparent that the nascent political leaders of Papua New Guinea were heavily influenced and generally compliant with advice from a range of sources, including Australian politicians, interfering Australian academics at the University of Papua New Guinea and the Australian National University, and various sources mostly emanating from the United Nations.
Given this decidedly heavy influence, it is strange that the road to independence was so peaceful. The potential was there for dissidence but, despite a few small pockets in the Gazelle Peninsula on New Britain and Bougainville, no national movement ever developed.
The Pangu Pati was portrayed in the press as a hotbed of radicals but an examination of its activities puts the lie to that claim, convenient as it was at the time to certain anti-independence groups.
Pangu earned its reputation essentially through media beat-ups and the activities of the aforementioned academics from the UPNG and ANU who were advising it. At the end of the day Pangu can be characterised as a pretty tame outfit.
While at the time often violent dissidence was a feature of many political movements advocating the end of colonialism in many countries, this was not the case in PNG.
One of the main reasons for this was that the systems and institutions set up by Australia were convenient to the new Papua New Guinean elite, especially its politicians. These systems and institutions were, among other things, imminently exploitable by the shrewd.
This is probably the main reason why there were no radical changes made to PNG’s governance after independence.
And, as inevitably happens, anything exploitable becomes corruptible and this is exactly what happened in Papua New Guinea.
The current crop of politicians have absolutely no interest in changing a system of governance that rewards them so extravagantly.
That the current government is rapidly moving towards a corrupt autocracy more suited to the poverty stricken regions of Africa is therefore a logical outcome.
So who should we blame for Papua New Guinea’s parlous state?
Is it the Australians who set up a system bound to fail because of their arrogance and ignorance or is it the fault of a long line of predatory local politicians?
The obvious answer is that it is a combination of the two. It is a classic case of something being set up to fail. Unfortunately that something was a whole nation.
Can it be fixed?
Of course it can be fixed. All it will take is a radical overhaul of the system of governance – something that should have taken place after 1975.
Will it be fixed?
Now that’s a completely different question.