PORT MORESBY - Last year in Goroka I attended a party at a hotel. Although hundreds of kilometres from the sea and high in the clouds of the Papua New Guinea highlands, it was a Pasifika themed party.
Luckily I had taken along my sulu on that work trip and so, wearing my sulu and a bula shirt, I was pretty much 100% Pasifika for the night.
(It also turned out I was the only Pasifika-dressed party goer, so by default won the prize that was on offer.)
My Goroka experience provided a glimpse into how PNG wants to be Pasifika but doesn’t behave as such. Not just in fashion, of course, but in terms of common values and more importantly the customs (kastom) that define this region and its people.
My first observation of why I think PNG is not a Pasifika nation is that of how we perceive our physical environment.
One really gets a sense of Pasifika as the ‘liquid continent’ when taking off from Honiara, Nadi or Nuku'alofa and noting how tiny are the islands and how vast the ocean. From Port Moresby, you can look to the horizon and see land stretching to the peaks of the highlands.
This is an important contrast because it gives Pasifika people a sense of their place in the world. Do we Papua New Guineans see ourselves as people of that liquid continent of which wrote Tongan-Fijian writer and anthropologist ‘Epeli Hau'ofa?
In the current context of regional integration, do we see ourselves as part of the Pacific Islands Forum's agenda as people of the Blue Continent with a Blue Economy. Is PNG's economic future on land or in the ocean like other Pasifika nations?
Questions about a shared Pasifika future are important because, while some policy thinkers at the regional and national level may think so, my view is that PNG doesn't share this common future with its Pasifika neighbours.
The first and most important reason I say PNG is not Pasifika is that it needs to and wants to industrialise to take care of its eight million people.
Indeed we are already extracting large quantities of carbon (oil and gas) from the ground selling it to the world. And we have coal which we might soon be exploiting.
Harsh as these words read, whilst we will feel negative consequences of climate change, these may not erase our nation from the surface of the earth like they might other Pasifika states.
So while industrialisation means increased carbon emissions and contributing to global warming and climate change, perhaps we can afford to do this because much of our land mass is 1,000 meters above the sea.
PNG is also not Pasifika because of the nature of the relationship the State has with Society which is different from other Pasifika countries. Regional integration is easier if nation states have shared values and principles of governance.
The relationship between State and Society in PNG is one I would describe as Paternalistic whereas Pasifika states tend to be more Maternalistic.
In PNG the economic relationship between State and Society is a predatory relationship. Waigani's predatory elite exploits the land and resources of the people, apparently in the national interest.
In terms of the provision of public goods and services, State tends to throw out its people to fend for themselves and be exploited without social safeguards or even access to justice.
Pasifika governments tend to take better care of their people and protect their interests.
There are other perhaps more controversial areas of contrast like culture, sovereignty, decolonisation, demilitarisation and West Papua but I won't delve there for now.
My view is that PNG has a very different development trajectory to that of other Pacific Island nations.
It won’t be easy to chuck PNG out of the regional space due to historical and geographical reasons but I believe PNG's place in the Pacific is similar to that of Australia and New Zealand.
We are a friend but we are not a member of the Pasifika family of nations.