Historic truth

the embarrassed colonialistReview by Suzanne Yanko

Book | The embarrassed colonialist | Sean Dorney

Sean Dorney is an Australian journalist who has probably been the most trusted voice on Papua New Guinea affairs since he arrived in Moresby as a rookie ABC reporter in the early 70s. His thesis in this slim volume is simply that Australia needs to be more aware and involved in what is happening in PNG, our former Trust Territory. History, relationships of all kinds and financial ties all make this essential.

But, Dorney asserts, this isn’t happening. Instead, Australia is “the embarrassed colonist” of the title. This reluctance to be involved with PNG, or even to take a detached look at our past relationship with that country, does neither country any good and needs to be reassessed as well as understood, the writer argues.

That Australia has always found PNG ‘difficult’ to understand and manage is hardly surprising.

PNG is a country of more than 800 languages and near impenetrable terrain. It has a complex history of its own, even before European countries – notably Britain and Germany – became involved. PNG brought many cultures and practices to the political table, some of them in direct contradiction of the Westminster system of government that Australia aimed to make the bedrock of an independent PNG.

After Gough Whitlam won power in December 1972, PNG became self-governing at the end of 1973 and independent in September 1975. In the intervening years (when Dorney first arrived) the Constitution was framed and translated into Pidgin. Trainee patrol officers from the Administrative College (Adcol) were charged with getting the message out to villages near and far. They generally found little appetite for the changes ahead.

There was a real concern that Australia, its experts and its wealth, would withdraw and leave the country to its fate. This sentiment was articulated by Michael Somare, leader of the Pangu Party and the country’s first Chief Minister. “Australia did not put in enough effort to prepare us,” he said.

In modern times, as PNG has had the pressure of its own troubles – Bougainville, the appalling law and order situation in Port Moresby, and a sensationalist press observing all this with disapproval from a distance – it is clear that Dorney has a case to make. This he does with fairness, and a deep concern for the relationship between the two countries, which goes beyond his profession. He represented PNG in its national rugby league team, the Kumuls, and is married to a Manus Islander, with two now-grown children.

Dorney has a journalist’s gift for choosing pithy quotes on his subject. The former Australian High Commissioner in PNG, Ian Kemish, believes it is “a responsibility for all of us to think about and talk about what is happening in Papua New Guinea.’’

Ken Burton, the former mayor of Cairns who was born in PNG and headed up the PNG tourism office for four years, believes PNG is “a very rich country. It has wonderful resources, wonderful people, we’ve got the best waters, we’ve got the best fishing with the best reefs … I can say unequivocally this is the most resource-rich, gorgeous tourism destination in the world.”

Much of the publicity however has been negative. A staffer from the Melbourne Herald told Dorney: “The sub editors want ‘raskols’, plane crashes and tribal fights! And that’s what I’m giving them’’. Admittedly, this was in the 1980s but things have hardly improved.

More recently, the news editor of the PNG Post-Courier “cannot understand why the Australian media has so little interest in a country that gets more than half a billion dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money, where Australian investments total $19 billion and two-way trade is worth $7 billion.”

The Australian government, obsessed with “border control” and “the refugee problem” has reason to be thankful to PNG for providing an offshore detention centre (conspicuous failure as Manus may be), but also for regularly reporting the movements of ‘illegal’ boats in the area. One of Dorney’s suggestions about “what’s to be done” is to increase the capacity of PNG officials, and support plans to strengthen governance, attract academics back to the country and so on.

In this PNG needs (and has) the support of the Australian government with a strong ally in Julie Bishop. Dorney spends some time detailing the Foreign Minister’s connection with PNG, which stems from a childhood interest, and to this day remains quite personal.

I can vouch for this long-lasting effect of time spent in PNG, a deep affection for the country and its people and despair at the negativity of news reports in the mainstream press. In 1974, when Dorney was settling into his first job at the National Broadcasting Commission  – previously the ABC – I was occasionally in another part of the building recording ‘learning English’ programs for primary schools, teaching those young kiaps previously mentioned, and other national field officers at Adcol, as part of the massive program of localisation before independence.

I mention this because I agree with Dorney when he talks of people who “are absolutely committed to the country”. He singles out “truly dedicated Australians working for the major Christian churches and doing remarkable work in health and education… Australian Volunteers International and number of NGOs, such as the Kokoda Track Foundation, which has built a teachers’ college in the area.”

Dorney’s message is clear. There is work to be done and stories to be told but there is plenty of hope for PNG. It’s time that Australia lost its own embarrassment about its colonial past and gave its all to a collaborative present. The groundwork is done… we just need to get on with it.

Suzanne Yanko taught and worked in radio in PNG from 1971 to 1976 and now belongs to the group Friends of the United Churches of PNG and of the Solomon Islands. It started in the 1980s and is a fellowship of people who have worked in PNG and/or SI. Friends meets three times a year on a Saturday afternoon and the average attendance is 30. For more information contact Don Cracknell, mail to:d.cracknell@iinet.net.au

Available at: penguin.com.au  RRP:$9.99

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