PNG MUST SHOW BETTER FACE IN AUSTRALIA

Commentary

By Allan Patience

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, June 27) – On a recent visit to Australia I wanted to see how much Australians know, or care, about Papua New Guinea.

It appears many Australians understand next to nothing about what is happening in PNG. And these days they seem only to care about themselves.

The small minority of Australians with any sympathy for PNG is disillusioned that Australian aid over the years has failed to generate any real development since independence.

Equally, they are appalled at the endemic corruption dogging the PNG political system. And they are dismayed by the failure of the Enhanced Co-operation Program which they hoped would mark the start of a new and positive PNG-Australia relationship.

Most Australian media accounts of PNG are unflattering. Honourable exceptions to this are to be found in the excellent reporting of journalists like the ABC’s Graeme Dobell and Shane McLeod (regrettably, the latter recently left PNG for Tokyo), and the Australian Financial Review’s Rowan Callick.

Apart from several experts at the Australian National University, very few Australians are conscious of the historical debt owed by Australia to PNG, or of the huge governance challenges it now faces as the 30th anniversary of independence approaches.

Realists would be scornful of the suggestion that any state in international politics is capable of generosity. Nonetheless, Australia has occasionally demonstrated a real generosity towards foreigners in need.

Early this year, it led the world in providing aid for the victims of the Asian tsunami.

Following the slaughter of student dissidents by the Chinese military in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square, in 1989, Australia provided sanctuary to several thousand young Chinese, allowing them to settle permanently.

In the late 1970s, Australia opened its arms to Vietnamese boat people — refugees fleeing from what remains one of the most oppressive tyrannies in South-east Asia. After World War II, Australia welcomed thousands of European refugees, thus laying the foundation of contemporary Australia’s multicultural society — arguably the greatest achievement of Australia as a nation.

But there are ominous signs emerging that Australian’s capacity for generosity is starting to shrivel and die. A compassion drought is setting in, right across Australia.

In the two most recent general elections, a large majority of Australians endorsed government policy that resulted in the detention of thousands of women, men and children in grim detention centres (in effect they are prisons).

During the 2001 election, Australians wilfully believed the Prime Minister’s assertion that asylum-seeking boat people were throwing their children overboard.

This was later shown to be a false — as senior officials well knew at the time.

In that same year, Australians turned their backs on another group of boat people when their leaky old ship began to sink. More than 300 people (including many children) were drowned in this tragedy that could have been averted if Australia acted quickly enough on the information about ship’s location — that was within a zone where Australia could have saved them.

Recently, a young Chinese diplomat in Australia — Chen Yonglin — appealed for political asylum for himself, his wife and tiny daughter. His pleas have been entangled in a morass of red tape and buck shoving, with government ministers ducking and weaving to avoid getting China’s free-trade talks derailed.

So, given this state of affairs, PNG needs to wake up to the fact that it has a public relations problem on its hands. Australia’s attitude to PNG is crucial for PNG’s immediate future.

Ordinary Australians need to be persuaded that PNG is a good neighbour worthy of wide-ranging support and compassion as it battles to overcome under-development, poverty, ignorance — and the challenges of malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

If ordinary Australians continue to hold prejudiced and silly ideas about PNG, their governments will continue to pursue poor strategies for dealing with this country and with the wider South Pacific region.

What can PNG do about all this?

First, the PNG Government needs radically to upgrade its diplomatic representation in Australia.

For far too long the PNG High Commission in Canberra has been seriously under-resourced. This forces it to play a low-key, ineffectual role in influencing Australian policy towards PNG.

Much more sophisticated public diplomacy is needed to ensure that PNG’s diplomats can keep the PNG case on the public agenda in Australia in a lively, intelligent and sustained manner.

This means PNG needs highly educated diplomats capable of fostering a fertile PNG-Australia dialogue. They must not be unqualified cronies or wantoks who are easily fobbed off and ridiculed behind their backs by Australian officials.

Part of PNG’s diplomacy with Australia could involve creating a series of "friend-raising" twinning arrangements between PNG and Australian towns, community and regional organisations — and major public institutions.

This may include local level and provincial governments, public hospitals, schools and universities, community organisations (for example, the PNG National Council of Women and the Australian Women’s Electoral Lobby), national public service departments and the police.

A PNG-Australia Friendship Council could be constituted, with active government support, to nurture twinning arrangements and to encourage a more sympathetic view of PNG among ordinary Australians.

In addition to setting-up twinning arrangements, the council could fight for young Papua New Guineans to be given short-term working visas to go to Australia for seasonal work opportunities.

These kinds of activities could be depicted as an ECP with a human face. Rather than being simply a law-and-order and narrow governance operation, a workable ECP-style program has to be community-focused and community-friendly, reaching the grassroots.

Second, PNG authorities have to be far more welcoming of Australian journalists, encouraging them to come to PNG to report accurately and sympathetically about what this country needs in order to help real development — and to show how Australia can practically address those needs.

At present, good Australian journalists have enormous difficulties in obtaining visas for PNG. This adds to the prejudice in Australia that PNG authorities are hiding the truth.

They need reminding that an open and free media is one of the central pillars of a democracy.

For example, PNG politicians and officials should be putting a very clear case to the Australian media about why Australian assistance is necessary and how it can be effectively used to make real development happen.

This would counter the disastrous assertion that PNG doesn’t need outside help. That kind of doctrine belongs to a leadership of wreckers.

The last thing PNG needs is leaders who are wreckers. It needs leaders who are nation builders.

Wise leaders also need to show why PNG’s sovereignty and independence should be honoured by the Australian Government, as the basic condition for forging a solid and productive relationship between the two countries.

There are people in Australia arguing that PNG is not worth the aid and the related efforts Australia has been providing since Independence. They think the money can be better spent on beefing up Australia’s security along its northern coasts. They are starting to be listened to.

PNG cannot afford to let this happen. It has to show that this point of view is based on prejudice and ignorance.

More imaginative and active diplomatic measures, plus an open media policy in PNG, are the way to go.

Allan Patience is Professor of Political Science at UPNG and Victoria University, Melbourne.

June 28, 2005

Papua New Guinea Post-Courier: www.postcourier.com.pg/

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