A Trial Separation: Australia and the Decolonisation of Papua New Guinea


By Donald Denoon Pandanus Books, 2005 Soft cover; 228 pages; AU$45


Review by Leo Scheps

PERTH, Australia (Australian Public Intellectual Network) - "Many people say that independence came too soon; others accept that the timing was about right, and a few insist that it was overdue. However, developments in the past 30 years beg the question: is ‘independence’ the appropriate term for what happened in 1975? (page 5)."

Donald Denoon's highly accessible and authoritative book examines this much debated and still relevant question. Denoon, who was Professor of History at the University of Papua New Guinea in the optimistic 70s sees PNG’s past 30 years not as the coming of age of a restless youth anxious to escape the paternal home, but as a trial separation of two adults whom geography and history had yoked together. As many former ‘items’ discover after seeking freedom and independence from each other, PNG and Australia remain interrelated and inter-dependent in a variety of ways. "Decolonisation is by no means complete and independence is a work in progress. What seemed like a divorce in 1975 is a trial separation, in which the two governments can negotiate a new way of living next to each other (page 197)."

Denoon’s metaphor looks to the future of the relationship as well as its past. To avoid repeating mistakes, it is essential to be clear-eyed about what happened back in the 1970s. "It is more useful to understand the past than to moralise about it (page 197)."

This means steering clear of some of the unfounded pessimism which characterises many recent accounts of PNG independence, and the romantic view of the colonial period which inspired them. For instance, the notion that the country’s crime could be eradicated with the re-introduction of the kiap system is both unrealistic, and incompatible with democracy. Denoon rightly attributes the nation’s relative lawlessness to a failure to properly train a civilian police force, both before and after independence.

Of particular interest to anyone concerned about the development of democracy in former colonial territories is Denoon’s detailed and highly readable account of the negotiations over PNG’s constitution. It reveals that some of the country’s problems: the ambiguous status of Bougainville and the unrepresentative character of many politicians, for instance, date back to this period. Similarly, its constitutional stability, peaceful changes of government, and high degree of civil liberty, can be traced to the same era. On balance, they didn’t do a perfect job, but didn’t do a bad one either.

Denoon’s information is original, balanced and lucidly expressed. This book is sure to become a favourite with scholars and general readers interested in PNG affairs. One can only hope that policy-makers in Canberra read it as well.

Leo Scheps is a Pacific historian who lives in Sydney, Australia.

Copyright API-Network © 2005

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