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The PNG gravy train

Bobby Guwik was right, and he warned me

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

The DFAT website Smart Traveller has the following advice for women who wish to travel to Papua New Guinea: ‘You should also try to sit in train compartments with other women. Avoid travelling in a train carriage where you are the only passenger’.

This might be sound advice in some parts of the world but someone should tell DFAT that there are no passenger trains in PNG and therefore the possibility of sitting in a train compartment, with or without other women, is zero.

Advice this stupid tends to create some doubt about the reliability of the Smart Traveller information but it does remind us that, as a nation, we pay almost no attention to that beautiful country.

The lack of interest in PNG is widespread. John Howard, who is generally well informed, in his autobiography, Lazarus Rising, hardly mentions PNG but devotes over 20 pages to Indonesia which he incorrectly refers to as ‘our nearest neighbour’. In fact, the average strong ocean swimmer could easily swim from the northernmost point of Australia, Boigu Island, to PNG. It is a distance of only five kilometres.

Even Wikipedia, in its section on ‘Australia-Papua New Guinea relations’ incorrectly refers to the Manus Island detention centre as empty since 2007 and plaintively asks for someone to update the entry.

In 1974 I was having a farewell beer with my houseboy, Bobby Guwik, on the verandah of my donga overlooking Port Moresby Harbour. After 6 years there, like most expatriates, I was leaving as independence approached and the law and order situation deteriorated. One by one Bobby’s other employers were also leaving. I unconvincingly parroted the government’s mantra that PNG had bright prospects and that the indigenous population was ready to assume responsibility for its own future. Without hesitation Bobby replied: ‘Nogat. Long taim ol masta em I go pinis clostu behain, olgetta samting em I baggarup.’ (Not so. When all the white men leave, shortly afterwards everything will be buggered).

PNG attained its independence one year later. It was quite an event with Gough Whitlam, Sir  John Kerr and Prince Charles all in attendance. Everyone made feel-good speeches noting that it was an historic occasion and that the future for PNG looked bright. Bobby’s gloomy prediction was spot on and in the four decades since independence, PNG has avoided becoming a failed state only because of the billions of your dollars that have been spent propping it up.

The standard of basic government services of education, health and law and order have all deteriorated. Diseases which were either wiped out or under control are all making a comeback. The police are unable to control the criminal gangs that make it impossible for people to walk around at night and, even in the daytime, in the major cities, it is unsafe for white women to walk around unaccompanied. Therefore it is not unreasonable to ask why an illiterate middle aged ‘houseboy’ was able to more accurately predict his country’s future than the leading politicians of the day and the overseas experts who were responsible for the birth of the new nation? Why did it all go so wrong?  As a taxpayer you might also be wondering if the $550 million dollars that Australia will give PNG this year cannot be spent more wisely.

None of these issues will be addressed at the Apec meeting currently underway in Port Moresby. Instead, those attending will mouth the same sort of platitudes that Gough et al used in 1975 and avoid asking why, two generations after independence, despite possessing an abundance of natural resources, PNG still cannot stand on its own without massive assistance from Australia?

There are no simple answers. Foisting a Westminster-style system onto a subsistence economy where the four million people spoke over seven hundred languages was never going to work well. The population is now eight million and still increasing and it is hard to see how things can improve without a bit more honesty from political leaders within and without the country. PNG is a stunningly beautiful country and it should be the Hawaii of the Western Pacific. The lack of infrastructure and the inability to control crime in the urban centres mean that will not happen. The Bougainville copper mine holds some of the largest copper deposits in the world and should have brought prosperity to the country. Instead, separatists fighting for a bigger share of the royalties started a war which resulted in the deaths of 20,000. The mine is still closed and attempts to reopen it founder because of the inability of the competing parties to agree on an equitable division of the employment opportunities and revenue which would follow the reopening.

If the PNG Government adopted the Chinese method of social control by locking up anyone who annoyed them, it would make for easier economic development. In the time that China has lifted 700 million people out of poverty, PNG has delivered an additional 4 million into poverty. So one can argue that there are lessons to be learned from the Chinese economic model. If a totalitarian and authoritarian political structure combined with an unrestrained capitalist economic system worked in China and is working in Vietnam, why can’t it work in PNG? Of course such heretical speculation will never be entertained by attendees at the Apec shindig. Instead, we will be told about the achievements to date and the great potential for future economic development for PNG and the other island states of Melanesia and Polynesia.

Given the low life expectancy of PNG citizens, Bobby is almost certainly buried in his village on the slopes of Mount Lamington. But if we were ever to meet again he would be entitled to say ‘Lukim. Olgetta samting mi tokim yu before, em I kamap’ (Look. Everything I said to you previously has occurred).

The annual population increase of PNG is 2.07 per cent and, one generation from now, there will be another 4 million people to support. Without massive changes to the way the country is governed and policed, and without massive economic development, the billions in economic aid that Australia will have to pay in the near future will be wasted.

Papua New Guinea cannot, in its present shape, produce enough food to sustain a population of 12 million people.  London to a brick – this topic will hardly be mentioned by the Apec delegates.

Tony Letford won the 2015 Spectator Thawley Essay Prize. For this year’s $5,000 Essay competition theme go to:

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