Ask almost any Australian what they think of Papua New Guinea, and the stereotyped response goes something like: “Most dangerous place in the world.” or “You’d have to be brave to go there.”
Who can blame anybody for such jaundiced views? The Australian public is merely reflecting a sensationalised media image of PNG as a murderous, lawless, corrupt state on the verge of meltdown. An August ABC Four Corners feature “Sick No Good” did much to cement that view in the public mind.
Let’s make one thing clear. Without question, PNG is afflicted with enormous development problems, among them, and featured on the ABC program, is the alarming spread of HIV-AIDS. Add to that a level of political corruption, uncontrolled exploitation of its resources by foreign multinationals and many other problems experienced by developing nations everywhere. These problems should not be censured.
Australian media stands accused, not of telling the truth about PNG, but of telling only a small fraction of the truth: the bits that titillate; the bits that feed our overbearing sense of cultural superiority; the bits that spare the Australian nation the knowledge of its own role in exacerbating, if not causing, many of Papua New Guinea’s development woes.
Now … to put this tarnished image-making into perspective, imagine for a moment that media from a dominant foreign power, say Japan, came to Australia and reported on our nation to the world. And imagine if that reporting (done without sensitivity) honed in on the “stolen generation”, the mindless ways we have destroyed our soils and river systems, the drug culture among youth in our cities. And imagine if this was the total image of our nation, projected to the entire world And there was no way of redressing or balancing such a jaundiced, distorted image.
Having spent a total of four delightful years in Papua New Guinea (spread over 35 years) I have searched for the essence of that country’s culture. In doing so it eventually dawned on me how low self esteem can affect a whole nation. This tiny nation - squeezed into a tight corner by economic globalisation, depicted unfairly as a “failed state”, pack raped for its resources - carries all the hallmarks of a person suffering from low self-esteem.
We know all about how damaging low self-esteem can be for the individual. Transpose the phenomenon of low self-esteem from the individual to an entire nation and the symptoms stay precisely the same - particularly that of self-destructiveness. Likewise the remedies. Kicking our former, struggling colony in the guts is not a recommended treatment.
PNG is nothing like the media hype suggests. Yes, the country has enormous development problems, but 95 per cent of Papua New Guineans live simple, quiet village lives, tending their gardens, looking after their young and old, trying to straddle their rich cultures with growing modernity. In many ways they are far more reflective of, and honest about, their own problems than Australians are of theirs. Unlike Australia, they own their own problems. They don’t exploit other nations. They are not at war with anyone.
For the most part PNG culture exhibits many fine attributes that our modern nation has lost. In terms of sustainability, PNG stands heads and shoulders above Australia, for instance. This is not to put Australia down, just a plea to understand our former colony, not as an errant teenager run amok, but as a young nation that deserves the dignity of our respect as equals.
To help mend the hurt felt by PNG people for their media-tarnished image, I spent many hours talking with village groups, comparing the pluses and minuses of Australia-versus-PNG cultures, and of the colonial relationship that tie the two together.
Not least I spent many hours apologising for our nation’s folly in rushing the independence of PNG 30 years ago. Few Australians are aware that the undue haste with which we withdrew in 1976 left PNG without the infrastructure, the national leadership and the administrative capacity necessary for a smooth transition to independence. In short, they never had a chance.
This fateful piece of history needs to be openly owned and admitted. It should be brought right to the very centre of the contemporary debates about PNG, its governance failures and its future.
As a colonial parent, Australia performed better than most colonial powers. Our relationship with PNG was, in the main, a fairly benevolent one - albeit overshadowed throughout by an air of cultural superiority. PNG people are keenly aware that Australia’s role has not been an entirely altruistic or beneficent one, yet, in the eyes of our former dependents, we are mostly seen appreciatively as a sort of kindly uncle.
We can carry that history with some pride, but this should not blind us to the mistakes that we made, or our obligation to own those mistakes and make up for them. Our media has a responsibility to openly report on our nearest neighbour with fairness and justice. It is not good enough to just pick out a juicy story and run with it.
In the light of serious problems grappling our own nation, our overbearing sense of cultural superiority in the Pacific is badly misplaced. We have a lot to learn.