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PNG could be paradise

By Craig Minns - posted Friday, 2 August 2013

The island of New Guinea, where I grew up, is one of the most beautiful places in the world and yet it has become home to disease, poverty and social dysfunction as great as almost anywhere else in the world. It's not in any way evenly distributed, though, with a fair rule being that dysfunction is proportional to the size of the population centre. This is largely because people are cast adrift without the tribal/clan bonds that give them security and they often react poorly. Their culture is built around being part of their tribe and alone they drift into bad behaviours. They have no social supports because of the poverty and corruption that their leaders have created for them.

The eastern half of the island (Papua New Guinea) supports a population of somewhere around 8 million people, most of whom live in very primitive conditions, but some of whom live in western-style luxury. The resettled people will have conditions somewhere in between and the opportunity to improve them if they wish to. These are people with a lot of drive – they have already taken steps that are unimaginably huge and risky. The population of the place is mostly poorly educated, while the resettled population is much more literate. In comparison to the local population they are an elite, whereas they are an underclass in Australia. Their religion/ethnicity is not a problem, since PNG already contains many hundreds of ethnicities and religious doctrines. They will bring some religious commonality with the Muslim populations of Irian Jaya and the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, which may help to ease some friction.

PNG is very poor, despite resources, because there is little money available to develop them and not enough skilled people to do so. Hiring expatriates is very expensive and creates a huge gap between the workers and the managers which causes a lot of friction. If some of the resettled people find their feet there they will have a great deal to contribute, including both their skills and their contacts in wealthier parts of the world. They have the opportunity to become a skilled/professional middle class and raise the standard of living for the whole country, which suffered very badly when the rush to Independence saw skilled jobs being "nationalised" with no nationals available to do them. That was a stupidly disastrous policy from stupid, weak politicians informed by bureaucrats who saw PNG as an undesirable posting and unmanageable because of the cultural gap and the geography. They jumped at the chance to divest Australia of its role as Protector of the Territory through pandering to the self-serving nationalist would-be politicians who have managed it so poorly. Mr Haigh may have been one of them?


As a result of that, there was a huge exodus of skilled expats including my own family and the country was left in the hands of people both ill-equipped and under-resourced. On a personal note I felt significantly disenfranchised of my personal heritage when Independence happened. I was 16 and I wasn't an Australian, I was a New Guinean, but I wasn't wanted in my country. Very many people of good will felt similarly.

If this issue is properly managed, the people who are resettled in PNG can forge a similarly strong relationship with the place. What will have to be watched for is the fostering of a phobic response by some of the incumbents who feel threatened by a new "tribe" moving into what they perceive as their happy hunting ground of Australian aid money, but this is fairly straight-forward diplomacy. This is all going to take time, but over the course of the next generation or two there will arise a lot of immigrants who feel just as attached to the place as I did and they won't have parents in Australia to draw them away. Over time, a strong PNG with a good economy and a strong political/social culture can only be good for Australia. This may just be the best and cheapest way to achieve it.

On the issue of "feeling good":-

I say "pfft". Who cares how the Australian middle-class "progressives" feel about themselves? They are among the most privileged people in the world. The people who are most affected are the asylum-seekers and the people of PNG and they will undoubtedly both benefit in the longer term. Undoubtedly there will be some problems, but in the 34 years since Independence (nearly 3 generations in PNG, where breeding starts young) there have been nothing but problems.

This plan deserves a chance and it deserves to be properly resourced, but not through the corrupt local institutions. Funding should be made available in the form of development grants to assist in the creation of proper jobs for people of all of PNG's diverse populations and it must be managed directly by Australians on the ground, backed up by a strong PNG police service. As the kiaps (patrol officers/district commissioners) used to do, the" wantok" system has to be removed as a distributive model.

There is abundant water; enormous hydroelectric potential; huge mineral and energy resources; smart, capable, very tough people. Yes, there are problems thanks to the years of neglect, but those can be overcome. The focus on problems that Mr Haigh has employed is neither constructive nor informative and his concerns about the feelings of his fellow-travellers in the Australian privileged classes are simply risible.


Let's give them a hand, instead of sulking about "feeling good".

Being good is so much better.

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About the Author

Craig is a man. He lives in Brisbane. He loves his children. And his dog, except when he raids the bin.

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