Thirty Years On


On 15 September 1975 the Australian flag was lowered for the last time in Papua New Guinea. It was a momentous occasion and a historic day for PNG, but thirty years on, the shadow of Australia still looms large in this unique country.

Last week Foreign Minister Alexander Downer jetted to Port Moresby to announce the ‘salvation’ of Australia’s failed Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP) to PNG. The ECP was shelved in May this year, after a condition of legal immunity for Australian police was found to be unconstitutional by the PNG Supreme Court.

The original ECP was to have seen around 260 Aussie police placed predominantly in Port Moresby and along the Highlands Highway, and sixty Australian bureaucrats in key PNG bureaucracies, at a total cost of $1.1 billion. The program was based on a model devised in Canberra, and heavily criticised for its lack of local knowledge and appropriateness – indeed, it was so inappropriate and so rushed in its conception that it didn’t even fit within the country’s constitution. Several local observers were concerned that it failed to address the key problems in PNG, but instead reflected a solution to problems that Canberra deemed needed to be addressed.

Foriegn Ministers Alexander Downer and Sir Rabbie Namaliu

Foreign Ministers Alexander Downer
and Sir Rabbie Namaliu

The ECP Mark II will see thirty Aussie police stationed in PNG as trainers and working on anti-corruption measures with a similar number of bureaucrats – evidently, at substantially less cost. The revised ECP is a much more traditional aid program – training and advising rather than actually doing – and a huge departure from what the Australian Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Treasury envisaged when they designed it.

The original ECP was aimed at addressing the law and order issue in PNG. The revised ECP is focused primarily on corruption, a problem that affects foreign investors perhaps, but will have little direct impact on the 85 per cent of Papua New Guineans who live outside the formal economy.

In Port Moresby on the 24 August, Downer told the PNG “Australia Business Council he was ‘disappointed’ that PNG had not changed its constitution to allow Australian Police operating in PNG immunity from PNG law, but he also seemed to be attempting to temper his paternal leanings.

‘Getting them to encouraging them to we can’t get them to do anything ‘ was one of a number of checks Downer made upon himself at the official press conference and perhaps reflected a growing recognition in government that Australia wants to be involved in developing solutions with our neighbours, rather than for them.

While there is hope on both sides that a meet-in-the-middle approach will produce positive results, there remain key tensions between PNG and Australia, particularly around concepts of appropriate development. This point of conflict has at its nub the differing social organisation of the two countries. Australian social structures are focused around the individual, yet PNG remains a highly collectively focused environment, ruled by chiefs, tribes and wantoks (literally those who speak the same language; ‘one-talk’). Solutions that may be appropriate in the Australian context are often not appropriate in PNG.

The ownership of land provides a good example of this difference. In Australia we have Torrens title whereby individuals can own virtually any tract of available land if they have access to the required capital to purchase or rent it. In PNG, 97 per cent of land remains in customary ownership. This land provides a social security blanket for the 85 per cent of the population who rely on subsistence farming and barter to make ends meet.

In the late 1990s the World Bank attempted to begin to register some of this land with the support of the Australian Government. It was a move that was hotly contested in PNG. Demonstrations resulted and four people died as a consequence, in a heavy-handed crackdown by PNG police. Since then the World Bank has had a much lower profile on the issue, and Australia says that it only wants to ‘foster debate around the subject’ of land titling.

Land in PNG is more than property. It provides livelihoods, reflects spirituality, allows the continuation of cultural practice and provides a living link to the history of the people that live upon it. In economic terms though, if it cannot be rented or sold, then it has no value. This is a key dilemma in the conflict between the solutions provided by Australia and the ones seen as appropriate by many Papua New Guineans.

A private company called Land Equity International has been engaged in many of the land registration programs funded through the Australian aid program. Land Equity International has close connections to the resource giant BHP and evidently close connections with the Australian Government. Now what possible interest could a mineral giant have in making access to land easier? Flag planters for government policy such as the mining industry-funded Centre for Independent Studies have identified the registration of customary land as essential for economic development.

Such relationships between parties with vested interests have raised the ire of certain groups in PNG, and do little to reassure those who are concerned about the real interests of the Australian Government.

The Australia “Papua New Guinea government relationship appears strained, yet both countries seem realistic about the need to work with each other. There is certainly no magic solution to solve the many problems that PNG faces. Solutions will take time and require greater understanding between the two governments and their policy makers. In turn, effective solutions must reflect what Papua New Guineans perceive as being the important issues, and these issues must be addressed in a culturally appropriate manner.

Like much of the Australian aid program in PNG, ECP Mark II offers Australian-developed solutions to what members of the Australian Government view as the country’s major problems. Though it may save some face for Downer, Costello et al who pushed so hard for it, the revised ECP will likely have little positive impact in PNG, as the majority of Australian aid has done to date.

While Australia’s solutions appear to have provided little long-term benefit in PNG, there is a very real concern that they may be having a negative one, by splitting communities, undermining local government autonomy and actively wedging the modern world against the traditional. Such impacts could be much more precarious for PNG than the perceived corruption will ever be.

To commemorate 30 years of PNG Independence AID/WATCH is hosting two speakers from PNG, Annie Kajir from the Environmental Law Centre and Yat Paol from the Bismark Ramu Group to discuss the issues that have emerged in the first 30 years of independence and how to approach the next 30 years. The Land is Life (click here for more details) tour will travel to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.