Taking Care of the Colonies


John Howard should make some attempt to explain precisely what he means by ‘an inherently unstable situation in Papua New Guinea.’

Instability in a country is normally associated with the approaching collapse of the everyday processes of government. Other crucial signs are often a plummeting currency as measured against other currencies, a mass exodus of investors and their capital, galloping inflation and a rapidly increasing level of international debt, and major ethnic or religious uprisings against the government of the day.

None of these is apparent in PNG.

Nobody denies that PNG has problems. It would be miraculous if this nation had somehow managed to escape political controversy, economic distress and social disruption in its progress towards a stable future.


And while we are conscious of the shortcomings of successive PNG governments in the past 15 or 20 years, we are also aware of a new and aggressive Australia, one that continues to move steadily away from its former image as a friendly and approachable fellow traveller along the growth and development path.

Our longstanding sense of brotherhood with Australians, one which an earlier generation from that country earned and nurtured, is fast evaporating.

Today’s Australia is increasingly a slick aspirant to first world status, a nation of career-driven people with scant sympathy for the newly emerging South Pacific. Most would be content if the people of this region simply shut up, accepted the largesse of the Australian Government, followed the charted course Australia had determined for PNG and her neighbours, and as far as possible remained, like some Victorian-era child, ‘seen and not heard.’

Howard insists that PNG’s situation is ‘inherently’ unstable. It is tempting to attribute that inheritance to our colonial past, but perhaps that would be unfair. The Australian leader’s comments came as part of the justification for his Government’s decision to increase the Australian Army by 2600 men and women and embark on a massive expenditure exercise.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Howard would have his people believe that this is primarily a response to the fractious nations of the South Pacific, who stubbornly pursue their own course rather than meekly follow the Australian blueprint for their area. Never mind the recently announced increased commitment to Afghanistan. Forget the sad and sorry debacle in Iraq. Ignore the highly unstable mess in East Timor.

Discount all those hot spots around the world, where the Australian Government may in future seek added brownie points for supporting its US and British allies.

Howard came far nearer the truth when he acknowledged, with a degree of smugness, that Australia was increasingly seen as the responsible nation within this region. In the good old days that would have been said a tad more bluntly the South Pacific would have been labelled ‘Australia’s sphere of influence.’ That’s not far removed from accepting the surrogate role of South Pacific policeman, a sort of pale imitation of George W Bush’s image of his country’s global role.

Given the flood of monitoring of PNG affairs that washes daily across his Canberra desk, one might expect Howard to create a more accurate picture of PNG and its people. The ‘official PNG of the Australian Government and bureaucracy is a terrifying land peopled by ignorant and warlike people. Repeated travel warnings give a bleak and disgracefully exaggerated picture of the social problems faced by this country.

The result is that most Australians see PNG as a dangerous and barbaric place to be avoided at all costs. Has Howard ever thought of addressing that image in an effort to create some balance in the minds of his electors?

Does he not see that his clear implication that PNG may soon ‘require’ Australian military intervention would bolster and further expand the already wildly inaccurate picture Australians had formed of this country?

A relationship in which the wealthier party gives continuing aid with the one hand, while ensuring that the recipient’s reputation and image becomes ever more blackened with the other, seems to us a strange relationship indeed.

This article first appeared in The National on 28 August.

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.