The Australian discussion of Papua New Guinea is often shaped by those who have forgotten too much history and those who can't move on from their version of history. The amnesiacs play the kiaps, but the discussion is Australia-centric.

The amnesiacs (and Canberra has its share) speak of PNG's problems in mixed tones of mystification and exasperation. This perspective assumes Australia's role is that of a benevolent, neutral outsider — almost a new arrival on the scene — doing its best to help clean up the mess.

Puzzlement seems to be the response to the idea that Australia might have had some role in the origins of the mess.

The kiap position knows much more of Australia's history and remembers it in golden hues. In this view, PNG has gone to hell since Australia departed its colonial duties in 1975. Everything would have been much better if we had stayed another couple of decades.

Perhaps, the kiaps muse, a graceful exit from a grateful PNG in the 1990s would have been best. The 'we should have stayed longer' argument ignores the expectations that had started to stir in PNG, the changes that had already happened in Australia, and an international mood that saw the habits of colonialism as already finished business.

I've had various versions of the above positions sent to me, in response to two columns touting good news about PNG and the state of PNG law and politics. One of my wise owls (utterances always to be respected) wrote to say he was greatly worried by the compliment I paid to PNG politics in describing its parliamentary democracy as 'robust, raucous and in rude health'. Note, the claim was robust not exemplary, but certainly functioning.

My wise owl's concern is that the resource bonanza is taking PNG politics toward the problems Paul Collier encapsulates in his phrase 'survival of the fattest' — 'big men' subverting democracy to grab the riches.

The ever-reliable Rowan Callick has also noted how Melanesia's lively democracies are threatened by the appetites of the big men eager to feast on the new resource riches.

PNG has many problems and one perennial is that it lives right next door to Australia. That geography links to a lot of history which flavours the way Port Moresby views advice or urgings from Canberra.

I've seldom seen that mutual history better expressed in a Canberra document, than in this frank opening to a report on PNG published by Federal Parliament's Foreign Affairs committee 20 years ago:

'Australia's relationship with Papua New Guinea is governed by the fact that we obtained it as a colony in a burst of strategic nervousness just as we ourselves were seeking decolonisation. We were, therefore, diffident colonisers who governed with casual practicality and who departed with alacrity and too little care. The strategic concern which motivated the acquisition of the colony in 1883 remains a constant factor in the relationship, coming as it does from our geographic proximity. A lingering sense of responsibility, bred of our rapid departure, governs our commitment of aid'.

Australia's strategic interests in the neighbourhood have hardly changed. And if the lingering sense of responsibility has faded further, it should still tug because of what Australia failed to do, as well as what it achieved. The key point is that Australia did a good job of administering PNG, but almost completely neglected to do much to prepare for independence.

As evidence of this administrative mindset, look no further than the bizarre debate in Canberra through the late 1960s about whether PNG should become Australia's seventh state. Statehood for PNG in the Australian federation was one option in a submission to cabinet in 1966. In 1968, the Minister for External Territories, Charles Barnes, was still referring to the 'seventh state' idea as a convenient way to describe close association, if not total integration into Australia.

The strange discussion was finally ended in 1969, when Prime Minister John Gorton announced that Australia saw PNG's future as that of 'an independent self-governing state in its own right'. So, six years before independence, Canberra finally lifted its eyes from the administrative task to confront an international reality it had long ignored.

The habits and blind spots of the Australian administration are worth considering. Ron Crocombe, who lived in PNG from 1962-68 as director of the New Guinea Research Unit, argues Australia has too easily forgotten the limitations of its own policies and practices in creating PNG. Two of his anecdotes tell something of the atmosphere.

One is of being on a flight from Port Moresby to Brisbane in 1964, where white passengers got a meal, but a Papua New Guinean was refused food. A protest to Qantas management revealed the Qantas policy was not to 'feed natives', acting on the advice of Australian officials who 'understood them'.

In 1966, a member of the Legislative Assembly, John Guise (later PNG's first Governor-General) was invited to go overseas on a study tour. Like all Papua New Guineans wanting to leave the country, he had to fill in a form entitled 'Application for Permission to Remove a Native'. Crocombe writes that the content of the form was as bad as the title: 'Guise was offended and humiliated by it, but was used to constant humiliation of all Papua New Guineans, not only by officials personally but by the system as a matter of policy'.

Photo by Flickr user kabl1992.