Sean Dorney is right when he says that Australians should take a stronger interest in Papua New Guinea. Sean is a consistent advocate of this cause. He is one of the leaders of a special Australian ‘tribe’; those who have been touched by PNG, and who will have it in their blood forever. I'm a member myself, having been raised there in the decade before Independence, when my parents’ generation were working to help prepare Papua New Guineans to govern themselves.

This ‘tribe’ constitutes a significant Australian constituency for PNG. It includes the thousands of Australians engaging with the country today; those working on resource projects and in commerce, NGO professionals and volunteers, and others who keep returning for one more project, one more posting. Many visit to try to appreciate their forebears' wartime experience of the country.

Yet PNG is a blind spot for so many other Australians. As Sean says, Australian media interest is superficial, and national literacy about our nearest neighbour is limited. In the absence of real knowledge, negativity often prevails. Salacious reporting about violence and corruption dominate any media coverage, as do stories highlighting the implications of PNG’s problems for ourselves; just look at the portrayal of the tuberculosis challenge on PNG's side of the Torres Strait. By contrast, most Australians would be astonished by how well Papua New Guineans understand us. They know our politics, our popular culture and every player in the Australian National Rugby League. Australia’s aid contribution is understood and appreciated at the grass roots level.

Why should Australians care more? Sean emphasises the theme of responsibility. It's true that Australia has an obligation, as a wealthy and responsible neighbour, to support PNG in a generous and thoughtful way. That would be true even if we were not the former colonial power. I think that successive Australian governments have tried to manage the development partnership responsibly. I have had occasional frustrations with the program myself, but I've no time for the kind of armchair commentary that can be heard at the wet bar of the Port Moresby Yacht Club. Sean acknowledges that PNG is a difficult context in which to manage our largest aid program and offers some suggestions. There's no silver bullet, though, and while Australians can help, it's for Papua New Guineans, nobody else, to 'fix' PNG.

Even if we think about the relationship purely in terms of aid — and we shouldn’t — then the case for sustained engagement is compelling. As PNG leaders will tell you, the health sector is struggling, with too many people dying unnecessarily every year. Administrative capacity has not kept up with rapid population growth.  This has contributed to the challenging law and order situation which, while often distorted, remains an impediment to national development. 

But, as Sean also notes, the relationship is about much more than this. Australia’s roles as a market for PNG, and as a provider of services to PNG consumers, are more important now. The PNG economy is immensely bigger than it was 15 years ago, and substantial investment now flows in both directions. Following the global financial crisis, northern Australian communities like Cairns saw the continued expansion of the PNG economy as central to their own recovery. The commodity crunch has made things more difficult, but there remains plenty of commercial opportunity for Australia in PNG.

It's not just the economy that has changed. The population is growing very rapidly, and now exceeds seven million, making PNG second only to Australia in the Pacific. Projections suggest that the population will approach 16 million by 2050. All this inevitably alters regional dynamics.  PNG is attracting more attention from other important countries, and is more willing to play a regional leadership role. The PNG world view is changing too. Most members of the current government grew up in an independent country. They are more confident in dealing with Australia, and inclined to take each external relationship on its merits.

So when we picture the future shape of PNG, we should imagine a country led by more confident leaders, with more than double its current population, playing a more active regional strategic role. It will still have development challenges, despite its undoubted resources. It is in Australia's interests to stay engaged with such a country as it emerges.

Remaining a constructive and relevant partner for PNG will require Australians to continue questioning long-held assumptions, and to embrace change in the relationship. In the end, though, our approach to our nearest neighbour should always appreciate that greater prosperity, security and stability for Papua New Guineans is also in the interests of Australians.

Ian Kemish was Australian High Commissioner to PNG from 2010 to 2013

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ian @The Paperboy.com