Sean Dorney’s The Embarrassed Colonialist should be mandatory reading for every influential Australian media executive and newsroom leader. Because when it comes to Papua New Guinea, we are the myopic media.
Historical blindness and ignorance is an underlying theme of Dorney’s excellent treatise of what is an emblematic tropical sore for Australia and Australians. Overcoming this ignorance is the healing balm he proffers – and the media, pardon the image, is the bleeding obvious place to start.
There are wonderful individual exceptions, of course: Journalists who would swim the four kilometres from our most northern Torres Strait islands to PNG to report on this vibrant and vexed nation of eight million, so inextricably linked to our past and so critical to our future. And there are editors and news directors who would, and do, battle internal obstacles to ensure coverage of our biggest, nearest neighbour.
But institutional apathy started soon after PNG Independence in 1975. Dorney notes that when he first arrived in Port Moresby for the ABC in 1974, there were six Australian journalists based there.
But then Fairfax (1980) and the Herald and Weekly Times (1981) pulled their journalists out when there was none of the chaos and mayhem that many had predicted for independent PNG. Since the AAP ended a 60-year-tradition by closing its bureau in 2013, we’ve been left with one reporter for the ABC.
Dorney writes of a conversation he had with the last newspaper correspondent months before that reporter was recalled:
We had a discussion on news values and he told me he knew what the subeditors at the Melbourne Herald wanted. ‘They want raskols, plane crashes and tribal fights! And that’s what I’m giving them'.
More on this later.
Journalism is often nobly described as a mirror that society holds up to itself. But, when it comes to PNG, Australia either recoils from its own reflection or refuses even to look in the mirror. Our real image is one of colonials for most of our first 74 years as a federated nation (sixty-one years from 1914-1975 to be precise). We ruled over other people. It’s a simple truth — with complex legacies.
Millions of Australians are related to those generations who worked, lived, pioneered, made and lost fortunes and fought and died there (more Australians were killed in PNG in WWII than anywhere else).
There’s give and take, and share, like most ex-colonists. We give $500 million of aid a year to PNG, and our NGOs and churches inject many more millions. Thousands of volunteers donate slabs of their lives to helping our neighbour’s poor, needy and sick. Our companies, especially in mining and energy, take resources worth billions of dollars from PNG soil, waters and forests .We dump our refugees there. We take few PNG immigrants.
Our High Commission in Port Moresby has 360 staff, more than in our Washington DC embassy. It’s said PNG’s population might match ours by 2050.
It’s all a rich stew of personal history and impersonal stark reality. The security and prosperity of PNG, as Dorney emphasises, is hugely important to Australia.
So, hold up that proverbial mirror Australia. A myriad of Australian stories to celebrate, commemorate or condemn await those outlets that veer from the larger geopolitical canvas. The general awareness so created would create a richer, bigger picture, one even the most unaware Australians could not ignore. Information could be a laser to the historical cataract.
It's unfair to single out the craft of journalism though. Many others have been blinkered too, including our film and documentary industries, those who’ve designed our school curricula, and those who run many of our cultural institutions. Ditto for related government departments and agencies.
Dorney rightly says we must accept our colonial past, not try to escape it, and use that acknowledgement as the starting point for a new, deeper engagement with PNG.
He explores the good, the bad and the ugly of the relationship and, yes, some is embarrassing; for both countries. His examination of PNG’s corruption and law and order problems is unvarnished, but has context. Australia left PNG woefully unprepared in 1975, including a tiny fledgling police force. In the year of independence police responsibility covered only 10% of the land and 40% or the population.
Dorney deftly weaves sledgehammer facts and figures with the vivid frustrations and passion of both Papua New Guinean and Australian identities.
One staggering comparison rams home our attitude to our former colony: more Cook Islanders live in Australia than Papua New Guineans, even though the population of the Cooks is 430 times smaller than that of PNG.
The Cook Islands was a former colony of New Zealand. The Kiwis embrace Cook Islanders, letting them into their country and then they migrate over the Tasman. Dorney writes:
According to the last Australian census in 2011, of the 166,272 Pacific Islanders in Australia, 65 per cent are from Polynesia and just 35 per cent from Melanesia – numbers totally incongruent with the relative populations of those island groups. The simple reality is that the Polynesians get to Australia via the New Zealand route because New Zealand has a policy of favouring migration from its Pacific neighbours.
China and Indonesia beckon PNG. Australia needs to review and renew its PNG relationship. Otherwise its six decades of colonial rule and a century of deep, genuine bonds will be a mere footnote in history.