Papua New Guinea’s Choice: A Tale of Two Nations

Even these small beginnings invited a vigorous opposition. For police supplementing their pay by consorting with raskols, the presence of Australian officers meant a sharp cut in income. More than 300 police, protesting their low wages, demanded that the Australians leave. For senior police officers allegedly paid by Chinese triads to turn their eyes away from illegal gambling, drug, arms and people smuggling, the Australians’ presence was even less welcome. The Enhanced Cooperation Programme, moreover, threatened the pervasive corruption with its large returns to many politicians, officials and their ‘big men’ associates throughout the country. The successful constitutional challenge by Luther Wenge MP and Governor of Morobe Province to the immunity that is essential to Australian police operations in Papua New Guinea therefore means that the ‘big men’ will continue to prosper while the ‘grassroots’ suffer.

Papua New Guinea is two nations. Policies followed since independence 30 years ago have given rise to a wealthy elite that educates its children well, often in Australia, so that they can succeed their fathers in parliament, in public office and in business. They live in large airy houses protected by razor wire, travel abroad on official and private business, take well-remunerated positions in international organisations and enjoy holidays overseas where they invest their income.

The other five and a half million Papua New Guineans live in the villages (85% of the population) and in shanty township settlements. This Papua New Guinea is hemorrhaging. After 30 years of consistently greater population growth than economic growth every social statistic indicates that living standards are abysmal. Women’s work still maintains fair nutrition in most of the country, but by every other criterion Papua New Guineans are now among the poorest people in the world.

Traditional society has broken down. Of the more than 800 clan groups that make up this second Papua New Guinea, only a handful has been able to overcome the constraints of communal land ownership and the perversion of power by local ‘big men’ to invest in roads so as to get cash crops to market. Public and private funds are consumed in pig feasts so that ‘big men’ can reap the benefits of electoral office. Population pressure on land is eroding traditional village economies, exacerbating violence and civil conflict. The few roads that are passable have become tollways for bandits. Health care barely exists, particularly for women. HIV/AIDS threatens to engulf a third or more of the labour force in 10 or 15 years. Postmodern education theories have failed to give villagers literacy and numeracy. This makes for volatile politics, particularly for jobless youngsters in the towns who not only form criminal gangs but are also ready recruits for populist politicians seeking to grab attention by attacking Australia.

A few parliamentarians and some courageous commentators are attempting to conduct a debate about the desperate need for high, sustained growth to bring decent livelihoods to the villages and townships and unity, self-confidence and pride to their country. This debate not only relies on honest reporting by Papua New Guinean radio and press, but is also heavily dependent on Australian media coverage of Papua New Guinean news. Panglossian slants on the news in the Australian press serve this debate ill.

Improved security and reduced corruption are essential if growth is to be possible. Growth will bring jobs and rising incomes so that raskols will have an alternative to crime, ‘ghosts’ can be removed from the public service and corruption can be prosecuted in the courts. But only the Papua New Guinean Parliament can make the choices for growth without which the attack on crime and corruption cannot succeed. The Enhanced Cooperation Programme was intended to support the efforts of the beleaguered minority of reformers in Parliament committed to change. It would be a tragedy if Papua New Guinea’s long-suffering second nation were betrayed by its loss.

Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and an Emeritus Professor of the Australian National University. Susan Windybank is the Director of Foreign Policy Research at The Centre for Independent Studies.