Australia’s ham-handed history of colonialism, in what today is the independent state of Papua New Guinea, began in 1883 when Queensland pre-emptively annexed the southeastern corner (Papua) of the great island of New Guinea in the name of the British Crown. (The British were not amused).
Late in the nineteenth century, the Australian colonies were fearful that Germany (Britain’s rival) was about to colonise the entirety of eastern New Guinea, posing (so they imagined) a threat to Queensland’s northern reaches. So, they timorously backed Queensland’s move. In the end, the British acceded, if reluctantly, to Queensland’s claim on Papua with the proviso that the Australian colonies would accept full responsibility for administering the territory. In 1902 the new Commonwealth Government took over this responsibility from the colonies (now states).
At the end of World War I, the League of Nations mandated administrative control of the former German New Guinea (the vast northeastern part of New Guinea) to Canberra. Up until World War II, the two territories were administered separately. During and after the war, the two administrations were merged into one. Under successive conservative Australian governments very little was done to develop the territories, resulting in one of the most shameful aspects of Australia’s white settler-colonial history, comparable only to the treatment of Indigenous Australians since the arrival of the first fleet in 1788.
After the Whitlam government set PNG on track to independence – achieved, or some would say imposed, in 1975 – Australian governments have more or less washed their hands of their former colony. Under the guise of an overseas aid program, billions of Australian dollars over the years have been thrown at PNG to prop up a succession of bungling, incompetent, and increasingly corrupt governments. The fact that the vast majority of that aid has been misspent, misappropriated or simply disappeared is evident in the governance failures that have been mounting exponentially in PNG since 1975. Today those failures are catastrophic. On almost any measure, PNG has become a failed state.
Meanwhile, Australia continues to throw more aid money after bad, while turning its back on the serious development of underdevelopment that is the grim fact of PNG today. This is especially evident in two vitally important areas where Australia needs to become immediately proactive.
The first is health. The back of the PNG health system has been broken by a huge lack of trained medical professionals and allied workers, inadequate facilities and an extraordinary absence of basic resources. Already on its knees owing to the HIV-AIDS and TB epidemics raging across the country, the health system is now being overwhelmed by the COVID pandemic which is out of control. The country’s hospitals, doctors and nurses are collapsing under the strain. Some PNG citizens are already being flown to Australia for treatment. Meanwhile, the notoriously porous border between Queensland and PNG poses a real and present danger for Australia.
The second area is education. Many schools and universities are completely dysfunctional. The University of PNG, which claims to be the primary university in the South Pacific (a hollow claim if ever there was one), is literally falling down. Buildings are crumbling and windows are broken. The library’s books are rotting in the humid tropical heat. Laboratories are falling into disrepair. Student residences have become disgusting slums.
What is to be done?
Australia has to stop wanting to forget what is really happening in PNG. The fact is that our national interest demands that PNG be a central part of Australia’s Overseas Development Aid (ODA), foreign affairs and defence policymaking.
Two joint government taskforces should immediately be established to plan how to stem the disastrous declines in the PNG health and education sector respectively. Unless both of these sectors are resurrected, and very soon, then further reforms in the PNG economy and society will simply be impossible.
The health task force should be allied with the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Along with a senior Australian expert, it should be co-chaired by Professor Glen Mola, one of (if not the) leading public health experts in PNG with years of experience in the country. The task force’s mission should be two-fold:
(1) To map out an immediate comprehensive vaccination program to vaccinate the majority of PNG citizens as quickly as possible;
(2) To plan and resource the restructuring of the entire public health system in PNG. In both cases, this will require massive logistical and resource support from Australia’s defence forces.
The education taskforce will also have a two-fold mission:
(1) To develop a strategy for reviving primary, secondary and technical schools across the country;
(2) To completely rebuild the country’s higher education sector.
This task force should be chaired by Professor Ross Garnaut (whose knowledge of the PNG economy and education sector is second to none), along with a PNG co-chair (for example, Dr Thomas Webster, one of PNG’s most honourable citizens) and be resourced by the graduate schools of education at Monash and Melbourne Universities (both ranked among the top 20 such schools in the world).
Qualified Australians should be recruited to work in an Australian version of the old US Peace Corps, to work on the ground to do the rebuilding so urgently needed in health and education in PNG. Instead of forgetting Australia’s miserable complicity in the reasons PNG is failing, Australians need to realise that their very own interests are at stake. Not only will disease (and future pandemics) find their way into Australia via PNG, but as the country’s governance failures continue to mount up, already simmering civil conflicts will explode and Australia will see a flood of refugees pouring across its northern borders.
Forgetting PNG is not, nor has it ever been, an option for Australia.