PNG on the border

Too close to ignore: Australia’s borderland with Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, edited by Mark Moran and Jodie Curth-Bibb and published earlier this year, is a fascinating book, with detailed, rich descriptions of life in the South Fly – the PNG mainland that borders the Torres Strait Islands, the closest of which is only four kilometres away from Australia – and of Australia-PNG interactions in this part of the world, STEPHEN HOWES writes

The border, which put all the Torres Straits Islands in Australia, was a creation of the 1970s, but it, along with the Torres Straits Island treaty (in force since 1985), now ruled everything.
They created a strict hierarchy, that Peter Chaudhry’s chapter described as “a four-tier system of privilege, with Torres Strait Islander residents at the top, followed by Australian citizen Papuans in the Torres Strait Islands next, then treaty villages and non-treaty villagers at the bottom”.
Treaty villagers were those who lived in one of the 13 villages whose residents were entitled under the treaty to travel to the Australian islands, strictly speaking only for “traditional” purposes, but in practice for a range of reasons, from seeking health care to accessing ATMs (automated teller machine) to selling goods and labour – the latter often for as little as US$10 (K35) a day.
(Note: even travel for traditional purposes was currently banned due to the Covid-19.)
Australian-citizen Papuans were those from the PNG mainland who had been living on the Australian side for five years prior to PNG’s independence.
They were allowed to stay on.
There were four tiers, but the greatest inequality by far between the top two and the bottom two, that was across the border.
To quote from Chaudhry once again: “(There) are few places in the world where such stark inequality exists between two places that are so close.
“On the one hand, Torres Strait Islanders enjoy material conditions and level of public service provision comparable to mainland Australia.
“Just across the borders, villages in the South Fly face government corruption, crippling water shortages, a lack of basic infrastructure and services and limited employment and livelihood opportunities.”
A key difference was that there was no welfare system in PNG: No “free money” as the South Fly residents call it.
But it was more than that – as the editors wrote, “the people of South Fly endure a near-total failure of governance and service delivery”.
This inequality was in your face and growing.
The two sides of the border looked very similar at independence.
Now, they couldn’t be more different.
The authors’ surveys revealed stark poverty in the South Fly.
One respondent put it simply: “I’m still living in a biri (leaf) house while the Torres Straits people live in luxury houses.”
The authors explored a range of topics from livelihoods to governance, from fishing to trade and from mining to non-government organisation (NGO) projects.
They were united in their view that Australia should do more: It should relax the rules to allow more travel and it should provide aid to “address the vast socioeconomic disparity” on either side of the border, as author Kevin Murphy put it.
It is in Australia’s interests and it is our moral duty, they argued.
I am less convinced by these normative arguments than the authors’ analysis.
Start with the recommendation that the treaty should allow more travel – by more people from more villages for more reasons.
As a supporter of migration, I support this call, but politically, it seemed like a non-starter.
Nearly, all travel was one way south.
On the Australian side, Murphy conceded that “many Torres Straits Islanders would prefer the number of Papuan visitors be reduced rather than increased”.
On the PNG side, easier access to Australia was an issue often raised by PNG politicians, but not on behalf of the people of the South Fly.
PNG had a lot of leverage: Several of the Torres Straits islands were within PNG maritime boundaries.
But Murphy noted that “the PNG Government had shown little interest in representing the interests of its citizens in the border region”, failing, for example, to put in a submission to an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the treaty.
Without political support on either side, any relaxation in treaty-related provisions and practices seemed highly unlikely.

What about supporting development in the South Fly?
This was more doable.
Australia had carved out, particular areas of PNG it gave disproportionate amounts of aid to: Kokoda (because of World War II); Bougainville (because of its history of conflict and push for independence); and, Manus (when we want ed PNG to take some of our asylum seekers).
Australia provided some aid, specifically for the South Fly, in particular to Daru Hospital to combat drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Should Australian aid be more focused on the South Fly?
It sounded like this was the direction in which the aid programme was going.
The most recent Australian plan for aid to PNG said Australia “would pilot a more integrated approach to engagement in South Fly, reflecting our shared strategic and development interests in this region”.
I’ll leave aside the strategic interests, except to say that they were unclear.
If our aim was to reduce migration pressures, supporting development could have the opposite impact.
In terms of development, it was true that the South Fly remained a poor region of PNG, due to its disadvantaged geography and poor governance.
In their 1997 paper, “Poor rural places in Papua New Guinea”, Bryant Allen, Mike Bourke and John Gibson posed the question: “Should funds be invested where the returns will be highest, or where the need is greatest?”
The authors noted that the dilemma was acute, but that persistent geographical inequality in PNG made the latter strategy unlikely to succeed.
Both the South Fly and the Western, of which it is part, benefited from the Ok Tedi mine.
That mine had been a mixed blessing, with some horrific environmental impacts, well documented in the book’s chapter on the subject.
But the province and affected communities, including the South Fly, were major mine shareholders.
Because of its access to mining revenue, Western had been assessed by the PNG Government as one of the few provinces not to have a gap between its internal revenue and its minimum spending needs.
Moreover, the sustainable development programme, one of the biggest NGOs in PNG, was active again (after a political and legal dispute with Peter O’Neill government).
It had a US$1.5 billion (K5bil) endowment, funded from its earlier majority stake in the mine and operated with an exclusive focus on Western.
Whether or not you agreed with the authors’ policy proposals, by reading too close to ignore you would gain invaluable insights into these two closest, yet, furthest apart of neighbours, Australia and Papua New Guinea.
For the stark inequality between the South Fly and the Torres Straits Islands was simply a version in extremis of the inequality between the two countries of which each was a part.
After all, as the authors reminded us, Torres Straits Islanders were themselves “disadvantaged relative to the remainder of Australia”.
Indeed, one could go further.
Reading this book would bring to life and motivate the reader to act on that abstract but fundamental fact about the world today that, as our world in data’s Max Roser put it, “what matters most for your living conditions is the good or bad luck of your place of birth.”

This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog (, from the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National University.

Stephen Howes is the director of the development policy centre and a professor of economics at the Crawford School.

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