Harim gut! This the PNG that Australia created. The implosion that we witness daily was inevitable and foreseen by many, writes JOHN FOWKE
PAPUA NEW GUINEA’s path to becoming a fair and well-managed modern society would be a long and tortuous one. It was not a well-driven, fully-functional carriage drawn by a team of the best Percheron or Shire horses. This is despite perceptions to the contrary expressed by those who are “disappointed,” “disgusted,” and “saddened” by what has gone on in PNG.
Two major factors are responsible. One was an inexplicable, apparently blind, decision made by Australia. The other was simply the function of the mismatch between PNG’s readiness and world sentiment about colonialism, which impelled Australia to grant independence as and when it did.
I left the Administration early in my PNG career – as the result of a tiff with my then boss, the late Speed Graham, following which I became a tradestore minder for the late Brian Heagney and later a plantation manager. I remained in or directly associated with plantations until 2005, with one break working for Mobil Oil in Queensland. I think that experience in private enterprise, after being a Patrol Officer and a Co-ops man, was salutary. Deprived of automatic deference and submission, one quickly learned the truth of PNG society, a truth which may not have been appreciated by most POs and others until they reached quite senior rank.
The truth is that in a micro-tribal society no-one matters much except one’s clan brothers and sisters and that stealing from and telling untruths to people other than one’s blood relatives is not a sin.
This is not intended as a criticism of Melanesia – it is a truism covering all micro-tribal societies. My own distant ancestry is Scottish and Scandinavian, societies which before Roman colonisation, and even after it, remained structured in and ruled by similar mores and customs.
These characteristics are part of the functional logic of such societies, where social security and personal safety are completely bound up in defence and, where possible, the expansion of one’s land and supporting resources.
In the Admin we tended to entrust responsibilities for storekeeping, for purchasing fresh foodstuffs, for issuing fuel and oversight of vehicle allocation to trusted clerks and policemen. One wonders how the books ever balanced.
I don’t recall that we ever did balance stores records properly. I think we just used to order replenishments according the clerk’s stocktake and the station’s entitlement under that vote. Similarly we would pay out for fresh foods on vouchers typed up for us.
This would never have been done in the real world of commerce. Even now one will meet an ex-Kiap here and there who speaks fondly of “good, honest old bush cops”. My own relationship with the police with whom I worked was one which I remember, largely, with considerable fondness.
However I also remember an instance involving the extremely well-concealed burning down of an entire village by a small detachment of my police during my absence in another area. It was a reprisal for a non-fatal accident to one of their number using a village-owned canoe at the time.
The villagers were too scared to complain and, without other witnesses, I just had to swallow my strong suspicions and accept that it had been an unfortunate accident on a windy day as stated by my large and imposing Corporal.
The late John Black, a most perceptive pre-war Kiap well-known for his association with Jim Taylor on the Hagen-Sepik patrol, published an interesting monograph relating his own experiences with and his view of the New Guinea Police members who served with him on many ground-breaking patrols in the thirties.
His analysis was deep and interesting. His conclusion virtually the same as mine. Police boys could often be very naughty boys for cultural reasons imprinted very deeply within them. Has anything changed?
Those who look back in anger, as some apparently do, are misguided and miss the point that this journey into modernity, set in motion with high ideals and with generosity by Australia, is a long and difficult one.
You don’t change a micro-tribal stone age culture devoid of any sense of nationhood or commonality of interest into one which can function, just one hundred years later, in a manner analogous with Australian society and the rest of the world.
The second factor, one which sits at the root of all the official corruption and dysfunction in politics and public sector operations in PNG, is one I dealt with at some length in an article published a year or more ago in PNG’s The National and in Quadrant magazine.
Here I showed that the decision to close down the established embryo political system comprised of the appointed District Advisory Councils interacting with the overarching and partly-democratic Legislative Council was wrong. This linkage of institutions would logically have served the new nation very well when fully democratised and extended to include the then Local Government Councils as the grassroots end of the whole. It was, after all, like all systems introduced into PNG by the Australians, one which grew within the social environment peculiar to that place and time, and importantly, it was simple, well-understood – and it worked! Although I have looked for the logic behind the creation of a Westminster-type party parliamentary system I have not found a good explanation. Only the late David Fenbury, a man of great experience and unusually high intellect and determination, confronted the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, with a different vision. This may have been as early as 1956.
What happened, as we know, was that a system which had grown over several centuries to answer the need for fairness embracing a stratified society incorporating a few powerful men at the top and a massive number of extremely poor vassals at the bottom, was introduced.
Introduced into one of the most egalitarian societies then existing on the face of the earth; a society almost entirely bare of any vestige of hereditary hierarchy; a society where every male member had equality of opportunity within his clan; where everyone had rights to the use of land and hunting and fishing resources; where everyone had the right to be heard before the assembled clan in times of controversy.
What has resulted, in the saddest paradox in this land of many paradoxes, is that the system imposed or allowed to establish itself by the Australians has produced exactly, absolutely exactly, the conditions of class-disparity, lack of equity in society and lack of justice which prevailed in the England of the twelfth century. What more can we say, except to say sorry. It’s too late to change things back. Ask the Grand Chief.