IT was reported recently that a new group of Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers may move to PNG next year to act as advisers to the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.
At the same time, a comment was made to the effect that these men and women may end up sidelined due to resentment within RPNGC where there is a perception that this will be an unwanted “neo-colonial intrusion”.
The police mindset may perhaps manifest itself in this way, although the AFP’s assistant commissioner, Frank Prendergast, has been quoted recently as saying, inter alia; “Developing the relationship between the AFP and the RPNGC has been critical in the scoping phase to ensure that the RPNGC … is comfortable with future programs of support …”
Any new programme is in any case dependent upon inclusion in the Australian federal budget of 2010.
But if more Aussies are seconded to PNG by the AFP and regardless of the fact that PNG’s public at large as well as some sections of RPNGC may welcome this, there’s another possible and more insidious trap waiting, one which will be difficult to combat.
PNG supports an inappropriately large, expensive and inefficient public service, of which RPNGC is a part; in the form it has taken over the years the public service constitutes a huge self-help shop supporting tens of thousands of government employees and their extended families, rather than a service-provider to its owners, the public.
In defence of the conditions which nourish them, individuals are known to formulate clever concealing strategies when overseas reformers show up with a mandate to ask questions within the public sector.
In the late 1980s, the totally ineffective yet very expensive Assistance to PNG Police (APNGP) programme was launched.
It was funded by Australia’s aid agency AIDAB, as AusAID was then badged.
In the province where I was working, the handful of Australian policemen deployed by the project were greeted with friendly expressions. It’s fair to say that an immediate sense of comradeship was established at provincial police headquarters.
A spacious office had been vacated, repainted, refurnished and provided with its own fridge.
A competent secretary had been identified by the provincial commander and instructed to make the new arrivals’ learning curve as flat as possible.
On the first Saturday morning, in the interests of further edification and bonding, an overweight and hung-over HQ force of other ranks was compelled by the commander to parade in dress uniform with rifles, so they could be ceremonially inspected by the white men and express, in turn, their own happiness at the arrival of their Australian benefactors.
The new men, now completely at ease, were quickly and earnestly adopted into the small pool of local and expatriate business and professional people.
They were showered with hospitality and offered membership of the limited but lively club and social networks.
Desperate for better service from the police and full of high expectations, the local men of influence opened their hearts, doors and social milieu to the Australians.
Back at Police HQ, the new men were encouraged to participate in areas in which each had a particular interest.
In one case, where a marijuana-packing and shipping enterprise was believed to exist, one of the Aussies, an experienced drug squad man, took the case in hand.
He soon located and questioned a witness who confirmed that what was rumoured was in fact occurring, and further, provided a tip-off as to an expected shipment by sea from a coastal town often visited by foreign yachts.
The Aussie drug specialist accompanied by local detectives and the witness, travelled together by road to the relevant port, a day’s drive away.
Here they encountered difficulties which amounted to a total fiasco, a situation never fully explained, but which reflected badly upon the Aussies who had possibly been led into a trap.
Abashed, the Australians confined themselves henceforward to in-house training programmes, only accompanying RPNGC members by invitation on raids and investigations.
Locally, though, there was speculation. The drug affair had generated too much smoke for all to believe that there was no fire.
Many suspected that there was far more to the story than had been revealed.
Locals believed that the white men had been compromised and neutralised by the “window-curtain”, as they put it, drawn by the police over the affair, an action which, they believed, allowed the white men to preserve some self-respect while mightily relieved that the story had not led to an embarrassing media report.
The truth will never be known; the project is long-dead, to be followed years later by ECP, and now, perhaps by a further programme launched by the AFP itself.
Reports of these Australian aid projects are never readily made public.
The clique of Canberra bureaucrats and consultancy staffers who together create, monitor and implement aid projects holds its cards extremely close to its chest.
Summing up and debriefing reports are seen only by the officials and principals who head this clique.
At one juncture, I was invited to dinner to meet two of the most senior managers involved in the Australian police project.
In their mid-fifties, they were pleasant people, a man and a woman; the man was an ex-chief stipendiary magistrate and the lady a very senior commissioned officer on loan from her state’s police force.
As conversation proceeded, I realised that neither seemed to have the depth, in intellectual terms, which one would expect.
Both demonstrated a remarkable naivety in remarks made about PNG, its culture and the nature of the RPNGC and its failings.
For their part, the policeman-consultants worshipped the ground the pair walked upon.
A year or two later, I was invited again to the same hotel to have dinner with friends.
While I waited for them I struck up conversation with a group of RPNGC commissioned officers, of whom there seemed to be a great many in the bars and the hotel’s casual bistro dining area.
The men told me that they were participating in an AusAID-conducted training seminar, and that they had been brought together from every one of the 19 provinces.
I noted that there were no whites in these groups of policemen.
Later, in the high-cost a la carte restaurant where my friends and I sat down to dine, I noted six men sitting together, white men, strangers in town, obviously enjoying themselves.
I went over to them and asked them if they were connected with the police seminar.
One replied that they were running it.
I asked them if they thought it appropriate to dine alone and exclusively while the subjects of their seminar, all senior serving commissioned officers, were left to fend for themselves outside.
In answer, I received a stony-eyed glare from them all. They gave me a business card and turned their backs on me.
How was it, I reflected, that professionals at the peak of responsible institutional careers could remain so unfeeling, or so ignorant of social obligation in any setting, to behave like this; especially in a land where the sharing of food between comrades, and even between enemies at certain times, has immense significance.
Was it perhaps a concealed lack of confidence?
Insecurity is often at the base of arrogant behaviour by foreigners in PNG.
Over many years, suggestions to the effect that a pre-deployment orientation course for Australians appointed to serve their country in Melanesia and the Pacific has fallen upon deaf ears.
An institution which would live within its files most of the time, taking on a physical manifestation as and when needed; perhaps within the ambit of such an establishment as ANU’s Crawford School, where there is a resource of committed and mature PNG-Pacific-friendly people with much in-depth knowledge, including one or two PNG nationals.
Such people would, one imagines, be well able to present papers and pass on valuable ideas and tips at such a seminar which could embrace Australian military personnel as well.
PNG is nothing if not a country of extreme paradoxes, deserving in so many ways of its unofficial title as “The Land of the Unexpected”.
It is no place for the newly-arrived and unprepared consultant, medical or education or police professional, imbued or not with missionary-like zeal.
PNG’s culture has always been a highly complex one, and it has moved far beyond any falsely-perceived colonial-era pliability.
Australia must re-invent its role vis-à-vis its late colonial dependency, accepting a long-term role as brother-sister to PNG, rather than that of heavily-patronising rich uncle.
An uncle who would like to see PNG’s problems vanish overnight, and is angered that they don’t.
When one understands the nature of the immense changes and the huge social pressure PNG has coped with over the past century, pressures which remain unabated, pressures with which the people continue to cope while remaining a largely smiling society, one cannot but feel a little humbled.
Australians should remember their once-derisive and still mildly critical opinion of “pommies” dating from times only a century ago when Australia itself was a colony, ruled by people in a distant land.
Papua New Guineans are understandably wary of what some may term “new colonials”.
But this small nation is Australia’s nearest neighbour and one of its best friends.
PNG must always remain as such; friends in spite of occasional spats at a leadership level.
The two nations share so much in so many ways.
Our history is intertwined; we fought a war together; we share a common official language and similar institutions of nationhood, education and justice; we communicate with each other in the same colloquial way, using the same slang and terminology.
Both nations are believers in democracy, fairness, and lovers of rugby football.
It behoves us in Australia to be true friends to PNG.
Let’s use our brains now, and not just our wallets.
* John Fowke spent nearly four decades working in PNG’s coffee industry