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Bilums in the Torres Strait

12 April 2018   |   Analysis   |   By Ben Gertz

Ben Gertz, a descendant of the Meriam people of Mer Island in the Torres Strait, reflects on the links between his ancestors' region and Papua New Guinea and his experience at the 2017 Aus-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue in Port Moresby.  

Ben with fellow 2017 Dialogue participant, Chris Lam.
Photo supplied: Ben Gertz
Ben with fellow 2017 Dialogue participant, Chris Lam.

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    I was one of the ten Australian delegates that took part in the 2017 Australia-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue, held in Port Moresby last December. Before then, the closest I ever came to leaving Australia was a work trip to the Torres Strait. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Sydney, or even the slower country town pace of Brisbane where I am currently based, Thursday Island in the Torres Strait is a laidback tropical idyll.

    Despite being within Australian waters, on Thursday Island you often see Papua New Guinean flags perched on windowsills and hanging from patios, and people walking around sporting bilums with a PNG flag or design woven into them. On one occasion I struck up a conversation with a gentleman at the Federal Hotel - one of the pubs on the Island - while watching a NRL game. I asked him which island he came from and was surprised when he replied “Daru”, on the PNG side of the border.

    The waters and islands of the Torres Strait that surround Thursday Island are the frontier separating mainland Australia from Papua New Guinea. Saibai Island, at the far north of the Torres Strait, is Australia’s closest substitute for a physical land border, separated from PNG’s Western Province by a mere 4 kilometres of water.

    Map of the Torres Strait (English Wikipedia/Kelisi).

    Long before Luis Vas de Torres sailed through these waters or when Captain James Cook and the Endeavour landed on nearby Bedanug (otherwise known as Possession Island), the traditional inhabitants of the Torres Strait and the coastal villages of PNG’s Western Province would regularly traverse these waters to hunt, fish, trade and engage in ceremonies with one another. Unbeknownst to many Australians, these practices continue to this very day.

    In the years leading up to PNG’s independence in 1975, Australia and PNG had to decide on the border arrangements for the Torres Strait, discuss issues of sovereignty, set maritime jurisdictions, and consider the impact that these arrangements would have on traditional cultural practices and the wellbeing of the communities in this area. The Torres Strait Treaty was developed during this period and remains the foundation of the common border area management today.   

    The Treaty was signed in 1978 and formally came into effect in 1985. It both delineates the maritime boundaries and allows for the free movement of people within the Torres Strait Protected Zone for traditional activities. This is why I was able to meet a Papua New Guinean from Daru Island watching footy in a pub on Thursday Island on the Australian side of the border. The Torres Strait Treaty also gives regional bodies such as the Torres Strait Regional Authority greater autonomy in managing fisheries and marine resources. The Treaty is conidered one of the most innovative approaches in international law to a complex border that effects the lives of the Indigenous communities on either side.

    I am a descendant of the Meriam people of Mer (Murray) Island in the Eastern Torres Strait and I was partly motivated to apply for the 2017 Australia-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue by a desire to better understand the cultural relationships of my ancestors’ region. The Dialogue brought together 10 young leaders from Australia and 10 young leaders from Papua New Guinea for three days to discuss many topical issues which affect our two nations. Our cohort was made up of young professionals from a variety of backgrounds and industries, who could provide insight into at least one of the five key areas of focus: contemporary Australia-PNG relations; health; the environment and urbanisation; inclusive economic growth; and politics and civil society. 

    The first day was spent at the PNG Impact Conference which was held at the University of Papua New Guinea. The conference was co-hosted by my old stomping ground, James Cook University in Townsville, and brought together academics and researchers from both universities who presented findings from several research projects that are delivering societal benefit in PNG. This was an opportunity for us to gain valuable insight into the partnership between UPNG and JCU, two important higher education institutions located on either side of the Coral Sea.

    While the next two days were primarily set aside for the Dialogue, we also had the opportunity to meet with the Australian High Commissioner Bruce Davis, as well as pay a visit to the High Commission where we had lunch and an audience with then Deputy High Commissioner Bronte Moules. We networked with some of Papua New Guinea’s business, public service and community leaders at the new Harbourside development, and we even had some time to visit the Port Moresby Nature Park to see first-hand some of their environmental conservation and education initiatives and learn about their partnership with Zoos Victoria.

    The Australian High Commissioner to PNG Bruce Davis addresses the Dialogue participants (Photo supplied: DFAT).

    During the Dialogue, delegates were able to share insights into each of our countries and their different perspectives on the key issue for each session. Each topic would begin with an overview of the issue from a Papua New Guinean perspective, followed by the Australian or vice versa, with participants raising further points during the discussion. Delegates were able to identify many issues that are common to both countries, as well as areas where there is potential for Australia and Papua New Guinea to work together or build on existing collaborations. You can read a full summary of the discussion here.

    When it was time to discuss the contemporary relationship between our two nations, there was one burning issue that all twenty delegates from both sides wanted to directly address. The Manus Island Regional Processing Centre had only been closed for five weeks by the time the Dialogue kicked off, however, it was clear to most of us that the existence of the centre, as well as the way it has been closed, was symbolic of a recent deterioration in the relationship between our two countries.

    Despite the challenges within the contemporary relationship, all the 2017 Dialogue participants are hopeful that it can be renewed, to ensure strong diplomatic links between our two nations as well as people-to-people links. We need to keep our links strong, so we can foster the development of young leaders on both sides of the Torres Strait, because it will be young leaders, like the 20 of us who met together in Port Moresby, who will ultimately drive the Australia-PNG relationship forward into the future. We’ll do our part to maintain the connections that were forged over those three days, so we can continue to learn from each other.