40 years after its independence, Papua New Guinea remains Australia’s largest recipient of foreign aid. Yet few Australians know of Australia’s colonial rule in PNG and are ambivalent toward the complex and longstanding relationship between the two countries. This week, the Lowy Institute launched its latest Lowy Institute Paper, The Embarrassed Colonialist, by Sean Dorney that asks how the relationship has gotten to this point, and some suggestions for how it can be turned around.
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To most of our audience, Sean needs no introduction. He has had three postings as ABC news correspondent to PNG and is widely acknowledged as Australia’s leading journalist for Pacific Affairs. He is famously the only person to be deported and later honoured by the PNG government by being awarded an MBE in 1991 for services to broadcasting and sport. He captained PNG’s National Rugby League Team, the Kumuls, for two years. In 2000 he was also awarded an AM in Australia for his contributions as a foreign correspondent. Other titles by Sean include The Sandline Affair: Politics, Mercenaries and the Bougainville Crisis and Papua New Guinea: People, Politics and History since 1975. Sean is now a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute where he was commissioned to write The Embarrassed Colonialist.
Dorney argues that Australia needs to re-engage with PNG by acknowledging its colonial past.
While there are some things from the colonial era that we should not celebrate, helping give birth to another nation should have been one of our proudest achievements. Instead, we seem to have become so embarrassed by our performance and so politically correct that we don’t want to teach our children that we were once colonialists ourselves.
Dorney cites poor media coverage, limited migration opportunities between the two countries, and a lack of our history with Papua New Guinea in the curricula both at a school and university level as well as limited tourism promotion as evidence to suggest how little Australia has or continues to engage with PNG.
He quotes Richard Marles stating 'we used to be world experts on PNG and now the level of study and literature in Australia has gone down dramatically'. Sean reaffirms this sentiment claiming 'we should turn that around.'
Dorney’s passion for PNG and the need to strengthen bilateral ties between Australia and PNG is evident in his writing as he urges Australia to focus not only on the challenges and weaknesses of PNG but also to consider its strengths so that Australia can ‘build a new partnership with one of our most vibrant neighbours’.
The Lowy Institute will be running a debate series alongside the launch of The Embarrassed Colonialist to reinvigorate discussion about the importance of the Australia-PNG relationship. Read the first of the debate series by Jenny Hayward Jones, Melanesia Program Director at the Lowy Institute, here. This series will also be reproduced on the Aus-PNG Network website.