It was clear that what was missing from the Papua New Guinea 2005 public forum held in Sydney during July 2005, was a range of critical indigenous and alternative perspectives.
On the face of it, since 1975 – after time belong Masta – life in PNG has suffered, to varying degrees, from a process of remote control which might be considered as “time belong Western master narrative”.
The dominating voices of Western master narratives have continued throughout the 20th century.
As we enter the 21st century, it is time to fashion new ears so that Western people can hear indigenous voices.
The addition of these voices and perspectives is a necessary corrective if vitally important matters for peoples in both countries are to result in arrangements which incorporate a spirit of cultural partnership.
As things stand, the life-view perspectives at the forum were not only one sided, in that the experts all spoke from an ‘Australian’ point of view, but they all spoke from positions which privileged a particular Western ‘modern’ point of view which is rapidly reaching its use-by date. Generally, and with the exception of Hugh White’s position, there was nothing particularly fresh at the forum. Hugh White called for new questioning and new thinking.
PRIVILEGING THE MODERN
By an “Australian” point of view I mean one that is premised on ‘modern Australian orthodoxy’ ideas about how life in Papua New Guinea should be lived, and which presume that the present governance arrangements in Australia are not only correct and proper but they are also not themselves in need of major reform.
This can be characterised as a point of view in which ‘privileging the modern’ is disguised by presumptions that Western minds can access ‘reality’ in ways which are ‘natural’ – that is, the operations of complex and historically peculiar ideologies are not only disguised, they deny their own existence.
The colonial process in the Pacific has dominated life here for over two centuries, It is not surprising then that, for many (especially those who seek to align with the established order) that it provides a kind of naturalised norm.
Actually, it provides an historically peculiar exception vis-à-vis the place of indigenous peoples and cultures in the Pacific and only enjoys a temporary advantage which resulted from the use of both force and what Edward Said described as a ‘system of attitudes’ necessary for imperialism. That system of attitudes reigned supreme in the highly racist 1890s when the groundwork was laid for the 1901 Australian constitution.
INDIGENOUS FORMS OF REPRESENTATION
By contrast with the cult of modernity – with its costume of the business suit – there are many different indigenous forms of representation. These forms include far more life-wisdom than the exceedingly narrow concerns which derive from modern Western life.
Modern thinkers dismissed these forms, with their tested wisdom, as being somehow inferior, distorted, lacking, naive, unreal. Only Western forms of reason where rational, and all other forms were of no account. Edward Said, in “Culture and Imperialsim” demonstrates how this type of Eurocentricism was necessary for the exploitation of other peoples lives and resources.
New Guinean Ways of life , and the cosmologies associated with them, are marvellous examples of forms of representation which incorporate – at their core – profound truths about what it is to live full lives on this planet.
New Guinean Ways belong firmly in a mainstream of life on planet earth. This is the true mainstream. It is a smooth flow.
THE GAMMON MAINSTREAM
The ethnocidal approaches of Western people who insist that all life will be “mainstreamed” – transformed to provide component parts for the Western economy – mistake the flood which spilt out of Western Europe as providing some kind of mainstream.
The latest outbreak of this form of illness was seen in New Zealand/Aotearoa with the election campaign of the National Party seeking to win votes by playing a variation on the Australian One Nation gambit. Don Brash’s appeal to the “We are one people.” cultural script is in keeping with all those forms of modern racism which rely on the covert surmise. The “One People” we are all supposed to be are fashioned around norms which do not include Maori language, cosmology, culture, practices and protocols.
A similar appeal to covert racist surmise was seen in the Conservatives campaign Great Britain election. They actually spelt it out with their election slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”
The would-be Pakeha Don wasn’t rushing off to learn Maori, nor was he saying that it has been far too long for Pakeha to have been in Aotearoa without learning about the culture which goes with whenua (country).
ONE NORM ONLY – THAT OF WESTERN MASTERN NARRATIVES
Crisis after crisis mark the path of the growth of capitalism from centres in Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The devastating impacts on the lives of indigenous people in the New World, Australia, are an inevitable part of this ‘growth’.
The extent of global crisis at the present time is connected with the crisis which the followers of the cult of the modern nation state call progress.
Those Western people in Australian and New Zealand/Aotearoa who advocate ‘mainstreaming’ of indigenous peoples lives seek a return to the totalising monoculturalism of assimilationism; that is, a program of cultural genocide which seeks to deny its true foundations.
The kind of thinking is found, at present, in the core of Department of Cabinet and Prime Minister in the Australian Government. Australia’s surviving First Peoples pay for this obsolete and obscene policy with their well-being, every day of their artificially shortened lives. Their very pressing – vital – interests do not figure as part of the Future Fund resulting from the sale of Telstra.
Across the Tasman, in the 2005 election, the National Party was advocating the abolition of the few seats in Parliament reserved for Maori people. All will be ‘mainstreamed’. A better solution would be the creation of a bi-cameral Maori- Pakeha system which provides equal voice for both peoples and which produces bi-culturally balanced forms of representation throughout life in Aotearoa.
Such a process of Western ‘mainstreaming’ will not take indigenous life into a smoothly flowing mainstream but, rather, swept them into the swirling eddies of the West European deluge in which whole species and Ways of life disappear down whirlpools formed by the ‘centralising’ processes which lie at the heart of the modern nation state.
None of the speakers at the PNG 2005 forum, including one from the world bank, who felt themselves comfortable working in the languages of macro-economics showed any indication of the sort of recent concern of the world’s most experience economist (Galbraith) about the role of corporations in dominating our lives.
PBS Online News hour (Seen on SBS TV 25 May 2005)
Governing the economy May 24 2005
PAUL SOLMAN: I’d ask Richard Parker one last question. Did he think Galbraith himself might be up for a short visit? An hour later at the Cambridge house the Galbraiths have occupied for the past half-century, Parker and I climbed to the bedroom. Wife Kitty, herself 92, and a nurse were watching over him. Galbraith was, well, matter-of-fact.
JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Sit down.
PAUL SOLMAN: I promised to be brief, so I got right to the point. Hasn’t Galbraith’s economic vision been eclipsed? Beginning with the Reagan administration and certainly now in the second Bush administration?
JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: No question it’s been eclipsed by the people who have the money. There’s no question that this is a time when corporations have taken over the basic process of governing.
PAUL SOLMAN: Will the pendulum swing back, do you suppose?
JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Whether in my lifetime or not, it could require an exceedingly optimistic answer. But there is a certain alert concern on these matters running through the whole structure of the United States and the other democracies, is something that has operated up until now, and I strongly expect it to operate in the future.
There was a kind of conceptual blindness to this sort of problem which points towards the values of the people involved in the forum.
STUNNED SILENCE AT FORUM
One good question from the floor on the need to exert some control over the corrupting influence of timber companies in order to reinforce ‘reforms’ in the lives of everyday people was meet with complete silence and an inability to respond by the expert panel at that session.
This at a time (in the same week) when world attention is turned to exactly these sort of concerns with the G8 meeting in Edinburgh. There was a lack of linkage between the world of the experts at the forum and the sort of concerns and perspectives which come from taking a broader view of life’s well-being.
I do not require hearing any mention at the PNG 2005 forum of micro credit, despite the role which it appears to be playing in assisting people in other places. (My memory may be at fault here.) In terms of thinking big, it often pays to remember that the circulation of a blood supply is useless without the ability to deliver its nourishment to local sites via the smallest and finest of means.
As one speaker at a more recent “Graun em Laip/Land is life” forum said, one community he knew had managed to acquire its own bus. He showed a slide of people selling betel-nut, explained the value of “toea” in relation to the Kina (that is, like cents to the dollar, 100 to the Kina) saying “Money there!” Betel-nut sells for 40 or so toea, which is less than 20 cents Australian.
During my 2004 trip I meet several people in PNG who would have benefited from access to even a very small amount of credit for some capital. The question in my mind was, though, how would such micro credit fit in with existing community relationships founded on existing systems of reciprocity? I do not know the answer. Perhaps even micro credit needs to be introduced into community life in ways which maintain balance across the whole community, and not merely provide the means for one person to distort those relationships by means of gaining access to resources external to the process of community control?
LOOKING AT THINGS BACK-TO-FRONT
A good part of the problem, it seems to me, comes from the back-to-front process which is taking place by those who place the official-orthodox Australian perspective on a higher and superior level than the concerns which you may encounter when you speak with everyday people in PNG (as I did during my brief trip in September 2004).
Those who place the Australian perspective on a higher level include people in PNG who are systematically enabled by it – and who then come to belong (or aspire to belong) to an elite.
The back-to-front process operate like this. It presumes that the modern nation-state is the final outcome of what is required for life in PNG, and then:
1. seeks to find ways of adapting the whole of life in PNG to comply with the preconceived outcome.
2. measures everything in relation to that imaginary ideal (and therefore interprets chaotic events as certain types of conflict and violence; and interprets indigenous exchange relationships as ‘corrupt’ – while it is well known that ‘kinship’ is the enemy of bureaucracy. All acts of critical judgement come down on the side of an imaginary ideal bureaucracy which is itself not found in the West.)
It is obvious to all but those blinkered by ideology that the Westernisation of PNG life, in a world where there is rapid polarisation of wealth and power, will be devastating for a large number of people. As things are presently shaping up, this will be a common fate for many people in other developed and developing countries who are much better placed to take advantage of ‘opportunities’ than people in PNG.
There should be no uncritical acceptance of any pretence, given this situation, that the modern nation-state (a liberal-democratic political system and a free market system) could ever provide a viable alternative to long established ways of life in PNG.
It is also knowable (for anyone caring to read modern anthropology in lieu of direct experience with PNG people) that a good number of PNG people have their Being informed with their culture’s finely-nuanced sense of equivalence in social and exchange relationships.
Mention has already been made to Tangu speaking peoples condition of Being known as mngwotngwotiki (from Burridge’s book ‘Tangu Traditions’). There is also the also the practices of br’ngun’guni in which are part of a political and moral process which maintains reciprocities:
“Br’ngun’guni, a debating and talking and disputing in public assembly, is an institutional form which Tangu share with their neighbours.” In addition to oratory accompanied by handdrum and other dramatic devices, a range of topics are covered. “More critically, br’ngun’guni is the explicit opportunity for bringing up any matters which may be of concern to the community…Amity in the community depends not upon some vague and emotional goodwill, but on the maintenance of equivalence. And br’ngun’guni is the crucial and public test of equivalence as well as the means of maintaining it. ” Burridge 1969:124-126).
No doubt those with a good knowledge of life in PNG would be able to point to a wide range of similar institutions through which life was kept in balance at the local level.
HOW DOES PARLIAMENT COMPARE WITH BR’NGUN’GUNI?
One question which can be raised is how do these indigenous institutions compare – in terms of effectiveness – with the practices introduced by the Westminster system?
This type of comparison may have been taking place in the lives of people in PNG over the last 30 years. They can sense that Westernisation will be devastating and seek, in keeping which ‘norms’ which regard the state as a corruption of life’s arrangements, to prevent the coalition of forces coming together which are necessary for their lives to be wrecked in this manner.
Rather than imposing obsolete models of governance on peoples lives – an old paradigm – there is an opportunity for a creative exercise which draws on the wisdom inherent in PNG life – and the experience of where the present arrangement does not fit – to take the process to something unique – a new paradigm which could be owned by PNG’s peoples.
The preconceived idea that a Western notion of Parliament is the solution to providing for the well-being of PNG’s peoples is becoming increasingly dubious.
A better approach is to ask questions about what is really in the interests of PNG’s peoples – in terms which preserve for them those parts of life which they regard as being of utmost importance – and to work from that foundation to come up with arrangements which may or may not compare with the present models of modern nation-states.
What people presently have in PNG is a legacy of Australia’s colonial ambitions, and those ambitions were deeply racist in their origins. Queensland’s designs on Papua came from one of Australia’s most racist colonies where ‘the blacks’ were, in effect, equated with vermin to be eradicated.
Australia’s ambitions in the northern part of New Guinea came from politicians whose racism (White Australia policy) prevented the inclusion of clauses on racial equality in the charter of the League of Nations, and (by remaining within the core of Federal government for decades) also contributed to setting the course for a savage war in the Pacific. The return of the Howard government in 1996 fits in with this racist lineage, and the time for ending that line of indecent descent has come.
Despite a type of rhetoric in the Australian aid industry which makes much use of expressions of concern for the well-being of people in PNG, there is little evidence that the real reasons for Australian aid are any different in the 21st century than they were in the 1890s and early 1920s. They are certainly not premised on the full well-being of people in PNG.
CLARITY AND HONESTY
Hugh White suggested that Australian’s need to be very clear and honest on what they seek out of the relationship with PNG people.
When we talk glibly about “reforming” the ways of life of people in PNG – and do so using a language of “strengthening” our neighbour – are we in Australia being completely honest with others and with ourselves?
A deconstruction of Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s speech to the United Nations on 16 September 2005, clearly demonstrates his commitment to the modern nation-state; using ‘aid’ as means of imposing the modern nation-state on the lives of other peoples; “opening up” other peoples Ways for ‘free’ – but not fair – trade and so on.
DOUBLE SPEAK ABOUNDS
“Opening up” is not about encouraging people to engage in balanced exchange transactions on terms which do justice to their existential status as Beings in their own right. The expression actually mystifies the process which it hides. Rather than ‘opening up’ the practices associated with it seek to remove any parts of life which provide resistance to the narrowly conceived cash flow ambitions of a few.
Those parts of life which impose restraints and limits on life are vitally important for life and how it reproduces itself. They are not optional extras – mere ornaments – which can be simply discarded. They are crucial parts of the whole. Remove them and much of life changes in unpredictable ways.
This abuse of language is akin to saying, when a bull is castrated, that it is being “opened up” for new life enhancing experiences previously denied to it by virtue of the ‘burden’ of his balls.
PROTECTING ANGLO-AUSTRALIAN PRIVILEGE
At present the Australian government’s approach fits with an interpretation which is fundamentally concerned about protecting Anglo-Australian privilege.
Peoples lives in PNG are to be reformed to make the country a relatively stable northern barrier as part of the advance defence system of modern Australia, and conditions are to be encouraged which will enable foreign businessmen, and their local business partners, the certainty they need when they expropriate wealth under the excuse of taking risks.
The certainly which people in PNG require in order to live their lives is not accorded the same privileged treatment in the analytical approaches. There is not a deep concern for peoples well-being as neighbours – that is, for their well-being on terms which are crucially important for them.
This is hardly surprising for anyone who is familiar with the way the same Australian perspective relates to the well-being of Australia’s First Peoples. There were no indigenous Australian’s present and speaking at the PNG 2005 forum. There is no place within the psyche of modern Australians for indigenous voices. Life is an English only club based on forms of reason which originated in the Big Cult House in Westminster.
TIME FOR A TWO WAY CONVERSATION ON AUSTRALIAN-PNG RELATIONSHIPS
In light of the last 30 years experience, the time has arrived (and some speakers at the PNG 2005 forum said as much) to have a thoroughgoing review of the Australian- PNG relationship. This review will be most productive when it includes people to people dialogue and not merely that of specialists, professional experts and Western style politicians.
This need for the inclusion of people from both countries in a re-negotiation of the PNG-Australian relationship immediately raises several problems.
For most of those attending the forum PNG is (in one way or another) central to their lives and/or livelihoods and they generously extended their own feelings to the wider Australian peoples. However, despite the positive words at the forum about the place of PNG in the lives of everyday Australians, my feeling is that most Australian’s have, at best, only the slightest idea about PNG life, culture and people. (The Kokoda trail being the exception – and even that is part of the national mythology of Australian’s long before it is an acceptance of the realities which make up the lives of PNG people in that area.)
And to the extent that they know anything, the contemporary image (derived from Australia’s media) is largely negative. When I was seeking someone to accompany me to PNG in 2004 the standard reaction – even from people who have backpacked in all parts of the world – was “PNG? You must be joking!”
I was in PNG for Independence Day, 2004. I must say there was absolutely no problem in engaging everyday people in PNG in conversation with the PNG-Australia relationship. I had many intelligent discussions with people I met across a wide range of social context from the somewhat surprised passengers in PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles) in Port Moresby. They politely waited until I initiated an exchange, and then we had a great two way dialogue.
I found this also with PNG people attending the Goroka show or working at the National Sports Institute; selling artefacts in Madang; working as security guards at motels; studying at the University; travelling in planes; and even one senior Judge working on a presentation while I waited at the poolside of the Port Moresby airport hotel to kill some time while waiting to depart for home.
The question is how to make for meaningful communication connection with PNG people who, unaided, cannot afford to travel and their opposite numbers in Australia.
Hugh White suggested three means – education, work and sport. I think there needs to be a fourth means – some kind of people-to-people reciprocal relationship calling on the institution of ‘friends’.
How, I am not so sure since it is well established that even a three day visitor places strains on a host, and also places real demands on all involved. Some kind of exchange visits between like-minded kindred spirits?
In addition to the local groups of people in Australia who already have relationships with people in PNG (church groups, sports) there is a newly emerging set of Local Reconciliation Groups.
While the numbers involved in reconciliation are comparatively small (in comparison with the population as a whole) their presence in communities often achieves good results. The growth in the number of non-indigenous Australians actively engaged in reconciliation and indigenous social issues is one of the things which has changed since PNG gained Independence in 1975.
Many of the non-indigenous people in these groups have developed a keen awareness of cross-cultural issues and are actively seeking to find healing ways of achieving reconciliation with the original Australian people.
Given the bi-cultural character of the reconciliation process, some Local Reconciliation Group members may be ideally placed to extend their healing horizons to our nearest neighbour.