PNG Update – valuable – take home message – need for Melanesian perspective.

The ANU and Lowy Institute people hosting the annual PNG Update, which was held in Sydney on Friday 30 May, are to be congratulated on making this very valuable contribution to an important “community conversation” regarding the Australia-PNG Partnership. We certainly need a lot more of this conversation.

There was a new sense of optimism now that the horrible Howard years are over and that Kevin Rudd has made an effort to restore decent relationships. Well done PM Rudd – a sigh of relief all round.


The take-home message I got from the event came from the PNG High Commissioner Charles Lepani. In speaking about the role of treaties between PNG and Australia, and of the Port Moresby Declaration and the various n-point plans, there were two main underlying principles:

1. mutual respect
2. mutual responsibility

There is a long way to go in Australia before people here can make any sense out of what that really means for Anglo-Australians.


This year there was much discussion, largely by non-Melanesian professionals, about the role of Melanesian people coming to Australia as seasonal workers. The risk in such professional talk is that real people are seen merely as ‘labour’ and not people in the round. It would be healthier to reverse the perspective.

Several academics from New Zealand/Aotearoa spoke about the largely positive experience there with Polynesian people coming to do seasonal work – and of the range of impacts in the home countries.


One interesting remark was that while people from Polynesia regard Kiwis as ‘Cousins’ people in Melanesia regard Australians as “Big Brother”.

The PNG Update did lack the kind of bi-cultural balance which is required to demonstrate a true cultural partnership. I was no alone in being surprised at the lack of people from PNG.

Maybe next year the organisers could invite PNG partners to be involved in planing the event – a little more music and dancing in the Melanesian style and a little less mono-cultural monologue style information (which can be presented in written form elsewhere).

What is required for a true partnership, I felt, is equal time for listening to PNG views and less time for airing of the views of Anglo-Australian professionals.

A more appropriate distinction, from a PNG perspective might be that of “Older Brother” and “Younger Brother.” But so long as we are talking as Brothers and Sisters of some kind, there must be a degree of hope for better relationships in the long run.


Issues of gender were raised by one woman speaker in relation to unequal representation and domestic violence, but done in the same way as has been used in Australia to provide a grounds to attack and marginalise Indigenous men in the Northern Territory.

The women who restrict their analysis to such low level categories (which factor out from understaning as much as they factor in) must now become aware of how they too are social constructions and the forces which promote them are the same oppressive forces which negate the Being of indigenous men as cultural carriers.

This is not to say there is not chaos in the lives of indigenous peoples as a result of the clash with the forcefully imposed West. It is a matter of identifying the true sources of that chaos (in non-indigenous lives and Ways) and seek to turn it off at the source. Sisters, do not aid the psychic attack directed at indigneous men by non-indingeous forces seeking to exploit the resources of other peoples!

A welcome addition to the PNG Update, asking questions from the floor, was the representative of the sex workers collective. Her presence showed that the community conversation being encouraged by this event is working.


Most of the people speaking took for granted that Western ideas of the modern nation-state must apply in New Guinea, and the ‘problem;’ is to refashion peoples’ lives and institutions to comply with this preconceived and non-indigenous notion. They typically also regard collective ownership of land as a ‘problem’ for development.

There was little evidence that the key-speaker – Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs (Pacific Island Affairs) the Hon Duncan Kerr (who had a role to play in framing the PNG Constitution) – had any awareness of the inappropriateness of British models for New Guinean peoples Ways.

But he is a Member of the Australian Federal Parliament, which does not have a single indigenous member, in a country in which indigenous Australians have no recognition and no means of political representation. So, par for the course there.

Hopefully the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting at the same time will have some important Melanesian perspectives to correct this mistaken view.


This event took place in Reconciliation Week. I did not hear any acknowledgement by the organisers or by any of the speakers of the traditional owners of the land in Sydney where the PNG Update was held.

Maybe next year the organisers could invite Koori people to give a Welcome to Country – that would make for a really good spirit to proceedings.


I do have to conclude, I did learn a lot and really appreciated being able to attend this free update.

It is a very valuable addition to Australian life, surrounded as we are by media representations that provide virtually no coverage of our true surroundings in the Pacific and Asia, but mountains of mental junk food from other distant and imperial sources.

And, hey, here comes China.


Bruce Reyburn
Monday 2 June 08