October 26, 2012
Ties between the island nations of Papua New Guinea and Australia remain strong despite PNG achieving independence from its closest southern neighbour almost 40 years ago.
In an amicable arrangement between the two nations, what was then the Australian territories of Papua and New Guinea became the independent state of Papua New Guinea in 1975.
When Pastor John Howlett, who now lives in the northern Perth suburb of Ballajura, left Australia for PNG in 1965, there was one thing on his mind: adventure.
That adventure would see he, then 21, and many other young Australians set the foundation for PNG’s development.
This generation of young Australians became district administrators, police officers, teachers and patrol officers among other roles.
“We had all these different duties and we would go into the remote places of PNG to ensure services got to people,” Pastor Howlett told InkWire.
“We would do the Census and also do medical supplies.
“Language was a challenge back then but we managed.”
He said that Australians in his shoes had to learn fast in order to adjust to a different way of life, survive and leave a legacy that has remained for many years.
PNG High Commissioner in Australia Charles Lepani says Australia’s colonial legacy is still influencing what PNG is today.
“So its colonial legacy will continue to impact PNG’s development with our bilateral relationship at official level and at people to people level,” Mr Lepani told InkWire.
Mr Lepani said that, before PNG, Australia had not had any experience colonising a country.
He said PNG’s eventual independence was a rapid transition for both nations.
Mr Lepani said an icon of the friendship between the two countries was the Kokoda Track where Australian and Japanese forces battled during World War II.
The untiring assistance provided to Australian soldiers by indigenous Papua New Guineans has become the stuff of Australian legend.
To this day, Australian school children, sporting teams, politicians, and family of Australian soldiers who died during the war go back to walk the track to remember those who died.
Political, administrative and education systems established by Australia have flowed through to post-independence PNG.
“In the end though it is not Australia so much as we Papua New Guineans who need to take on the challenge of developing our country,” Mr Lepani said.
He said PNG had progressed in many ways, particularly in managing its economy with impressive performance over the last decade.
However, he said more needed to be done to deliver services to rural people.
“Australia will continue to play a key role as our development partner but also mutually respecting our sovereignty and we relate to each other as equal partners not one dependent on the other,” Mr Lepani said.
“The move to do away with the Development Cooperation Treaty which has signified PNG’s dependence on Australia’s Aid in the past, and replace it with the economic cooperation treaty, signifies a rebalancing of our official bilateral relations to one of trade and investment and commerce and will be beneficial for both of our countries going forward.”
Perth-based mining professional Alan Bong says PNG has progressed since independence, but at a very slow pace.
He said the opening of the Manus detention centre, which will help Australia with its ‘processing’ of asylum seekers, was a modern-day bond shared by PNG and Australia.
Another area of collaboration was the recruitment of skilled workers from PNG by Australian mining companies.
He said that iIn Western Australia alone there was an estimated 2000 PNG citizens working in mining-related jobs.
“This will continue for some time which has an impact on skills in PNG industries and unless both countries put in place mechanisms to control this, PNG will be disadvantaged,” Mr Bong said.
“For those of us living and working in Australia, a developed country, we are exposed to a lifestyle that is prosperous, good health and education systems and it is safe and stable,” he said.
“What we learn from our time living in Australia needs to be used to influence our families back home, our villages and towns, local and provincial authorities and at the national level.”
Photo: Hilda Wayne