Papua New Guinea

I don’t think most Australians – myself included – pay as much attention as we should to the people, issues, countries and cultures in our own region.  This lack of adequate attention usually extends to the political level. It’s a positive thing that Kevin Rudd has made a formal visit to Papua New Guinea so early in his term. For a country that is our nearest neighbour and was an Australian territory less than 35 years ago, we don’t really hear or give a lot of though to what is happening in PNG.

Whilst I knew the country wasn’t in the best of shape, I was amazed to read in this piece by Mike Steketee just how serious things are there, including these very sobering facts.

If there is one measure that captures Aboriginal disadvantage, it is the 17-year gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. How much more startled should we be by a gap of 26 years? That is the reality in our nearest neighbour, with a population of 6.2million people living as close as a few hundred metres from Australian islands in the Torres Strait.

Average life expectancy of males at birth in Papua New Guinea is 53.7 and for females 54.8, according to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. They are the worst figures in the Pacific region apart from Nauru, which has a population of 9000. It puts PNG in the ranks of African countries such as Sudan and Eritrea. On the UN Human Development Index, which includes measures of education and income, as well as life expectancy, PNG ranks 145th out of 177 countries. It is one of only 14 countries where the index fell between 2000 and 2005.

Mike Bourke, an Australian National University agricultural scientist, has been involved in research and development work in PNG for 37 years.

“Things are crook in Aboriginal Australia and we should be concerned about it, but often it’s much worse in our nearest neighbour,” he says. The infant mortality rate for Australia as a whole is eight per 1000 live births. For indigenous people in the Northern Territory, it is 13 per 1000. But in PNG, it is 64, according to the secretariat’s figures. Among the bottom fifth of the population, Bourke says the rates can be 300 to 400.

The fact that I was surprised by the severity of these statistics doesn’t reflect terribly well on me. But it’s also a reminder there is not likely to be a significant improvement in the near future unless there is much more concerted effort and attention to assist countries like PNG.

The previous government overall neglect and contempt for the Pacific region was on occasion fairly obvious to behold. While I don’t expect the new Labor government to be an improvement on the previous one in all areas, I have a fair bit of hope that there will be some significant improvement in this respect.  There are two very experienced people in Bob McMullan and Duncan Kerr, as Parliamentary Secretaries for International Development Assistance and Pacific Island Affairs respectively, who will be paying a lot of attention to the region.  (although as an aside, the fact that the factionally unaligned Bob McMullan ended up as only a Parliamentary Secretary is one of the most obvious examples that Kevin Rudd was not totally accurate with his claim that he determined his Ministry solely on merit and outside of any factional influences)

Bringing an end to the mindset of Australia as the ‘Deputy Sheriff’ to the USA will also help, as will the rapid halt to bribing poor Pacific nations to be holding pens for refugees removed from Australia is a positive step. Improved governance and more active efforts to enable sustainable economic activity, including support to deal with climate change, are also fairly likely. Hopefully this will include a willingness to allow more workers from these nations into Australia.

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  1. howard didn’t see any votes in png, and that was the limit of his foreign policy.

    ruddster has a wider vision and may do something for the neighbors out of compassion, even if there are no votes in it. or maybe howard’s neglect has left a situation on the edge of explosion, and doing nothing would cost rudd votes. or maybe he’s just going to talk and do nothing.

    traveling down here in the serf-class seats, we can know little, and do nothing. but i do know, we all know, that policy made in secret will benefit the maker ahead of the serfs. the only real question is, why worry about something you cannot control or escape.

    is rudd gonna be a nicer guy? maybe. is it gonna rain? maybe.

  2. I don’t know much about PNG, but my impression is that a lot of primitive tribes live in remote areas with very rough terrain, which mitigates against access to medical treatment at appropriate times.

    Indigenous people living in remote areas will always have difficulty accessing the very infrastructure that could help them out of various forms of difficulty – diet, clean water, medicines, education, employment etc.

  3. My family and I have had a long association with PNG and its people especially with the Milne Bay province on the eastern extermities of PNG. We can also vouch for the difficulties the remote and poor people face in getting access to basic services. My wife and I and our two sons spent Christmas 2007 there and we were very saddenned by the situation facing one young woman (Aggie) and her family at Christmas. This 20 year old woman has contracted a severe brain disease that has left her totally dependant on her family. The Alotau hospital and its doctors have very little in the way of diagnostic equipment and cannot make an accurate diagnosis and have sent her home to a palliative care arrangement with her family and the local aid post to care for her until she dies. In the neighbouring village there is another family who are in difficult conditions trying to care for a young man (Vali) who also has had a disease affecting the brain.

    I feel I havn’t done enough. I could have made a submission to the 2020 summit but failed to do it. I think that Australians would be better off and more healthy if they focused more of their attention on our neighbours in need. That way Australia can become a better neighbour and leader in the region. I favour community to community approaches through local councils and workplaces and churches etc. If every local council in Australia adopted a region in a near neighbour and then facilitated knowledge and skills transfers and aid I think we would become a more truly outward focused and healthier nation. I am concerned about Australia. I recently sent a lot of emails to various organisations in Australia and overseas seeking help for Aggie but after two months I have received nothing positive back. Not so long ago I asked my local council if they would adopt Alotau as a sister town perhaps instead of Osaka in Japan. They didn’t proceed bec

  4. I’d like to know how much money Australian govts & companies have made out of PNG over the years,& how much money we’ve invested in health,education etc.After all, didn’t they play a major role helping us during WW2? Why couldn’t that young woman with that awful disease be brought to Darwin with a close family member? It seems pretty callous to just leave her,once it’s known how ill she is.
    We could do more to assist the country,and to set up employment opportunites for and with them!
    Let’s hope Kevin Rudd is more compassionate & certainly less patronizing!A refreshing change!

    I should know more about PNG-I shall investigate more about the country & its people!Any suggestions?

  5. Australia provides around $300 million dollars in aid to PNG annually, and has done so for many years. Details of the Objectvies and Stratgeuis for that aid can be found at the ausaid website.

    For once, a senate enquiry on this particualar matter in 2003, by the Foreign Affaris Defense etc Committee provides very good background, Anderw must have forgotten and might care to reacquaint himself wiht that to.

  6. I don’t know about Australians being too self focused and spoilt. I think Australians have a long history of being generous in lots of ways. My point is that I would like to see the issues especially in basic services such as water, health and education having a higher profile in the local communities in Australia and I am thinking that one way this can be done is having local councils adopting regions or districts of the poorer (especially rural)areas in our neighbouring nations. If the issues are more systematically profiled locally then Australians will have a better opportunity to see them and will respond to them. I think we can help them and they can help us. Aggie and Vali are still surviving and we havn’t given up hope and I have a feeling that somehow, someday those that need a little bit more help will get it.

  7. ITs a facinating and complex country. My partner and i worked as volunteers for a year in 94 in the Western Province (in education and development), which is where i first learnt about the Papuan (irian jaya at the time) issues – having the opportunity to visit the large refugee camp for people fleeing over the border near Kiunga.

    It really is another world away from suburban australia on so many levels. I hardly know where to start, and i was only there for a year.

    The people up near where we were had only had western contact in the eighties due to mining exploration connected with OK Tedi.

    (Tim Flannery has traveled a lot around this region and details his experiences in his book ‘THrowim away leg’ ).

  8. Congratulations Sublime Cowgirl and your partner on your volunteering effort. Volunteers are my heros. To volunteer is a leap of faith. The rural poor (ecomomically speaking)in PNG and elsewhere in the developing world are also my heros. My experience is that they live with great hope, faith and love. Though they often live in poverty of basic services with no social security as we know it they display a settled peace that is infectious. To find it is a treasure. Worth looking for. To me their wonderful contribution is their ability to live in harmony with their environment, not expecting too much from it. They are leading the world in this. This is their service which brings them peace.

  9. If you will allow me to add a little more to this debate. I suspect as Naomi does that a significant amount of the aid given to PNG by Australia comes back to Australia in repatriated earnings and profits of Australians and/or their controlled enterprises operating there but those skills and risk capital provided was needed. It might also be true to say that had Australia not granted or pushed PNG towards independence then the Australian Government would have had to pay out significantly more in welfare benefits. What was the real reason for granting independence at the time?. However at the end of the day it seems to me that Senator Bartlett is correct in his assessment. Naomi we are trying to do what we can within our means to help the young woman and man. These young people are typical of brave Papua New Guineans who lead the world in cheerfully living in harmony with their environment giving the most but receiving the least. Naomi, one good thing is that the cost of air fares to travel to and from PNG has come down due to a new air line (Airlines of PNG). The original airline is Air Niugini. They both provide good services. Lorikeet, let me say that by any definition I might be the chief self focused person. Our lives are seasons of sewing and of reaping. Be assurred I have done my fair share of reaping but I am excited about sewing. Lastly, can I reiterate that I strongly beleive that community to community ties would be beneficial over and above what the Australian Government currently does. Its more direct, more personal and more rewarding.

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