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.