A very warm welcome to you all to this inaugural Symposium — ‘PNG Today and Tomorrow?’.
It is a real thrill to see so many people with interests and connections to Papua New Guinea gathered here together.
Next time we’ll need a bigger room and that — in itself — is great news.
I know many of you are here because you share my conviction that PNG is a critical relationship for Australia.
I know that you also believe that we need to better understand the tremendous changes that are happening in PNG and what they will mean for PNG, and for Australia.
My vision for this symposium is that we begin a journey that will raise the level of discourse about PNG — in academia, in business, in Government and — I dearly hope — in daily life in Australia.
All of us have a role to play in this.
But I believe it will be academia that will feed and sustain a longer term appetite for knowledge and interest in PNG.
And so this journey has begun with today’s Symposium.
I want to thank Deakin University for all the work it has done to bring this Symposium to life. I thank Jane for her leadership and David Lowe and his team for delivering this excellent program and for making today happen.
I would also like to thanks Professor Andrew McIntyre from the Australian National University for his help in making this day a reality.
I first became fascinated by PNG when I visited on a school trip in 1984. We hiked in the Highlands and went to places which had not seen a European face in years.
We stayed in village huts. We mucked around with our contemporaries at the local school, and slept in their accommodation. We saw grand resource projects and monuments to our grand military history in this place.
For me, it was — quite simply — love at first sight.
Since then I have returned to PNG, working with a legal firm, as a representative of the ACTU, and now as the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs.
Of course, I now feel very fortunate that my role allows me to continue this interest, and — in whatever way I can — to strengthen the bonds between our countries.
All of these roles have impressed upon me that PNG is so crucially important to Australia.
We are two countries inextricably linked.
Be it economic opportunities, be it security, be it development assistance, be it our shared love of sport — Australia and PNG are the closest of friends — we are almost like family with New Zealand, PNG is really one of the closest relationships this country has.
Geography and history dictate that Australians and Papua New Guineans will be essential partners in a shared future.
At a government level, the significance of the relationship is understood. Port Moresby is one of Australia’s top five overseas missions. PNG is one of our two big recipients of development assistance.
These are powerful statements, over a long period time, under Australian Government’s of all persuasions, about the significance of our relationship with PNG.
But in our universities, in our media, in our popular culture, we are simply not giving the attention to PNG that it deserves.
And even when PNG is being reported, I’m not sure we get anything like a complete or accurate picture.
Because we are so close, we need to make an extra effort to ensure we know each other well.
That’s why Deakin University and I decided to convene this seminar.
I think it is important that academia and the government talk to each other: the government should have access to the widest possible sources of information and advice.
Academia should not just be about research; it should seek to provide this advice, as Dr Shergold recently challenged it to do.
This is particularly important in relation to Papua New Guinea, by far the largest Pacific island country.
With more than 60% of the population of the Pacific, it has a larger population than New Zealand.
It dominates our regional trade, accounting for nearly 90 % of exports from Pacific island countries’ to Australia.
Our total annual trade is worth about $5 billion, and we have $6 billion invested in each others’ economies.
Next financial year we’ll provide PNG with about $480 million in development assistance, second only to Indonesia.
Like Australia, PNG is a Pacific country that is also looking to Asia.
It too is currently enjoying a mining boom, based on its extraordinarily rich natural-resources.
But the scale of its boom, in relative terms, is even greater than ours.
While mining makes up around 50% of our exports — accounting for 10% of our GDP — it represents 80% of PNG exports, and around 50% of GDP.
Dealing with such booms is challenging.
Both Australia and PNG are grappling with these challenges.
To paraphrase Churchill, the problems of economic booms are much more agreeable than those of economic decline, but they are no less difficult.
Even handling the money generated by mining booms isn’t easy.
Australia leads the world on sovereign wealth fund development. These are crucial to countries, particularly developing ones, to ensure wealth from mining booms is not wasted.
We have much more to learn from each other in managing landholder relations. Indeed, the discipline of anthropology is now heavily supported by mining companies needing “social mapping” — so the companies know who the landholders, and their heirs, are.
Some lessons have come at too high a cost in PNG — the Ok Tedi mine, or Panguna in Bougainville.
Lessons have been learned, though, and Australian companies are now world leaders in environmental protection.
Yet we need to keep learning, particularly as newer areas are opened to exploration.
And protection of PNG’s many pristine areas is arguably a global responsibility, given its amazing diversity and biological wealth — something scholars like Tim Flannery and Jared Diamond have drawn from.
While mining, and the significant investment associated with it, will change PNG, there is an even greater revolution underway.
The telecommunications revolution is about to change PNG in untold ways.
There are 100,000 internet subscribers in PNG today. How many will there be in a decade? What effects will this have?
PNG has an open, free and highly robust press — but with a relatively limited readership.
Radio reaches more people, and remains critical.
But the spread of the internet and, in particular, the explosion in mobile-phone use offer ordinary Papua New Guineans unprecedented access to information.
As events in the Middle East this year have shown — the internet is a force for democracy and accountability.
How will this affect Papua New Guineans’ expectations of the political process?
PNG’s unbroken record of democratic government is a major achievement, matched by few countries in the developing world.
And it’s a passionate proponent of democratic values.
Indeed, the PNG Foreign Minister joined me at the recent MCG meeting seeking to encourage the restoration of democracy in Fiji.
But, politically, PNG is at an important juncture. Next year’s election will be critical.
The generation of politicians which led PNG to independence is now gradually making way for a new generation of leaders.
This new generation faces challenges that concern us all.
Despite its mineral wealth, despite our efforts as PNG’s principal development partner, PNG is not on track to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals.
I’m certain Papua New Guineans would agree that PNG can improve its performance in areas such as maternal health and education: although there’s been good progress with school enrolment rates rising from just over 50 per cent in 2007 to almost 75 per cent now.
Still, too many people die from such preventable diseases as cholera.
There is, too, much to be done to address the high levels of personal violence, particularly violence directed against women.
We also need to provide assistance in seeing the development of the PNG tertiary sector. The PNG Tertiary Review, commissioned by former Prime Minister Rudd and PM Somare, has sought to place an emphasis on this in meeting the challenges of PNG’s future.
This is particularly so with respect to UPNG — at which some of you here today have taught or studied — because it is such an important institution, and I would like to acknowledge the presence here today of Professor Ross Hynes, the VC of UPNG.
Today, I also want to challenge Australian academia.
We should be world experts on PNG, continually renewing our cohort of scholars who focus on PNG.
We need also to rebuild a Pacific community of scholars.
And we need to encourage those scholars to contribute solutions to the many challenges we face together.
And, in years to come, I hope this Symposium will offer a forum to showcase the very best work being done by Australian academics on PNG. I hope it plays a small role in encouraging academics to think more about PNG.
Three hours' flight from Brisbane, PNG is at our doorstep — a rich, vibrant young nation that is home to one of the oldest agricultural societies in the world.
As our closest neighbour, we need to get to know it better.
And that opportunity is ahead of us today.
Op-ed: PNG - Today and Tomorrow. 27 May 2011
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