On a trip to Papua New Guinea recently, I watched from the window of a small plane as the rugged terrain of the Southern Highlands started changing shape. Beneath me, a thousand people were at work, building a three kilometre airstrip that will be one of the longest in the country. This is no simple bulldozing job. The fall between the highest and lowest points of land is a staggering 60 metres. This airstrip is literally being carved out of the mountains.
Around the site, thatched roof village huts share space with an army of graders and giant earthmovers. Colorful, traditional dress comes face to face with Bisley work gear, hard hats and boots.
The runway is part of the LNG Project which could see PNG’s GDP increase by as much as 20%. It is the flagship project of an economy enjoying its greatest growth since PNG’s independence.
The whole scene is modern PNG at its best: cutting edge industrial technology in a setting which genuinely contains elements of life that have been constant for millennia.
PNG is truly the land of the unexpected and the amazing.
This country is home to seven million people and the PNG Government forecasts this could rise to almost 20 million by 2050. It’s economy looks set to grow as fast as China this year and with growth comes opportunities for investment.
Yet, despite this and the fact that it is our nearest neighbor, PNG does not hold the place it should in our national discourse. For most Australians, our connections and shared fate are not properly acknowledged.
For much of the last century Australia was the colonial administrator of PNG.
We remember the vital battle for Kokoda and our military history in PNG but we know little about the civilian angle: the administrators who ran our League of Nations and UN trusteeships; the explorers who “opened up” the Highlands; those who helped create the constitution that gave PNG its independence.
Our knowledge of PNG’s present and future is even more scratchy. We hear the reports of violence, corruption and poverty. But much of our media coverage of PNG paints a simplistic and stereotypical picture of a developing country.
Yet there is more — much more — to PNG and to our bilateral relationship. Geography and history dictates that Australians and Papua New Guineans will be essential partners in a joint future.
PNG is 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 trade with the region: nearly 90% of Pacific islands’ exports to Australia come from PNG.
Our total annual trade is worth about $5billion, and we have $6billion 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.
Politically, PNG is at an important juncture. Sir Michael Somare has indicated he will retire from politics at the 2012 elections after ten consecutive years as Prime Minister. So those elections will in all likelihood usher in a new generation of PNG leaders who will have to make major decisions about the future the country faces.
The “PNG:Today and Tomorrow” Symposium is a challenge to Australian academia to take a fresh look at PNG and make it a priority.
In Australia, we should be world experts on PNG and the Pacific. We need to foster a new generation of scholars looking at PNG. We need our brightest and our best to focus on our neighbourhood.
The current mixture of economic, social and political issues makes PNG more interesting than ever. The rise of China and India is lifting the greatest number of people in history out of poverty. So, are we asking the right questions about how we might bring about a similar transformation much closer to home?
Three hours’ flight from Brisbane is a rich, vibrant young nation with one of the oldest agricultural societies in the world, an amazing and beautiful environment and a multiplicity of cultures. It’s a country that offers us many challenges and many opportunities. It’s our closest neighbor, and we need to know it a lot better.
* Richard Marles is Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs. With Deakin University, he is hosting a symposium “Papua New Guinea: Today and Tomorrow” in Melbourne this Friday, 27 May.
Speech: PNG - Today and Tomorrow? Opening Address. 27 May 2011
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