GERALDINE DOOGUE: Well a few weeks back I referred to Indonesia as our nearest neighbour, which prompted a flurry of responses from listeners, asking if I'd just forgotten about Papua New Guinea. Fair point. But perhaps my lapse does demonstrate what my next guests might say is a general lack of interest in our northern neighbour, which we ignore at our peril. Papua New Guinea’s on the cusp of a great change through a resources boom and population growth and it seems pretty sure that PNG’s influence in the region is set to grow.
Its development and our neighbourly relationship is something of a preoccupation for Richard Marles. He’s the Parliament Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and a driving force for a symposium held yesterday organised by the Alfred Deakin Research Institute that canvassed what the future might hold for PNG.
Richard joins me now along with two other symposium participants, Anthony Regan, a fellow in the Melanesia program at the ANU, and Dr Ceridwen Spark, a post-doctoral fellow at Victoria University in Melbourne.
Welcome to you all.
RICHARD MARLES: Good morning Geraldine.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Richard to you first. PNG ought to be able to enjoy a resources boom. It’s rich in minerals and natural gas. But previously these resources have been something of a curse. Has anything changed to alter this? Is PNG likely this time round to develop more peacefully, via the wealth of its natural resources?
RICHARD MARLES: Well I think that question and whether we see development – through the development of its natural resources income and prosperity flowing to the entire population is really the question at the moment in Papua New Guinea. The LNG project, which is currently under way in the Southern Highlands, at the upper most estimates, they're talking about increasing GDP in PNG by 20 per cent and I think you rightly put it, we've got – Papua New Guinea and the region’s got to make sure that in seeing this wonderful opportunity arise, that the benefits really do flow to the entire community.
And I think there is some hope in that. There is a real commitment on the part of the Papua New Guinea government to put in place sovereign wealth funds for example…
GERALDINE DOOGUE: I think AusAID’s doing quite a lot of work with the government, isn't it, to try to establish that fund?
RICHARD MARLES: Yes and not just AusAID, but our Department of Finance for example is working closely with theirs to try and put in place the machinery to have a sovereign wealth fund, which really will then see, if they can get it up and running, the benefits of this wonderful project flow to the entire community. And I think it is best emblematic of your introduction that the LNG project really highlights the pivotal moment that we see in Papua New Guinea’s history. And what kind of Papua New Guinea we're talking about, over the course really of the first half of this century, I think is going to be determined by how this project is delivered.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: And just a statistic if you don't mind before we head into the next part of the discussion. Is it fair to say that PNG is set to grow at the same sort of rate as China? That’s what’s being touted.
RICHARD MARLES: Well that’s right. We're seeing enormous economic growth in PNG. I mean PNG is enjoying all the benefits of the resources boom that we are here in Australia and that’s to do with our proximity to China and other developing countries in Asia but they of course are incredibly resource rich. So they absolutely are set to grow at that rate but the growth alone isn't going to deliver the result in PNG. We've got to make sure that the proper governance mechanisms are in place so that this really does represent a wholesale lifting of PNG from a reasonably poor state right now to a middle economy.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Anthony Regan, you've travelled to PNG for many years. I think you even called it home for 15 years. Are you optimistic that PNG is up to the task of meeting some of the systems challenges that it clearly faces?
ANTHONY REGAN: Yes, PNG has proved a remarkably resilient state. At the same time there’s a lot of stresses and strains; capacity in the state, in a lot of aspects of the state institutions is weak. Civil society capacity is certainly growing but its ability to put pressure on government is limited. And it’s a country of just unparalleled ethnic and cultural diversity, which makes the whole process of developing and managing resources very difficult.
There’s been a lot of conflict around development of resources in the past, most notably Bougainville, where one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines was shut down, largely because of the difficulty of managing tensions over the distributions of benefits and the managing of the impacts of mining. A lot’s been learnt since then, that happened in 1988.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Well in fact you're talking about Bougainville and you do use these words for the title of your address, Inspirational Peace Building and Intriguing Prospects Centred on Bougainville, a place many Australians of course know endured years of bitter conflict centring on that Panguna copper mine, and the fact that it was resolved, I think for many of us, is quite remarkable.
Would you say the government in Port Moresby has been able to fully rebuild relations in Bougainville? Is that what you mean by intriguing prospects?
ANTHONY REGAN: They've done pretty well. One of the great strengths of Papua New Guinea, despite the cultural diversity is that there’s a lot of continuities in culture across the country. And one of the things that helped resolve the conflict was that there’s a tendency in Papua New Guinea, when there’s been conflict, after people realise that if they keep going with conflict that the damages are going to be too difficult to manage, there’s a tendency to try and restore balance through reconciliation, and that was a big part of what enabled the governments of Papua New Guinea and the leadership of Bougainville to resolve things. And that’s an aspect of culture which provides a great deal of strength in Papua New Guinea.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: What do you mean? Is that – that’s embedded, that pre-dates the arrival of the modern world, do you mean? Or is it something that’s…
ANTHONY REGAN: Yes. Absolutely. You're dealing with very small social groups. There are large clans in parts of the Highlands, which are a bit more like African tribes but nothing of the same sort of strength and dominance. And within all of those tiny societies there was a tendency to manage conflict through all sorts of conflicts, mechanisms, of balanced exchanges and reciprocal arrangements of one kind or another, all sorts of ceremonial things attached to it.
And people in Papua New Guinea still think that way. When there’s problems in general is when things have gone to a certain degree. And usually when things have got to such a pass that it’s recognised that there'll be serious difficulties if you don't restore relationships. There’s all sorts of pressures brought to bear to restore and make a workable relationship again. And that was a big part of the Bougainville peace process.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Now I wonder how it will work then in the light of the vote. Bougainvilleans will vote sometime in the next few years, certainly before 2020, on whether to become an independent state. Would they want it, given what you've just described there?
ANTHONY REGAN: Well they – in addition to having these pressures towards reconciliation and restoration of relations, they also face a lot of the modern tendencies. There is a separate ethnic identity in Bougainville, separate from the rest of Papua New Guinea, something that’s developed really through colonialism because there was 25 or more languages in Bougainville amongst the 250,000 people.
So on their own, Bougainvilleans tend to divide on all sorts of lines, but because of the particular history of Bougainville’s feeling of grievances around mining and other matters, that’s tended to combine Bougainvilleans as a single ethnic group. And that’s now driving a tendency towards separation.
There’s a very good peace agreement, which gives Bougainville a high level of autonomy and the ability to decide for themselves, whether mining for example will resume and how mining revenues will be distributed if mining is re-established. And if Papua New Guinea works well with the Bougainvilleans and makes Bougainvilleans feel that the autonomy arrangements have enough benefits for Bougainville, there’s s good chance that Bougainvilleans will vote to stay within. But it’s pretty unpredictable Geraldine.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: My guests on Saturday – can I just tell our guests what we're talking about. We're talking about PNG, as part of a big symposium at Deakin University and you've been hearing Richard Marles, the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs and Anthony Regan, a fellow in the Melanesia program at the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU.
And just before I come back to you Anthony, I must bring in Dr Ceridwen Spark, who’s been very patient, because I just want to slightly turn the conversation towards women in PNG, because women were crucial in that peace settlement on Bougainville. But particularly women who are tertiary educated, whom you've been studying. It’s a small group of women but I gather your findings were pretty disturbing. Can you give us a summary of your research please?
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: I've interviewed women, tertiary educated women, over the last few years, most of whom are in the 25 to 30 year old age bracket and I think whilst you said that there are some disturbing findings, there’s also some really encouraging findings about these predominantly young women. I've just come back from PNG actually and I really feel quite inspired by many of them. They've just got such determination and such capacity to make incredibly valuable contributions in all sorts of ways to the societies in which they live.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Yes I've met them too and I know exactly what you mean. But what I was getting at was you write of domestic violence being normalised and that it would seem – you tell me if I'm getting it wrong – that in all but the rarest of cases, to be honest, women experience violence at the hands of their husbands and so the younger women are looking and saying, well I don't think I want anything of this.
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: Yes I guess what I was going to say, having sort of acknowledged the strength and the capacity of these women, was that the thing that they were saying very strongly was that they were avoiding personal – entering into personal relationships with men because they perceived doing so as a threat to their career prospects, to their sense of autonomy and indeed to their personal safety.
I think what that shows is that there’s a cost for these women in terms of – it’s not just a straightforward story of tertiary education equals achievement and equals sort of striding into the male corridors of power. They're very much women who are on the cups of change and in that role, they're – they actually face all kinds of demonization in the society in which they live and work.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: So they turn out to be the really – the leading edge of change in a whole lot of ways and they know it, don't they?
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: Yeah, very much so and they're actually pariahs in some contexts. So whilst we might look at them and just see how wonderful they are in what they're achieving, it’s just not that simple. When you actually start to scratch the surface of their lives and many of them really – you know, they may not marry or if they do, that will really have significant impact on what they're able to achieve.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Who are they turning to for support then? I mean is there a sort of a group – is there any sense of the growing support groups that certainly happen here in Australia to try to support these women? Is there anything Australia could do in that respect?
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: I think – two things I would say to that. One is that in my interviews I really found there really was a significant absence of role models for these women and I think in many respects, whilst they have – they might refer to their mothers or their aunties, there’s just not a whole lot of women that they can refer to. So they really, I guess it just emphasises that they're sort of at the leading edge of change. But the second thing that strikes me is a group of women actually met me at the Holiday Inn on just this last Sunday and we did a whole lot of interviews and …
GERALDINE DOOGUE: [interrupts] Because you were born and grew up yourself in PNG, weren't – didn't…
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: Yes. Yes I was. What struck me is just the strength of their friendships and I think whilst they're turning away from heterosexual partnerships to some extent, or certainly not buying into them wholeheartedly, they're really very much a support to one another because I think they are aware of their minority status.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Richard Marles you must listen to this, given that you're so interested in the place, with interest. Do you – more than interest – do you think the culture of violence against women and the so-called big man politics that operates in PNG, do you think they're an impediment, a genuine impediment now to the country’s development?
RICHARD MARLES: Well what I do think is that clearly the Pacific and PNG certainly as a part of it, needs to be doing better in relation to women’s representation within their government systems. In PNG for example you've got one woman sitting in the parliament now, Dame Carol Kidu, who is an absolutely inspirational human being.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: She’s an Australian who married into a PNG family.
RICHARD MARLES: She is but she’s very much a Papua New Guinean now.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: She is.
RICHARD MARLES: That’s where her heart is and in a way I think, not just PNG, but in a way I think the whole region is looking to who will be the inheritor of her political legacy within PNG as she’s announced that she'll not be standing again in the 2012 elections. But the overall point that I was going to make is that if you look at the 12 countries in the Pacific who are members of the United Nations, not one of them have more than five per cent of women within their parliament.
And it is a real issue of the region and I think ways in which we can get women participating more in governance is something that needs to be pursued. And the overall observation I would then make is the fact that women are not more involved in governance in the region is reflected in terms of other indices around women, social indices, such as what Ceridwen has been describing. But also the really big one in PNG is the mortality rate for women giving birth and these issues need to be addressed and I think they become addressed when women are participating within the political process.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Anthony, seeing we're on a – looking hopefully to PNG, what would you say, with your knowledge of the place, might enable a better participation of women, if that enables a whole lot of other things to occur at the same time?
ANTHONY REGAN: I think what’s happening in Papua New Guinea in relation to women is to some extent a very modern political struggle, as women start to break out of customary social structures, which gave them to a large extent secondary roles. And as women become educated they tend to be coming into public roles and that’s very threatening for Papua New Guinean men. And I think that’s a part of why there’s reactions often within marriages.
And women are finding all sorts of ways of gradually asserting new roles. In Bougainville you mentioned the great success of the peace process being the involvement of women. I'm a little bit of a heretic there. I don't think it was especially women’s peace process. In fact the women who were involved in the peace process were remarkable women who stood against often women who were supporting conflict, which is what you would expect.
There were remarkable men and remarkable women who stood up for peace and often at great personal cost. But educated women have been very successful in using the Bougainville peace process to help advance the position of women, to get it accepted that women can have their own NGOs and their own spokesmen and so on. And that’s not easy even because as the peace process got underway, the male leaders tended to be saying, well, yeah, you women, you play the sort of customary role of peacemaking, that’s good. Now get back to your original roles.
Women again asserted themselves and they got three reserved seats for women in the 40 member Bougainville legislature, established under the peace agreement. And there’s an ongoing struggle as women, to my mind, are doing what women all over the world are still having to do because women are still…
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Change this very rigid divisions of labour and influence and power.
ANTHONY REGAN: Yeah.
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: There’s an important global finding that intimate partner violence is actually the highest in societies in transition.
ANTHONY REGAN: Yeah.
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: So when women are in traditional roles, they don't really constitute a threat. When they've achieve sufficient power to actually have some kick – some say in society then they're a little bit less subject to violence. But it’s the societies in transition in which, yeah, women are most subject to violence by their partners.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Look I do notice that one of the – maybe we can finish on this – Jonathon Ritchie is one of the presenters at the conference and he suggests a narrative has to be built for the nation, the importance of life stories really and that you know all countries have their narrators. Ours for better or worse emerges from Gallipoli and maybe now from Kokoda and so on and so forth.
What might it be for PNG? Do you agree Ceridwen – who've obviously watched this closely – do you think that that is a sort of a bit of a vacuum at the moment?
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: I do think it is. And one of the things that I was just doing in PNG was talking to a group who make really great films with local people. And what I'm wanting to do with them is work with them to make some biographical films about women and women who are leaders in PNG, because whilst I think there’s a general paucity of biographical material about people who have been important in Papua New Guinea and in our – in recent history, I think this is particularly so in the case of women. And I think starting to tell some of those stories is – would be part of contributing to what Jonathon’s talking about, in terms of creating a sense of a narrative about who we've been and what we're becoming.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Could I just give Anthony the quick final word on that question of national narrative? Does it matter, do you think?
ANTHONY REGAN: Yes I think it’s true but I don't think these sorts of things are easily constructed. People choose their own narratives. So Gallipoli, you couldn't have said aha, we're landing at Gallipoli, let’s construct a national narrative…
GERALDINE DOOGUE: But it was constructed afterwards as we know by C E W Bean.
ANTHONY REGAN: It was. He helped but it was much more than that. It was the experience of a country. This was a transforming experience and there are transforming experiences going on in Papua New Guinea. The big shift from fully customary rural to urban and modern. There’s all sorts of struggles going on in that and people are constructing their own, the language is changing. The PNG pidgin is an incredibly adaptive creative exciting language and I think that will come. I think it’s important. The point Jonathon’s making’s important, but I think for people in Australia it'll be a matter of sitting back and watching. We – I don't think we can help much to create the narratives.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: Well look thank you all very much indeed. That’s – I think there’s been a slightly different conversation to what we normally have on PNG. So that’s a good thing.
Thank you all for joining us, Richard Marles in Canberra, Anthony Regan and Ceridwen Spark in Melbourne. Thank you all very much indeed.
ANTHONY REGAN: Thank you.
DR CERIDWEN SPARK: Thank you Geraldine.
GERALDINE DOOGUE: And Richard is Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Affairs. Anthony Regan at the ANU, Ceridwen Spark at Victoria University and details of that special seminar yesterday at Deakin University will be on our website.
- Parliamentary Secretary's Office: (02) 6277 4330
- Departmental Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555