Ask almost any Australian what they think of Papua New Guinea, and the stereotyped response goes something like: “Most dangerous place in the world.” or “You’d have to be brave to go there.”
Who can blame anybody for such jaundiced views? The Australian public is merely reflecting a sensationalised media image of PNG as a murderous, lawless, corrupt state on the verge of meltdown. The Four Corners feature “Sick No Good” (broadcast on 14 August) did much to cement that view in the public mind.
Let’s make one thing clear. Without question, PNG is afflicted with enormous development problems, amongst them the alarming spread of HIV-AIDS featured on the ABC program. Add to that a level of political corruption, uncontrolled exploitation of its resources by foreign multinationals, and many other problems experienced by developing nations everywhere. Exposure of these problems should not be censored.
Australian media stand accused, not of telling the truth about PNG, but of telling only a small fraction of the truth. The bits that titillate. The bits that feed our overbearing sense of cultural superiority. The bits that spare the Australian nation the knowledge of its own role in exacerbating, if not causing, many of Papua New Guinea’s development woes.
To put this tarnished image-making into perspective, imagine for a moment that media from a dominant foreign power, say Japan, came to Australia and reported on our nation to the world. And imagine if that reporting (done without sensitivity) honed in on the “stolen generation”, the mindless ways we have destroyed our soils and river systems, the drug culture amongst youth in our cities. And imagine if this was the total image of our nation, projected to the entire world. No ability to redress or balance such a jaundiced, distorted image.
Having spent a total of four delightful years in Papua New Guinea (spread over 35 years) I have searched for the essence of that country’s culture. In doing so it eventually dawned on me how low self-esteem can affect a whole nation. This tiny nation – squeezed into a tight corner by economic globalisation, depicted unfairly as a “failed state”, pack raped for its resources – carries all the hallmarks of a person suffering from low self-esteem.
We know all about how damaging low self-esteem can be for the individual. Transpose the phenomenon of low self-esteem from the individual to an entire nation and the symptoms stay precisely the same – particularly that of self-destructiveness. Likewise the remedies. Kicking our former, struggling colony in the guts is not a recommended treatment.
PNG is nothing like the media hype suggests. Yes, the country has enormous development problems, but 95% of Papua New Guineans live simple, quiet village lives, tending their gardens, looking after their young and old, trying to straddle their rich cultures and growing modernity. In many ways they are far more reflective of, and honest about, their own problems than Australians are of theirs.
For the most part PNG culture exhibits many fine attributes that our modern nation has lost. In terms of sustainability, for instance, PNG stands head and shoulders above Australia.
To help mend the hurt felt by PNG people for their media-tarnished image, I spent many hours talking with village groups, comparing the pluses and minuses of Australia-versus-PNG cultures, and of the colonial relationship that tie the two together.
Not least I spent many hours apologising for our nation’s folly in rushing the independence of PNG 30 years ago. Few Australians are aware that the undue haste with which we withdrew in 1976 left PNG without the infrastructure, the national leadership and the administrative capacity necessary for a smooth transition to independence.
In short, they never had a chance.