The Embarrassed Colonialist
Australia Must Come to Terms With its Role as a Former Colonial Master and Revive its Engagement With PNG

Sean Dorney, 2016

I love these Penguin Specials. For those of you who don't hang around bookshops as often as I do, Penguin Specials are an Australian imprint of short, sharp, tightly focused monographs, printed cheap and sold for a few dollars. Of particular note is this series written by members of the Lowy Institute, a highly regarded Australian foreign policy think tank.

The Embarrassed Colonialist deals with Australia's uncomfortable relationship with Papua New Guinea, and the challenges and promises that await the two in the coming decades. Few people, even few Australians, are aware that Australia is one of the few countries in history that has played the part of both servant and master in the colonial drama, having annexed Papua in the late 19th Century, and taking a League of Nations mandate over New Guinea at the conclusion of the First World War.

The tawdry rule of kings is a painfully incongruous memory for a country that places so much of its national pride in its multiculturalism, and which still nurses a bitter taste from its experience with British rule. The resulting treatment, a collective submission to amnesia, helps explain why PNG, Australia's closest neighbour and largest recipient of aid, does not feature on a single Australian school curriculum, is not home to a single foreign correspondent, and is treated as little more than a racist joke by most Australian media. These days, only a handful of Australians know anything about PNG beyond the sensationalised tabloid stories of crime in Port Moresby, the capital city. Few Australians born since PNG independence in 1975 even realise that PNG was once an Australian colony.

One of the Australians who does realise, of course, is Sean Dorney, a veteran journalist who spent over forty years living amongst the 600 islands that make up PNG. In The Embarrassed Colonialist, Dorney displays his extensive local knowledge to paint a picture of the problems that the country still faces, and the importance of the role that Australia has to play in championing development. It's at this point that it becomes slightly unfortunate that Dorney is a PNG expert, rather than a more general development scholar. The story of Australia's role in the region, far from being historically unique, is a variation on one of the main colonial themes that undergirds so much of the world's history and misery. By failing to place Australia's actions in this context, Dorney not only misses out on a vast intellectual reservoir, but unwittingly risks helping Australians sustain the lightly proferred laurel that our colonialism was somehow different.

In the historical context, Australia's role in PNG most closely resembles the 'thin white line' of indirect rule favoured by British and French colonialists in West Africa. With the obvious exception of the cocoa-bearing British Gold Coast (modern day Ghana), West Africa had little in the way of natural resources to be extracted, and colonialism in the region was largely motivated by the pre-emptive defence of shipping routes. The acquisition of resource poor (at the time, natural gas has since been discovered) PNG was similarly designed to shore up Australia's northern approach. With scant enthusiasm for the toil of serf and sweeper, colonialists in both cases invested few resources into the development of their newly acquired territories. In 1921, Australia spent a grand total of £12 on education in PNG, a number that somehow actually declined over the next two decades. When the conversation about independence started in earnest in 1970, PNG had 6 university graduates, and 122 students in their final year of high school, out of a population of over 5 million.

The lack of investment spreads far wider than simply education, of course. All Australian administration was sparse on the ground, with a pre-war peak of merely 150 patrol officers (or kiaps in the local pidgin) amongst a diverse population of nearly a million residents. Isolated in the Papuan jungles, the kiaps became authorities unto themselves, with the powers of not only judge, jury, and jailer, but tax-collector, doctor, and mayor as well. Much like their French equivalents, les rois de le brousse, the Australian kiaps were famously independent of headquarters, so much so that they were seen as rulers in their own right, rather than as agents of the state. A post-independence radio program examining the role of the kiaps was unsubtly titled "God's Shadow on Earth".

The echoes of the kiap system still ring today in the chambers of the PNG parliament. One of the world's most diverse countries, with over eight hundred languages and a clear regional split between the Highland and Lowland regions, PNG has little in the way of national unity to speak of. In the wake of independence, local administrators often assumed that they would gain the powers of the kiaps, and were surprised to learn that they were actually going to have to deal with an electorate and an independent court. Moreover, with many rural Papua New Guineans suddenly elevated from the status of tribesmen to citizens, local Members of Parliament came to be regarded as local Big Men, rather than national representatives.

With little common cause to hold the country together, corruption has become the norm in PNG, and MPs who don't return a profit to their voters are quickly replaced at the next election. However, Dorney reminds us at length that PNG is far from a failed state, with a strong rule of law and a stable and professional military. One of the highlights of the book is Dorney's retelling of the Sandline Affair (a subject on which he is a first rate expert, having written about the subject at length in his other books), when a military takeover seemed almost imminent, and was thankfully avoided. Dorney claims that PNG's saving grace was an impartial, professional military, and notes in particular the fact that the PNG military has been deliberately structured to integrate soldiers from different regions and ethnicities, rather than the more common colonial attempt to create a national military from a series of balkanised commands. This traditional model, while simple to construct, has arguably proven to be one of the worst legacies of the British tradition of lazy nation-building, with consequences as dire as the North-South schism in the Nigerian military following the Major's coup in 1966 (and the deaths of millions in the Biafran War that followed), and as timely as the ongoing dysfunction of the confessionally divided post-Saddam Iraqi Army in the fight against the Islamic State.

In The Origins of Political Order (review forthcoming), Francis Fukuyama outlines a compelling tripod of political stability: a competent independent bureaucratic state, a strong rule of law, and democratic accountability. With a strong independent court, democratic elections, and a professional military, PNG is well on the way to stable development, though plenty of work remains to be done. PNG politics, while democratic, is highly unstable and energetically populist, with Prime Ministers replaced every few months. Despite the successes of the military, the less bellicose sectors of the public service remain thoroughly captured by political patronage networks, and jobs are handed out by local politicians in return for loyalty and campaign support.

It's on these frameworks that Dorney's book stumbles. Whilst a first-rate chronicler of the specifics of the Papua New Guinean experience, neither the history nor the future of the country can be properly understood without first grasping the deeper theoretical underpinnings, rather than the particulars of how this script has played out in the Southwestern Pacific. Without this foundation layer, the reader is asked to simply accept at face value Dorney's claim that now is the time that we dare not stoop to less, instead of being able to understand how the necessary conditions for stable development have been laid. But Dorney proceeds without pause for doubters, and The Embarrassed Colonialist concludes with a detailed list of simple proposals to help improve life for the average Papua New Guinean. Some of Dorney's proposals deal with the opaque bureaucracy of foreign aid budgets, but most are aimed at improving cultural links between the two nations, by fostering tourism, improving access for journalists, and even adjusting visa regulations to get more PNG players in the Australian National Rugby League. These measures seem modest, but the implicit argument is that bolder action will remain politically infeasible as long as the Australian public continues to retreat from PNG as "our unfortunate illegitimate child that we are ashamed of". Ultimately, the first thing that Dorney is calling Australians to is awareness.

Reading The Embarrassed Colonialist would be an excellent first step.

Credit here goes to Embiggen Books, a cromulently titled independent bookstore in my home town of Melbourne. Always one of my first stops whenever I return.

The cover image is shows an Australian kiap patrol officer working side by side with Papua New Guineans to launch a traditional fishing canoe. It is part of a collection from the National Archives of Australia