Our nearest neighbour is 36 and growing stronger
Last Friday, 16 September, Papua New Guinea celebrated the 36th anniversary of its independence.
The last 36 years has been an endlessly fascinating journey for a country with which Australia has had an abiding interest. Yet you wouldn’t know this from our media. With less Australians based in PNG since Independence it seems PNG’s profile in our national discourse has diminished and this has to change.
So last night PNG’s Independence Day was marked in the Commonwealth Parliament through the inaugural PNG Independence Day Oration.
The oration was delivered by the former prime minister of PNG Sir Rabbie Namaliu. Sir Rabbie is one of PNG’s greatest leaders and statesmen. In addition to having been PNG’s fourth Prime Minister, Sir Rabbie spent 25 years in parliament serving in the ministries of foreign affairs, trade, immigration and treasury as well as being the speaker of the house.
The PNG Independence Day Oration is an opportunity every year to hear from a leading member of PNG society about contemporary PNG while at the same time celebrating PNG and its independence day in the Commonwealth Parliament.
The event is unique because there is no other country in the world which has an annual celebration of its national day inside Parliament House. Yet it is appropriate that this honour should be extended to PNG, for it was in part via an act of the Commonwealth Parliament that PNG obtained its independence in 1975.
PNG’s gaining independence was a peaceful collaboration between the territorial House of Assembly let by Michael Somare, the Whitlam Government and the United Nations. Each played a role culminating in the passage of the Papua New Guinea Independence Act 1975 by the Commonwealth Parliament which gained royal assent on 9 September 1975, just one week before the auspicious day of independence: 16 September 1975.
Two months later the Whitlam Government fell which prompted PNG’s founding Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare to quip that Australia’s Government, having gained separation from PNG, had not even been able to survive to the end of the year.
It is a testament to the remarkable longevity of Sir Michael that while Gough Whitlam ended his tenure as Prime Minister just 56 days after independence, Sir Michael was still serving in his third stint as PNG’s Prime Minister earlier this year.
Sir Michael and Gough have each been bestowed with PNG’s highest honour of being a Grand Chief and both Grand Chiefs remain close friends.
Papua New Guinea is one of Australia’s most important bi-lateral relationships. In Pacific terms PNG is a big country with a population of 6.5 million making it more than 50 per cent bigger than New Zealand.
It has long been one of our two big recipients of development assistance. This financial year we will contribute $482million in aid to PNG ranking it second in Australia’s aid contributions behind Indonesia. Australian aid is making great advances in getting vastly more kids immunised and vastly more kids off to school.
The country is experiencing a resources boom which has seen the economy grow on average over the last three years by 6.3% per annum making it the fastest growing economy in the Pacific. Two way trade between Australia and PNG stands at $5billion. The great challenge for PNG is whether it can use this latest resources boom to lift itself out of poverty and into becoming a middle income nation.
PNG is the scene of much Australian history, from the battles on Kokoda to Australian administration through to 1975. There are a large number of Australians who have spent much time in PNG.
Perhaps most obviously, PNG is our closest neighbour. Indeed there are a number of Papua New Guineans who commute daily to work across the border between their homes in the Western Province and Australia’s northern most islands of the Torres Strait.
It is arguable that there is no other country with which we share such a deep and rich relationship. The significance of the relationship has been understood by all Australian governments since 1975 and is reflected by the fact that Port Moresby houses one of Australia’s largest overseas missions. Yet the significance of the relationship is not as well understood in our contemporary national discourse. Rarely are events in PNG reported in our media.
The Independence Day Oration is a small step, among many others, to try and increase the profile of PNG in our national discourse. There are lots of ways to get your message out there but many organisations now ensure that having their day in the nation’s parliament is one of them. PNG now has its day in the building as well.
PNG is experiencing a dramatic generational change. With elections scheduled for mid 2012, the next term of government will be its most important since independence. And this means that the inauguration of the Independence Day Oration could not be better timed. So if you’ve never tuned in to the fortunes of PNG then now is the moment.
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