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Reading Room: Australia’s Northern Shield?

27 May 2017
Reviewed by Dr Allan Patience

Papua New Guinea rarely figures in public discussions about Australia’s defence and security planning. Australia’s policy tunnel vision focuses almost exclusively on the United States while its limited peripheral vision selectively takes in East and Southeast Asia. When it comes to PNG, Australia seems to be willfully blind.

Despite shoveling billions of dollars in aid to PNG governments since 1975, Australian governments have seen very little progress in the living conditions of everyday PNG citizens. The country bumps around at the lowest levels of the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Maternal and infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world. Violence directed at women is an everyday reality. Crime rates are skyrocketing. Illiteracy rates are climbing as schools and universities are left desperately under-resourced. Meanwhile, the country’s health care system is collapsing as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV-AIDS rates go through the roof.

Adding to this litany of misery, Transparency International’s Corruption Index annually places PNG among the most corrupt nations on earth. One PNG leader has observed that his country is “systemically” corrupt at almost every level of society. Certainly, a majority of PNG’s politicians have turned corruption into an art form.

By 2050, it is estimated that there will be 20 million people in PNG. There simply are not the resources or the levels of development to deal with this number of people. The problems of bad governance are mounting exponentially. On so many measures PNG is a failing state, and without a massive and rapid turn-around in the country’s fortunes the situation will deteriorate disastrously.

Yet, it seems that Australian governments couldn’t care less about the governance crisis looming on their northern doorstep. This is despite what is highlighted in this important book: “The closeness of Australia and Papua New Guinea, based on geography, history, and social interaction, ensures that the two countries remain of unavoidable strategic importance to each other.”

We are indebted to Bruce Hunt for showing how PNG has figured in Australia’s security thinking for well over a century. He has meticulously charted the highs and lows in that thinking, showing how various politicians and bureaucrats in Australia and in PNG have helped and hindered the snail’s pace evolution of what remains an uneasy security relationship between the two countries.

What we don’t get from this otherwise fine piece of historical scholarship is a sense of the kind of state Australia is and how its security policy is a function of that kind of state. As a dependent middle power, Australia’s gaze remains fixed on its great power ally on the other side of the Pacific. This affects its relationships with all the states in its region, more often negatively than is admitted. It is especially evident in its awkward relations, not only with PNG but also with Indonesia over West Papua and East Timor.

Bruce Hunt has shown that it’s time for some urgent rethinking to be done in this country about ‘Australia’s northern shield’.

Bruce Hunt, Australia’s Northern Shield? Papua New Guinea and the Defence of Australia since 1880, Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2017.

Dr Allan Patience is a principal fellow in political science at the University of Melbourne.