It takes awhile to get to know Papua New Guinea – in the early 1990s it was not the place to be.

The nation’s capital was encased in razor-wire. Nightly curfews were imposed. Political observers were writing it off as a failed state – part of an arc of instability to our immediate north. Australia made it difficult for Papua New Guineans to obtain visitor’s visas and it was almost impossible for them to be involved in our seasonal work program.

In 1997 the Sandline affair involving the engagement of foreign mercenaries to provide a military solution to the Bougainville situation took the country to the brink. The compound at the Australian High Commission became known as ‘Fort Shitscared’ as officials and expatriates took shelter within its secure perimeter.

Security goons at Brisbane airport insulted PNGs revered Grand Chief and Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare by ordering him to remove his shoes on arrival in 2005. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he saw no reason to apologise to him.

The following year we saw Australia try to assist with an ‘Enhanced Cooperation Program’ which saw Federal female police officers searching men’s bilum bags at Boroko markets. They were obviously unaware of the insult caused by their actions in a traditional patriarchal society.

The program was shut down after some firebrand MPs objected. This led to a ‘looking north’ policy to break the shackles of paternalistic Australian Aid.

Brett Caldwell summarized our indifference to PNG in an article titled ‘Indifference’ :

‘PNG’s fundamental nature is elusive, at least to foreigners. The small, culturally diverse population accounts for more than eight hundred and fifty of the six thousand or so existing human languages. Some clans still live among the bones of their ancestors, cloistered in isolated mountain valleys, in hamlets clinging to coastal fringes or scattered along the banks of slothful rivers. Many people live in shantytowns that hug the bounds of the young nation’s callow, betel nut-spit splattered cities.

‘Paradox prevails. It is a land where arse-grass and penis gourds mix with Hugo Boss suits and Rolex watches; where some men mine the hearts of volcanoes for gold, while others worship the spirits of ancestral crocodiles. It is a place where ferociously decorated warriors battle over women, land and pigs, with stout bows and homemade shotguns; where Asian loggers plunder ancient forests alongside Christian missionaries harvesting souls, and where Australian government bureaucrats try to impose their antipodean canons upon a culture where blood and bribery are thicker than holy water.’