While the arrival of half-a-dozen Australian Government Ministers in PNG during their annual ‘Repentance Day’ holiday is coincidental it does provide a timely opportunity to offer some repentance of our own for the past few decades of paternalism in our relationship with our closest neighbour, former territory, fellow Commonwealth Member and wartime ally.
The delegation is obviously an outcome of the recent visit to Australia by Prime Minister James Marape who was accorded VIP treatment by our PM, Scott Morrison. Indeed it was the highest profile visit by any PNG Prime Minister for at least three decades and there is no doubt the two leaders have developed a close friendship.
I would hope the Ministerial delegation will include a visit to Bomana War Cemetery to allow them to pay their respects to the thousands of young Australian and Papuan soldiers who gave their lives in defence of the freedom we enjoy in both countries today.
One cannot visit Bomana without feeling an intense sense of pride in the work the Office of Australian War Graves do in maintaining such a sacred site. It was therefore disappointing to see our Minister for Veterans Affairs was not part of the delegation in view of the fact that PNG is the custodian of land sacred to our shared wartime heritage.
Bomana is not only a sanctuary for reflection on past sacrifice it is also a gateway for relationship building as increasing numbers of Australians are seeking pilgrimages to battlefields in Kokoda, Buna, Gona, the Black Cat Track, Shaggy Ridge, Milne Bay, Lae and Rabaul. Over the past decade more than 50,000 Australians have trekked across the Kokoda Trail which has generated more than $150 million for tourism income.
Unfortunately the mood of the delegation will change if they are venture beyond Bomana.
A visit to the start of the Kokoda Trail at Owers Corner will expose a shameful neglect of one of our most significant sites – one that has the potential to be the next most important wartime site after Bomana because of its road access from the nation’s capital of Port Moresby.
The pride our Ministers felt at Bomana will quickly dissipate as they observe what can only be described as a memorial junkyard. No amount of foot-shuffling or weasel words from local DFAT official will explain the reason for what is truly a national disgrace.
Local villagers, the custodians of the site, invariably gather to try and sell a bilum bag or a can of soft-drink whenever visitors arrive but they rarely make a sale because groups usually bring their own esky – local benefits from the 5000 visitors each year is virtually zero as a result. It’s ironic that these are the very people we are supposed to help but over the last 10 years the taxpayer funded ‘Kokoda Initiative’ has been in existence nobody has ever conducted a local workshop at Owers Corner to see how we could work together to meet their local needs. Nobody has made any attempt to get them to establish an Incorporated Landowner’s Group – and nobody has commissioned a Military Heritage Architect to develop an interpretive plan to honour our shared wartime heritage at the site.
Hopefully somebody in the Ministerial delegation might ask why not? They might also ask what have Australian envirocrats in PNG on eye-watering 6-figure salary packages done with the $50 million plus they have spent over the past decade – and what are the outcomes?
The old chestnut of helping PNG protect the Brown River Catchment Area due to its importance to the future water supply of Port Moresby doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. While desktop bound envirocrats in the Port Moresby based ‘Kokoda Initiative’ have been busily engaging friendly Australian consultants to conduct social mapping projects, capacity building-mentoring programs, gender-equity studies, ‘village livelihood’ experiments, etc the Chinese Government has moved in and gone ahead with the construction of a $300 million dam on the Brown River. ‘Hey Aussie – Oi! Oi! Oi!’
The delegation will obviously not have time to proceed beyond Owers Corner – but if they did they would find that after 10 years, there is still no plan to honour and interpret our shared wartime heritage. Not a single interpretive memorial has been developed since the envirocrats took charge in 2008. There is not a single toilet that meets the most basic hygiene standards. There is not a bridge that could be classified as safe – sections of the trail are dangerously unsafe. Campsites are woefully inadequate – and it is not possible to even book one. Local villagers have no idea who is arriving – or when – so they are unable to prepare to provide value-adding services for them. There is no welfare system to support local guides, carriers and villagers. There is no plan to maintain the environmental integrity of the trail. There is no protection for the historical protection of significant sites.
The battlesite of Isurava was honoured with a significant memorial by Prime Ministers’ John Howard and Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare in 2002 – a memorial that has since taken on a spiritual ambience.
Unfortunately the surrounding areas for visitors are a disgrace – inadequate toilets and showers, a ludicrous maintenance contract and no plans for local villagers to value-add to the 3500 trekkers who visit the memorial each year.
The village of Kokoda, a name that now shares equal billing with Anzac, is also a major disappointment as there are no plans to develop a commemorative precinct on the plateau where the first battle of Kokoda was fought on 29 July 1942 and where our diggers victoriously raised the Australian flag on 3rd November 1942.
After 28 years and 98 treks I should feel a great sense of pride whenever I trek into Kokoda – unfortunately the dominant feeling is one of shame and betrayal because of the failures of DFAT envirocrats who are ideologically opposed to commemoration and who prefer to keep local villagers in a welfare-dependent state to support their own taxpayer-funded Aid industry.
I can only hope our new engagement with PNG will see Ministers cut through the bullshit and seek to hold DFAT officials and Australian ‘Strategic Management Advisors’ to account – or send them back to Canberra.