Welcome workers from 'bipolar' Pacific


Papua New Guinea boys, photo by Jonathan RitchieBefore the Australian Government's Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme was even formally announced, it had attracted comments in Australia that ranged from carping to congratulatory.

The inclusion of Papua New Guinea, in particular, has drawn attention to questions of governance, education, health and other social indicators in that country.

For example, the latest report in the Centre for Independent Studies' Issues Analysis series, The Bipolar Pacific (No. 98, by Helen Hughes and Gaurav Sodhi), paints a particularly dismal picture, and concludes that 'guest worker schemes' — even those far more comprehensive than the Pilot Scheme currently envisages — 'would not help the employment problems' in PNG and the other countries included.

The scheme's focus has also been questioned by Opposition Leader Dr Brendan Nelson, who recently explained to Neil Mitchell on radio 3AW his concern about 'health checks, security checks, compliance — how do we make sure that they're going to go back?'.

The guest worker issue thus provides yet another demonstration of the way that Papua New Guinea, and more broadly the Pacific, intrudes into political discourse in this country.

Separating rhetoric from reality, however, we have little idea of the ways that ordinary people in Papua New Guinea live their lives. Our understanding is shaped by catchwords and phrases such as 'raskols', 'corruption', and 'arc of instability'. We ignore, if we ever learned it, the history we have shared with the people of Papua New Guinea; a history about which, conversely, many Papua New Guineans are profoundly familiar.

Many would also agree that the small numbers of people to be included in the pilot scheme will make only an insignificant difference to the problems of under- and unemployment with which they are faced. But they see the symbolism of being, or not being, included in schemes of this sort and they warmly applaud the Australian Government's proposal to rule them in.

Earlier this month I visited Port Moresby to attend the Waigani Seminar held at the University of Papua New Guinea. This year's seminar is the first since 1997, and its welcome return to the country's intellectual public life was widely applauded.

Its theme was 'Living History and Evolving Democracy' and, along with the two-day symposium that preceded it on books and writing, 'Book2Buk', it drew an impressive array of speakers. It received much attention in the Papua New Guinean media and attracted crowds of interested and enthusiastic attendees.

One of these was a young man, a graduate of the Pacific Adventist University, who told me over lunch one day of his concern that the Australian Prime Minister would leave Papua New Guinea off the list of participating countries.

'Mr Rudd,' he said, 'Papua New Guineans are good workers. There is no need to worry that we won't return home at the end of our stay in Australia — all Papua New Guineans have land and want to return to it!'

His comments were repeated, in one form or another, by many of the people I met during the seminar, who know far more about Australia than we Australians do about their country.

In Port Moresby, Papua New Guineans see Australian television, read Australian newspapers, and play Australian sports like rugby league and increasingly AFL. They throw themselves behind their Olympic athletes like the butterfly swimmer Ryan Pini, but share an enthusiasm for the Australian competitors who they see so much of.

They have a deep and abiding regard for Australia, a knowledge of the shared history we have, and a very understandable desire to make the best of their situation.

They are not, by and large, raskols (any more than Australians are members of criminal gangs). They are greatly concerned about the spread of HIV-AIDS and are doing something about it, especially the young educated people. They aspire to material wellbeing and a good standard of living. They want to get on with their great and powerful neighbour to the south.

The Government's decision to implement the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme will be welcomed by Papua New Guineans, and others in the region, for the strong message it sends.

The problems and challenges faced in the Pacific, as outlined most recently by Professor Hughes and Mr Sodhi, are profound, with obvious implications for Australia, which has embarked on a policy of re-engagement with the region on the security, aid, and diplomatic fronts.

The introduction of the guest worker scheme sends a message to the Pacific of trust and respect and for this reason alone, it should be supported.

Dr Jonathan RitchieDr Jonathan Ritchie is Alfred Deakin Post-doctoral Fellow at Deakin University, where he is a member of the 'Changing Pacific' research project, focusing on Australian involvement in nation-building in the Pacific. He participated in the Waigani Seminar held at the University of Papua New Guinea from 13 to 15 August.

The Waigani Seminar is synonymous with the establishment of the House of Assembly in 1964 and the University of Papua New Guinea in 1966. Since first being held it has provided an intellectual platform that fosters a national and international think-tank and a relevant policy dialogue that contributes towards nation building in Papua New Guinea. For more info email Ms Dimas Belik,

Topic tags: Jonathan Ritchie, papua new guinea, pacific guest workers scheme



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Existing comments

My brother lives in rural Papua and I have visited him on several occasions. I can only endorse and support your message; the proposed guest worker scheme will be of great value to both countries and we should all learn more about our nearest neighbour. I must, however, disagree with your typical Victorian-centric reference to AFL in PNG, Rugby League is the national sport, AFL a mere pimple.

seajay | 29 August 2008  

This will be an interesting experiment and may provide a desperately needed cash injection for the majority of papua new guineans who are able only
to participate in the subsistence economy. It won't be without cost,however,in particular the effect of australian union rates of pay which will apply ,much higher than those of PNG, on the PNG economy,both primary industry and all other non-subsistence sectors.I have no solution to offer but caution those sponsoring this proposal to be aware of this . I wish the project well.

John Corrigan | 29 August 2008  

I wish the project well. It could be of great benefit to papuan new guineans living in rural areas who are able to participate significantly only in the subsistence economy. It won't be without cost,in particular ,the effect of what should be australian rates of pay for guest workers , in their own countries,on economies which cannot support those pay scales.I don't have an answer but sponsors of the project need to be aware of this. It may cause dissatisfaction among PNG workers and others at home and lead to claims for higher wages. If this is the case then I hope that economy can sustain such a situation.

John Corrigan | 29 August 2008  

I agree - having just returned from a medical mission in PNG it is clear they have the will and expertise, they are now lacking capital and opportunity to raise that capital as individuals. They are on the whole friendly toward and familiar with Australia and Australians. I would be glad to see them here.

Anthony Dilley | 29 August 2008  

Jonathan, thanks for a refreshing perspective on this issue. Gaurav Sodhi's comments were published on the ABC's Opinion website on Thursday Aug 21 and attracted some terrible and fearful replies. Brendan Nelson showed a saddening attitude. I was glad to read of the Seminar happening again. Best wishes to all involved. So glad a friend recently suggested reading Eureka Street and I look forward to further articles.

Cecilia | 29 August 2008  

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