The Parent Trap

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On Sept. 16, 1975, a smartly dressed crowd on a Port Moresby hilltop stared at a flagpole and wiped away tears. As the Australian flag came down for the last time and a new banner-black and red with a yellow bird of paradise-rose in its place, the first Governor General of Papua New Guinea, John Guise, called on those present to note that Australia's trust territory was gaining independence in peace: "We are lowering the flag," he said, "not tearing it down."

Twenty-seven years on, some Papua New Guineans wish the Australian flag could fly again. For many older folk, the taim bilong masta, the period of Australian administration, now seems a halcyon age. Back then, they say, government was just and efficient, progress was steady, and government officers regularly visited the remotest villages, bringing tools, seeds and medicines. Today everything seems to be slipping backward: townsfolk struggle against soaring prices and crime, while rural villagers are marooned by decrepit roads and government neglect.

In July's national elections, "Yesterday" was a recurrent theme. Sir Michael Somare, the Australian-tutored politician who became P.N.G.'s first Prime Minister, asked voters to let him return the country to the way it was in the early years of independence, before everything went wrong. Candidate Wera Mori, a former geologist from Chimbu province, wanted to wind the clock back even further. P.N.G.'s only hope for order and prosperity, he said, was to became a state of Australia, or at least a territory in free association with it, as the Cook Islands and Niue are with New Zealand. Mori's wasn't a lone voice. "It is not a wide movement," says Kevin Pamba, a columnist for the National newspaper. "But people talk about it quietly. They say, 'The Australians are already here in a big way with aid. We might as well extend that and let them look after us.' "

While Mori didn't win a seat, six ethnic-European Papua New Guineans did. Sir Peter Barter and Carol Kidu are now ministers in P.M. Somare's cabinet; Mal Smith Kela, Tim Neville and Ian Ling-Stuckey are provincial governors. Their supporters hope they-and the many committed and able indigenous M.P.s-will reprise the best qualities of the Australian administration. Pamba explains: "People say, 'These white men won't be influenced by their wantoks or relatives, and they'll get the job done and go by the rules. We've given the Melanesians a go and they haven't come through, so we might as well give these naturalized citizens a good chance.' "

Their nostalgia is partly Australia's fault. Declaring it "wrong and unnatural" for his country to run a colony, newly elected Labor P.M. Gough Whitlam announced in 1973 that P.N.G. would become independent within two years. The Territory's educated elite was still tiny; only a few hundred people had completed secondary school. Some Highlanders had been in contact with the wider world for less than a decade. Traditional leaders begged Australia to stay with its "child" until it could fend for itself. Bernard Narokobi wasn't one of them. "Independence is an inherent right of every people," says the elder statesman. "It can never come too soon." But in hindsight, "the people were not well prepared."

The rush to independence left P.N.G. heavily dependent-and not only on aid and expertise. "The Australians looked after us so well," veteran M.P. John Momis later said, that many Papua New Guineans were reduced to "contented onlookers," waiting for the mastas to work their magic instead of taking things into their own hands. Passivity paved the way for cargo-cult thinking, corruption-and fits of longing for a powerful parent to step in and set everything to rights.

P.N.G. is an adult now. It doesn't need or like to be ordered around. But it does need help, and money isn't the only way to provide it. One of the dreams of independence was for Papua New Guineans to become a nation of self-starters-"agents of change and development," as Momis put it, "rather than passive recipients of services." But for that to happen on a large scale, ordinary people need to feel more positive about themselves. "They see greater nations like Australia," says Fr. Jan Czuba, president of Madang's Divine Word University, "and they feel they are not successful."

Australians can help change that-with handshakes rather than handouts. The inaugural Kokoda Memorial AFL game on Aug. 31, organized after a group of Sydney Swans players visited P.N.G., was a fine start. "To see their representatives welcomed by the Australians on equal terms was very important for people," says Czuba. Sporting, cultural and educational exchanges, and fraternal partnerships between Australian and P.N.G. institutions, may seem small gestures, but post-cringe Australians know well what international respect can do for a nation's self-image and ambitions. Australia may never again raise its flag over P.N.G., but it can help P.N.G.'s flag fly higher.