Charles Lepani is the High Commissioner of Papua New Guinea to Australia. He recently spoke with Ben Weir about his role in Papua New Guinea’s independence and its occasionally contentious relationship with Australia.
If I can take you to your early life where were you born?
I was born in the Trobriand Islands a group of islands off the east cost of New Guinea.
The unique thing about the Trobriand Islands is that it is a matrilineal society, meaning land and title comes from the mother’s side not from the father’s side.
Your grandfather was a chief and your father was a politician, did you feel a sense of expectation or pressure growing up to take an active role in public life?
No, not at all, my father’s own expectations were that I obtain a good education – that was the most important thing. He never influenced or urged me to be anything. My parents let me choose the course of my life, that is the one thing I appreciated.
You attended high school in Australia, what were those first few days at school like?
It was a strange, disconcerting experience. I mean for instance the first day I arrived in Townsville from Port Moresby I was very frightened, because when the plane landed and people were disembarking I kept looking out the window to see who was going to come and take my luggage or bring the steps to the plane, because in Port Moresby there were no white people doing manual jobs. I had never seen white people pushing carts or handling luggage and I was scared. I thought that if my luggage was placed with the white people’s luggage I would be arrested. So I sat there and I was the last passenger to leave, the stewardess came and said, “this is where the flight terminates you have to get off here,” and I asked her, “are there any black people, here to take my luggage?” she said, “no this is Australia.” That was my first experience of de-colonization and it scared the hell out of me. When I walked down the stairs of the aircraft I was waiting for them to arrest me because white people were carting my luggage and for me that was quite an eye-opening experience and it began a process of my own de-colonization.
So if I can get a sense of how does one de-colonize their minds?
You had to have a strong attitude from an early age to counter racism. For example, when I went back to PNG on holiday, I always felt like I was equal to whites. I would go to a shop and they would serve white people and I would still be waiting, I realized you had to speak up and say I was here before them. Of course they disregarded you but you have to actively make the point every time, you had to be assertive.
Even these days, in my job as a diplomat you can encounter racism. For example you are watching a game of football, and you hear kids saying negative racist things and I still stand up and say, “Excuse me what did you say?” You still have to stand up for that, even if its not directed at you, you have to make the point that Australia is a better country than that. Australians are better people than that. I know this, I have understood this since my school days and now I understand it is still a serious problem in Australia.
In your university days you spent time at The University of NSW as well as the University of PNG. How aware were you at this time of the independence movement?
That cadre of people who attended the University of PNG, at the time, two of who ended up becoming prime ministers, Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Sir Mekere Morauta, were very influential. We were very well aware, some of us were very conscious of agitating towards independence. When I came to Australia I continued that mode of thinking.
While at university you debated Charlie Barnes (Minister for External Territories) and Gough Whitlam. How did this debate come about?
I was invited to participate by the ABC, they called me up and said can you come and give commentary on their debate. I was 23 years old at the time. I spoke passionately about PNG’s future and its independence movement. I felt very comfortable and I truly believed there was a substantive reason for us to be independence. I spoke of the experiences of colonialism for Papua New Guineans and their treatment.
You spoke about your experience of colonialism and the anger you felt. Have your views changed over the years and if so how long did it take for that mind shift?
I meet the people who were dishing out the treatment every year for Christmas, the older generation patrol officers and other Australians who lived and worked in PNG. I tell them that I have a lot of respect for them, they were products of their time and they were doing things they felt were best for the country and best for Australian policies in PNG.
My views of colonialism changed, not very long actually after we achieved independence, after I became head of the Planning Office. I had Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and Americans, working for me. They were totally different than the colonialists and they added to my ideas on colonialism. I came to the understanding that colonialism cannot change; it is a phase in any process towards modernization.
You were involved in the development of public policy in the first few years of independence. Was there a sense of being able to explore new ideas or were you constrained by pre-independence colonialist ideas?
Looking back on it, we had a very progressive constitution, out of which we based our development goals and principles.
The most fundamental principle that lasts to today in my mind and that we lost was the encouragement of subsistence production. Subsistence production is the basis of our livelihood and must not be destroyed for the basis of the cash economy. We must build on subsistence production and not destroy it, because we saw many examples in the 1970s and 80s and continuing to this day of people attracted to cash crops. They use all their land and labor for this and then prices collapse and they don’t have any food to eat.
So that principle to me, is one of the most fundamental principles of development we came up with and it stood PNG in good stead for a long time.
So if I can take you to the work culture in the first few years post-independence, it must have been an exciting time?
It was more than an exciting time, there was a lot of fear in the minds of a lot of Papua New Guineans, I have to admit that, fear and uncertainty. I can remember such statements as, “Now we have independence, what are we going to do.” That was bandied around a lot. That is why it was very important as a policymaker to address issues, to give people a sense of purpose going forward. The development of the constitution was very important in that – groups went around the country asking people about the type of constitution they wanted. That is why it is claimed to be a home-grown grassroots constitution, meaning it wasn’t imposed by anyone else.
One of the unique moments and best periods of PNG’s governance was this time, as the government for about 10 to 15 years was very stable, we had strong economic policies, our political system and democratic institutions such as the judiciary were very vibrant and functioned well, mainly, I believe, because there was a sense that politicians and bureaucrats were working together.
You had a combination of conservatives as well as progressive parties and out of that mix there was the ability to develop public policy with direction and the ability to allocate spending for development policies. It was a good time, with a strong political culture and some of us who were the Gang of Four responded to that, we felt there had to be a change in the way bureaucracy worked to implement these policies otherwise we felt we would have had a very newly elected government with very little experience of running the country.
When did this strong political culture deteriorate?
The first 10 years there was a strong political culture as there was strong cooperation between politicians and the bureaucracy. Politicians listened to us, when we told them about budget limits and they understood this. They did not overspend the budget and deficits were very minimal.
The sovereign wealth fund legislation was passed by parliament last year, how critical is it to PNGs future and who will control the fund?
Well it has gone through various stages and incarnations, but the spirit and intent of it is that there will be three funds under the Sovereign Wealth Fund arrangement. One is the Future Generation Fund, the second is the Infrastructure Fund, and the other is the Budget Stabilization Fund. The Future Generation Fund is supposed to put aside funds for the future of PNG, and the Infrastructure Fund is critical as our infrastructure has deteriorated and has to be revitalized. The government is doing a great job of that, in both urban and rural infrastructure, and particularly in social infrastructure with the development of schools and education. As to how it is going to be managed, at this stage it is not clear, as the appointment of board members has not been finalized.
Moving to the broader PNG-Australia relationship, do you think there is sometimes a lack of respect shown to PNG from Australian politicians?
Well it is not a matter of respect, the phrase, “lack of respect,” is a little harsh on Australians. I have fought this since I arrived here in 2005, I’ve tried to make the point that PNG and Australia should move towards the point of reducing Australia’s aid because while it has helped us and we are very grateful for it, it skews the relationship.
It is that kind of attitude: Bob Carr threatening sanctions in 2012 or Alexander Downer [doing the same]. When I went to a speech he gave to all the diplomats when he was minister for foreign affairs. He threatened to cut off aid to PNG because we had spirited Julian Moti off to the Solomon Islands, so both sides have threatened it and it is not a good look for our bilateral relations going forward. The sooner that we normalize (the aid) to something that does not stick out like a sore thumb in the Australian budget or the PNG budget the better. It is a major influence and shapes the relationship between the two countries.
Trade and development not aid and dependency should be the basis of the relationship. You also have to look at it from Australia’s point of view and the implicit reasons that Australia has a national security interest in continuing aid to PNG because it helps to stabilize PNGs politics and Australia does not want political instability in PNG. It also helps PNG in key areas that affect Australia, including defense and security concerns, so there is a rationale to continue to give PNG aid. It is just the way it is framed when there is a crisis or issue in our relationship, it should never be discussed through public outbursts. We have a mechanism through the ministers forums every 12 months to discuss these things. Australian politicians have a right to comment on our political situation; we also have a right to comment on Australia’s as it affects us also. But we are more circumspect in commenting on Australia’s political situation because of the aid issue.
In light of the recent Supreme Court decision in regards to Manus Island and detention, how do you think that will affect the relationship going forward?
Well I have a lot of respect and time for advocacy groups in regards to asylum seekers because they perform a wonderful job for humanity. But when it comes to them vilifying PNG, calling it a hellhole or gulag, that type of terminology does not inspire constructive dialogue on issues such as this and you didn’t hear this type of dialogue when John Howard and Mekere Morauta signed the agreement for Manus to be opened as a processing center.
How do you think ordinary Australians view PNG?
Well there is that negative perception that is quite pervasive, and I blame it on the Australian media, who are uniformed, there are very few Australian journalists who write regularly on PNG and make comments who can speak with authority and who I respected and are respected by Papua New Guineans and the government. If they criticize the government we accept that; the rest are ill-informed commentary.
There is a total lack of understanding and what is going on now in PNG, they report things that are old and perpetuate a wrong perception.
Are you hopeful or fearful for PNG’s future?
I am hopeful, I have to be as a Papua New Guinean and I know the fundamentals are there, and I am hopeful. One of the strongest elements is the resources of PNG and resourcefulness of the people. We have to encourage the subsistence sector, the backbone of the country, to function better. Secondly, the youth of PNG are well placed to as most of them come from intermarriages from various parts of the country; this is the generation that will unify the country.
We are a country with 700 languages and 700 ethnic groups. That is a challenge for a developing country. But the government’s commitment to delivering services is strong. People are not poor because they lack means to live – subsistence farming allows people to live – but poverty is due to a lack of access to government services such as health and education so that is the main focus now.
These days I take great care to make the point to Papuan New Guineans in Papua who are voicing the idea that all our problems are caused by colonial Australia, this is not the case now. We have become independent, we run our own country. You can’t keep blaming Australia or Australians.
Ben Weir is a journalism student and a former public servant in Australia. He has a law degree and a degree in international relations from the University of Adelaide.