Review: Dorney’s call for Australia to revive engagement with Papua New Guinea


A new paper by experienced Pacific journalist Sean Dorney argues passionately for a re-think of Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea. As the title suggests, The Embarrassed Colonialist paints a portrait of a country that hasn’t quite worked out how to engage with its nearest neighbour, observes Andrew Wilkins.

Having reported on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific for over four decades, Sean Dorney is the ideal person to reflect on the relationship between Australia and PNG.

His ‘paper’ (actually, a short paperback book) is part-history lesson and part-personal reflection. It ultimately provides some thought-provoking suggestions for encouraging closer political, economic and social connections between two countries that are, at their closest point, only a few kilometres apart.

‘Yes, Australia has a case to answer but it’s not quite as a simple as that—PNG is now a sovereign nation and must fix its own issues.’

Dorney, who has written primarily for an Australian audience, establishes his credentials up front. Here is a man who has known PNG intimately since before its Independence in 1975, an event he observed first-hand. He has interviewed all its major leaders since that time, and has been around long enough not only to be kicked out of the country for his work on an ABC Four Corners episode, but also to receive an MBE from the PNG Government. (Dorney observes, somewhat bewildered, that the same man—Sir Rabbie Namaliu—was behind both moves.)


In a nutshell, Dorney’s thesis is that Australia has never felt comfortable with its historical colonial relationship with PNG, and this uneasiness has affected its ability to engage appropriately with PNG up to the present day. Australia vacillates between being a tut-tutting Big Brother, and a genuine neighbour.

‘We need to start learning more about Papua New Guinea and treating it as an equal,’ he concludes.

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Both countries come in for criticism. Dorney criticises the indifference of the Australian mainstream media to PNG, decades of Australian political indifference (with some notable exceptions, including the current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop), Australia’s flawed immigration policy and its imperfect aid arrangements. He also unflinchingly examines both PNG’s strengths (its economic growth, tourism potential and free media) and weaknesses (poor development policies, corruption and law and order issues).

Dorney also has a refreshing and informed perspective on the way PNG was handed Independence by Australia—an event that, for some, is seen as a root cause of many of PNG’s later problems. Yes, Australia has a case to answer but it’s not quite as a simple as that. PNG is now a sovereign nation and must fix its own issues.

Powerful argument

This book makes a powerful argument for Australia to take PNG seriously:

‘PNG’s security and prosperity are hugely important for Australia,’ Dorney asserts, identifying both the country’s potential to grow as an economic partner and also the risks to Australia should PNG fail to develop as hoped.

The Embarrassed Colonialist is written with a deep affection for PNG and it has a journalist’s flair. It should be read as widely as possible. It explains why PNG matters to Australia, and why it will continue to matter. And it has enough recommendations to cause a major re-think of the relationship between the two countries.

Dorney has done the relationship a great service by writing this paper, some of which was previewed in his after-dinner speech at last year’s PNG Advantage Investment Summit. It is a work that arguably only he could write. The Lowy Institute and Penguin Books are to be commended for supporting its publication.

Andrew Wilkins is Publishing Director at Business Advantage International, which this year is celebrating a decade of reporting on business in Papua New Guinea.


  1. I would like to comment on the Universal Basic Education System which was an initiative of, I believe, the Australian Government. In the elementary level of education, this system reflects the integration of indigenous knowledge with that of the UBE System. Unfortunately, this system did not survive. According to my opinion, I believe the Melanesian Philosophical view of this system was not available; meaning that we might not have a Melanesian Philosophy. I see our independence as being an initial impetus of self-reliance. Therefore, I appreciate the Australians for the Challenge of recognizing our undeveloped primitive natural seed of becoming mature in civilization and other contemporary development.

  2. Stanis Hulahau says

    There are a lot of literature and arguments about redefining Australia-PNG relations with a view to foster a strong and cordial ties with the two countries. Australia has done a lot since PNG’s Independence to assist PNG and has been a major Aid donor thus far. I personally feel that PNG must now be able to seriously redefine her political and economic pathway with stronger oversight mechanisms, good governance and vibrant democracy in order to climb out of the developing country syndrome. We should not continue to blame Australia for our failures.

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