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By Dr Jonathan Ritchie*
His Excellency Charles W. Lepani, Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner to Australia, first came to this country as a schoolboy boarder in 1961, in the northern Queensland town of Charters Towers.
He is therefore, in absolutely no sense, a stranger to Australia. In his many and distinguished public roles, including as PNG’s official representative – a position he has held since 2005 – he has continually demonstrated his deep knowledge about and affection for this country.
It must have come as a rude shock, then, to read the kind of gutter invective from internet trolls that he has been subjected to since his characteristically mild remonstrance with the Australian commentariat not to ‘impugn the dignity’ of PNG’s leaders during the recent events concerning the Regional Resettlement Agreement (also known as ‘the PNG solution’).
As he admitted to the large audience of interested observers at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute’s (ADRI) policy forum on Australia and PNG on August 13, he had received such unsavoury messages as ‘f--- off back to your cannibal country’, and descriptions of PNG as a ‘slum hole’: both of which demonstrate the depth of the senders’ ignorance about our nearest neighbour, not to mention their boorishness, of course.
Mr Lepani was the first speaker on the topic of the forum, following, that is, the opening remarks by The Honourable Richard Marles MP, Member for Corio and Minister for Trade (and a long-time friend of PNG, as well as of Deakin University), who was determined to be there, despite the small matter of an election campaign.
The High Commissioner was joined on the speakers’ panel by The Australian newspaper’ Rowan Callick – perhaps the most experienced Australian journalist writing about PNG today – as well as a relative newcomer to PNG who has nonetheless received much well-deserved praise for her forensic, sensitive reporting on contemporary affairs there, Jo Chandler.
An Honorary Fellow with ADRI, her outstanding writing can be read in The Global Mail.
Closing off the panel was the experienced and impassioned Stephanie Copus-Campbell, whose current role as director of the Harold Mitchell Foundation continues, through building philanthropic partnerships, her relationship with PNG.
Stephanie has long been an advocate for the country and its peoples, including during her time leading AusAID’s work there.
As Professor David Lowe, ADRI’s Director and the Master of Proceedings for the forum, encapsulated it, the best part that ADRI can play is to continue its work of enlightening and informing Australians about the country to our immediate north, through building research on its historical and contemporary situation.
Perhaps more Australians will then begin to see PNG as the close friend that it is.