By JOHN PASQUARELLI in The Australian
WHEN Michael Somare's reign ends, Papua New Guinea urgently needs to change course to re-establish its place in the region and forge fresh, new links with Australia.
White paternalism and colonialism have disappeared in the rear-vision mirror of history, but no less a person than Somare once courageously said PNG had possibly been granted independence too soon.
Papua-New Guineans have a grassroots faith in acknowledging people who are "straight shooters", and they are rightly suspicious of flatterers - black, white, whoever they may be - from the UN, ANU or the UPNG, or even naive MPs from Australia.
PNG at its independence in 1975 stood at the crossroads but took the wrong turn.
The opportunity to rise quickly out of the ranks of the Third World was lost when tribalism and inexperience conspired to create an environment of lawlessness, coupled with the failure of public health and education systems.
Much of the then huge mineral and oil wealth was squandered, as was the opportunity to become one of the world's major tourist destinations.
But PNG has incredibly been granted a second chance that will require the co-operation of all concerned to reset the country's compass.
The country has huge new reserves of wealth, ranging from the Hidden Valley gold bonanza near Wau-Bulolo to the Frieda River copper and gold prospect in the Sepik District.
Exxon-Mobil is proceeding with its gas and oil pipelines, which will double PNG's GDP in 2014 when exports to Asia commence, with an expected life of 30 years.
Ok Tedi is still producing and moves are under way to reopen the huge copper and gold mine at Bougainville, which ground to a halt when the civil war erupted in 1990.
Since then, copper prices have quadrupled and gold is through the roof at $US1400 an ounce.
With proper management, plantations of exotic timbers can redress the PNG logging rorts of the past, the oceans can continue to produce, aquaculture has huge potential and tourism is still there like a sleeping giant.
Many Australians still have strong connections with PNG, but both governments have drifted apart in recent years and this dangerous separation must be halted.
It is very embarrassing that there is not one Australian federal MP who has any real, in-depth understanding of PNG apart from the odd junket.
An Australian government should set up a taskforce, taking advice from those expats who still have much to offer, before beginning negotiations with PNG, ensuring that such a venture does not end up being just another bureaucratic bludge.
The emphasis must be on Australia offering training and mentoring for future police and army officers, right through all levels of the public service, health and education, and then establishing partnerships with successful Australian companies to train young Papua New Guineans in the trades and the specialist skills required in the mining and construction industries.
Australia must extend the hand of friendship - and let's hope it is enthusiastically grasped by PNG.