Why is Australia so desperate to ignore its nearest neighbour?

Why is it that there are more Cook Islanders in Australia than Papua New Guineans?

Not only was PNG once our colony while the Cook Islands belonged to New Zealand, but the population of the Cook Islands is 430 times smaller than PNG.

As Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute for International Policy has pointed out, it is simply because New Zealand allows Cook Islanders to live in New Zealand. And then they flood across the Tasman.

It is the same with Samoans and Tongans. New Zealand welcomes them. And then they can come to Australia.

Australians don't welcome Papua New Guineans despite PNG having been our colony.

According to the last Australian census in 2011, of the 166,272 Pacific Islanders in Australia, 65 per cent are from Polynesia and just 35 per cent from Melanesia – numbers totally incongruent with the relative populations of those island groups.

The simple reality is that the Polynesians get to Australia via the New Zealand route because New Zealand has a policy of favouring migration from its Pacific neighbours.

I have written The Embarrassed Colonialist, a Lowy Institute Paper, published by Penguin Australia, in an attempt to draw some attention to how Australia seems almost desperate to ignore its nearest neighbour, PNG, except when it can be used as a dumping ground for asylum seekers.

And I also question why we don't want our children to know about our role in creating the largest of all the Pacific Island countries out of our former colony. PNG now has a population approaching nine million. Why is our colonial tutelage not part of the school curriculum? The only mention in the national history curriculum about PNG at the moment is the Kokoda Trail.

We forced Britain to claim Papua as a colony in the 1880s and took over control soon after Federation, and then we snatched New Guinea from the Germans at the beginning of World War I. We then ran it as two separate colonies without spending a great deal of money until World War II when Japan swiped a fair proportion off us for a while.

After the war, there was an increased focus on helping PNG but we found it a difficult and complex task, not least because the people speak at least 860 distinct languages.

In the 1970s the Whitlam government could not get rid of the responsibility quickly enough and independence came with a rush in 1975.

Since then we have thrown money at PNG but, apart from a number of dedicated specialists, we have never given it the attention it deserves.

The media has, on the whole, given up. When I first went to PNG in 1974 there were half a dozen Australian journalists reporting on the country for Australian news outlets. When PNG did not immediately disintegrate, the media lost interest. And by the early 1980s there were just two Australian correspondents based in Port Moresby – the ABC and Australian Associated Press.

AAP pulled out a couple of years ago and these days there is pitifully little coverage of Papua New Guinea unless it is generated by refugee advocates who seem to have no regard whatsoever to the sensitivities of Papua New Guineans.

Papua New Guineans are also seriously under-represented in Australia's Seasonal Worker Programme which allows companies to recruit Pacific Islanders to work in Australia's horticulture, accommodation, aquaculture, cane and cotton industries.

The Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme was introduced in 2008 and ran until mid-2012. Of the 1534 workers engaged, 1250 were Tongans while only 82 came in from PNG.

A permanent scheme is now in place allowing Pacific Islanders to work in Australia for up to six months. The cap on numbers for 2015-16 is 4250. New Zealand has a similar seasonal labour scheme which is working much better and takes twice as many Pacific Islanders.

The number of Papua New Guineans getting seasonal work in Australia remains very low. The Australian Department of Employment says "there are no country quotas" in the program. But perhaps there should be. A quota system would give Papua New Guineans many of those seasonal jobs in Australia, which would allow the average worker to remit between $5000 and $6000 to their families back home.

We need to start learning more about Papua New Guinea and treating it as an equal – not as our unfortunate illegitimate child that we are ashamed of. Papua New Guinea is a country worth having as a good, solid, friendly neighbour. It is time to stop being the embarrassed colonialist, embrace our history in PNG, both good and bad, and build a new partnership with one of our most vibrant neighbours.