“We do certainly need to move on and Keith has given us some good directions to follow, although perhaps at a lesser pace so that as many as possible may see the value of the changes” – Riley Warren, in a note circulated to PNGAA Committee members, 17 January 2009
Let me take this as my text for today, St Paul’s Day, on which Anglicans and Catholics celebrate St Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus.
Riley Warren is a good man but the tentative supposition in his note to fellow members of the PNGAA Committee that ‘moving at pace’ was the reason why some members fermented and fomented during the eight months of my presidency is, I believe, flawed, representing neither a good description nor a fair analysis of my period as President.
There are a couple of compelling reasons why I don’t want this mythology accepted: first, its perpetuation will do nothing to solve deep seated problems in the Association caused by a rancorous rump of members; secondly, the problems these members seemed to be experiencing was with future direction not with pace - which was modest.
Before my election as President (the Association’s first contested election in which the ‘old guard’ put up a candidate who lost badly), I was informed that Committee meetings were nasty and acrimonious affairs, typified by disruptive behaviour from two or three of the 17 members.
When, at the annual general meeting, veteran committee member Fred Kaad OBE referred to this misbehaviour in a speech farewelling outgoing President Harry West, it became clear how entrenched it was - and how staunch Harry had been.
With this in mind, from the outset of my presidency I made sure committee meetings were efficient and businesslike but I tolerated no disruption. Where there were attempts at disruptive behaviour, and there were, they were stopped firmly but politely, including when one portly gentleman told me to get out and start my own association.
I also made sure the committee got on with the business members had elected it to do.
At the first meeting I chaired, I established five sub-committees - as I had promised before being elected – and I ensured that competent people were appointed to chair them. These sub-committees were to be the driving force of PNGAA activity. In a structural sense, they were also imperative to the Association's sustainability and, in a managerial sense, they provided a line of succession for the PNGAA.
The PNG Relations sub-committee was established to help maintain the civil relationship between Australians and Papua New Guineans. Throughout 2008 it was moved cautiously but steadily to do this. Chair Robin Mead developed an action plan and began building a network that would be helpful in establishing the Association’s role in this area. Meanwhile, I also contributed by building a greater presence for the PNGAA with the Australian and PNG Governments, the Australia PNG Business Council and other organisations like the Sydney Wantoks. I also managed the fundraiser that, late in the year, was able to provide over $9,000 to the Oro Community Development Project.
Riley Warren’s History and Scholarship sub-committee was moving gradually, somewhat restrained by Riley’s many commitments in his final half-year as headmaster of Macarthur Anglican School. Nevertheless, a good plan was established for 2009 and I worked hard to assist the Kiaps Recognition Project, the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee and to bring the weighty Kiaps’ Compendium to publishable form on the PNGAA website. Meanwhile, planning was moving ahead under Riley's stewardship on a major project to identify private collections of PNG documents and other materials in the hand of PNGAA members, with the aim of ensuring that valuable archival materials would not be lost to the future.
The chair of the Fellowship and Caring sub-committee resigned early in my presidency because previous committee disputation had left her tired and dispirited. Soon after, with the probable intent of making my life difficult, sub-committee members Nancy Johnston, Joachim Nitsche and Pamela Foley chose a committee meeting to abruptly quit the sub-committee. I quickly replaced them with a new chair from outside the committee, Harriet Troy, and new sub-committee members. This group efficiently and harmoniously organised the biggest PNGAA annual luncheon ever held in December 2008.
The Publications and Communications sub-committee is chaired by Andrea Williams, a marvellous contributor to the PNGAA and best known for her role as editor of Una Voce, which continues as the great binding force of the Association. This sub-committee established an innovative plan for 2009 and also administered a major revamp of the PNGAA website, transforming it from a largely static to a very dynamic and interactive site under the management of a new webmaster, Nick Booth, who I recruited to the task.
The Finance and Membership sub-committee, to be chaired by Ross Johnson, a PNGAA stalwart, never got going – although Ross and I were working on this when I resigned. Ross has indicated that he wishes to move on from the Treasurer’s role, and he has earned that right after years of effective service. I’ll miss working with him to build a good team in this area.
There is another activity I need to refer to here: constitutional change.
The PNGAA constitution clearly requires updating – its objectives, for example, do not refer to anything like the full range of activities now conducted by the Association. At the last meeting I chaired, the full committee unanimously agreed to present a set of new objectives to vote by the membership. The dissidents didn’t have the courage to vote against them in committee, preferring to operate covertly outside the committee to undermine their intent.
There were other deficiencies in the constitution relating to election and voting procedures that need to be refined to give all members a say in the PNGAA. These, along with other changes, were to be put to a vote of all members in April 2009.
I had also floated other ideas – such as initiating different classes of membership to raise more funds for the PNGAA – but these proved somewhat divisive and I decided to drop them from further consideration.
Steering committees were established in six States and Territories to consider whether a branch structure would be a useful innovation in the Association. The committees in Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide thought local branches would be successful. This proposal was also to be put to the vote in April.
Each idea for constitutional change was subjected to a six-month consultation process before going to the committee for consideration. (This was to have happened at the next meeting on Sunday 1 February.) All proposals were to be voted upon at a special general meeting in April.
My present concern is that any injunction to “slow things down” will in fact be a euphemism for abandoning some of these necessary initiatives. I hope the committee does not do this.
I walked away from the PNGAA presidency because the conflict was not to my liking and, as distinct from my opponents, I did not want to engage in micro-political process to enable a new direction to be established. The numbers were there to win, but to use them would have been divisive on my part and I did not want to preside over an Association in this state. There are people in the PNGAA who seem relaxed about ripping the organisation apart to get their own way but I’m not one of them.
As I stated at the outset of this Note, I do not want my short presidency of the PNGAA to become steeped in myth. Let the words here stand as a true account. The committee now needs to create a PNGAA in which the old enmities can be set aside for the good of the organisation.
But caving in to the wishes of dissidents who by their own words have no interest in Papua New Guinea as it is today cannot be part of a proper solution.
As for me, I believe I can make an effective contribution to PNG without having to struggle with some pretty ordinary people every step of the way.