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The true short story of a short presidency

“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.


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Loch Blatchford

Surely there is room under the PNGAA umbrella for a variety of interest groups. In my area, the Twin Towns Services Club has members other than returned servicemen. It provides facilities for drinkers and gamblers as well as golfers, bowlers, swimmers, runners, walkers, triathletes and many other groups. It has resort accommodation, free and paid entertainment, several restaurants, rock and roll nights, etc, etc. It also helps the community with donations to local charities. Those who eat in the Three Seasons Restaurant don’t throw buns at others who prefer the Flames Bistro. The golfers don’t whack balls at the bowlers and the bowlers don’t bomb the swimmers. Each to his own.

Surely the PNGAA can operate in a similar manner. We don’t all have to be involved in fund raising. We don’t all have to return to PNG to help rebuild a school. Not all of us are interested in wading through archives and recording the past. But some of us are and surely the PNGAA can accommodate all of us.

The PNGAA can be many things to many people and why should it be otherwise? To those who wish to reminisce with a few mates and a port, I say go for it. To those who sit on committees or raise funds, I envy your energy. To those who wish to buy raffle tickets and support special projects, let them do it.

To my mind the PNGAA is an association of people interested in PNG. Whether the interest is colonial or contemporary should not be an issue. There should be room for all of us. It is time to concentrate on what we have in common and work from that. Harry Peake would know what I am talking about - ever widening circles and all that.

Dr John Hey (ASOPA 61-62)

I believe the best advice you received was to get out and start a forward looking group.

I believe (and would not participate) that PNGAA was outdated and composed of incompatible individuals remembering past glories.

I think PNG had a bright future and that we expats let them down after independence. I would like to help rectify this before I push off.

I was sorry to see you go.

John Groenewegen

The news of your resignation as President/office bearer of the PNGAA came as a great shock to me. But, having read your explanations, I cannot see what else you could have done under the circumstances.

And, while I regret that it became necessary for you to relinquish the presidency, I must congratulate you on the clarity and honesty of your letter of resignation. Thank you for taking us into your confidence.

That you were prepared to devote such spare time, as you have, to enhancing the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship to their mutual benefit, speaks volumes for your generosity of spirit.

Meanwhile, I feel sure that the work done under your leadership will not have been in vain: I would not be surprised if its fruits appear sooner than you or I may expect.

Jean Lowe

Well, I can't say I was completely taken by surprise. The annual get-together at Killara Golf Club gave me an inkling of the mood of many members. You were brave and optimistic to try such a radical direction. Like lemmings the PNGAA members are rushing headlong into oblivion and I guess that is what a lot of them want.

But where does that leave us loyal supporters who cheered you on? Not into oblivion too! Maybe we can operate as we have been doing as ASOPA graduates and others who have worked in PNG and are concerned about keeping links, helping a floundering neighbour. However politics should be bipartisan and low key.

As for me I won't be continuing my membership of PNGAA in its present form.

Charles Lepani

I have been away on leave for the last two weeks and just checking my e-mail now. Very sorry to hear of the developments in the Association. Many thanks for all your effort. I hope you can continue your interests in a different Organization.

Janine Paterson

Glad you have resigned from the PNG Asscn. I think you were wanting them to go places they didn’t want to go to.

I think it is an Asscn of the past and not really wanting to tackle current issues just wanting to reminisce. I think it will soon fade away.

Colin Huggins

I refer to the comments of Bob Curtis. I, for one, do not believe that the former President of PNGAA has in any way railed against the older members of PNGAA.

Keith has tried to take the organisation into the 21st century. Unfortunately it appears that, with the 'Victorian' attitudes of some, he has regrettably failed.

This is unfortunate - you can have the social gatherings, the recalls of the past, the laughs of the memories, but we must progress - it is possible.

Whatever is the final outcome, let us all hope that in the end, some form of common sense will prevail.

Bob Curtis

Your analogy with Saul and his journey to Damascus to eliminate the Christians is very appropriate. From memory he also rode a white horse, and when God intervened he fell to the ground and was warned not to kick against the goad. He was converted, but also blinded for his efforts. Your constant barrage since your resignation diminishes your immage somewhat, and railing against the elderly is both hurtful and in extremely bad taste. Kicking against the goad is fruitless and unwise in the extreme.

Ruth Fink Latukefu

I have only now caught up with all the PNG Association drama and felt really sorry you had to resign, even though I can see why it was necessary given the entrenched old guard resisted change and new approaches.

I don't think December 2009 will see as successful and crowded a function as yours was, and a lot of us will be very sorry that your vision and ideas were rebuffed.

However it's often like that with little organisations where little people have their egos boosted by assuming 'authority', however meaningless it may be.

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