What colour are your eyes?

Those pre-independence years: Revelling in reminiscences

Australians in PNG coverPHIL FITZPATRICK

Australians in Papua New Guinea 1960-1975, edited by C Spark, S Spark and C Twomey, University of Queensland Press, 2014, 339pp, ISBN: 978 1 9219 0243 7, $38.50

AS I write this, my son is in the Papua New Guinea Highlands working with people new to the country teaching them how to get along with the locals.

As the resources boom develops in PNG this orientation process is becoming a more frequent need. 

There are Papua New Guineans who can do the same job but the newcomers seem to feel more comfortable with one of their own.  Hopefully that’s an attitude that Luke can help change.

He is one of many Australians who are the children of men and women who were in PNG prior to independence and who are maintaining and continuing the relationship.  I sometimes think of him as “Son of Kiap” or “Kiap II: The Sequel”.

Australians in Papua New Guinea 1960-1975 was compiled by Ceriden Spark and Seumas Spark, people who had a prior connection with PNG.

I’m not sure what relationship Christina Twomey, the third editor, has with PNG but the foreword is by Lara Giddings, the ex-Tasmanian premier and daughter of kiap Rick Giddings. Lara was born in Goroka.

I know that we old-timers revelling in our reminiscences can bore the pants off people and it is something we have to be aware of.  When someone begins a sentence with, “When I was in (insert colourful PNG location) in 1963…..,” the eyes in the room glaze over.

This book has given free rein to an interesting collection of oldies to indulge in their memories. They include some Papua New Guineans.

There are some big egos in there but mostly the stories are measured, thoughtful and constrained even if the balance is a bit out of whack with medicos, academics and public servants predominating.

The business community, among others, seems to have been overlooked. And something from an old policeman or the legal fraternity would have been interesting.

Across the various reminiscences there are themes very familiar to most PNG Attitude readers.

There are a couple of telling accounts, like that by John Langmore, who drafted a foreword for Michael Somare to a 1974 document called Strategies for Nationhood: Policies and Issues

The foreword addressed the propensity of newly independent nations to rely on the trickle-down effect in their economies to take care of everyone.  In the foreword that Michael Somare put his name to, the idea is expressed that this wouldn’t happen in PNG because “we are concentrating our efforts directly on rural development, equality and self-reliance”.  Wonder what happened there?

The consensus in the book seems to be that PNG went along quite swimmingly until the 1990s when Somare seemed to decide, “Bugger it, this is too hard, I think I’ll start looking after number one instead.”

Another interesting theme is a perplexed exasperation with Australian politicians and the Australian public for not recognising the special relationship forged between the two countries.

As Meg Taylor says, when Australians look north they don’t see PNG instead focusing on Bali or Fiji.  This really bugs me too.  I can’t see any reason whatsoever why our relationship with PNG shouldn’t be like our relationship with New Zealand, where travel between the two is visa-less and open.

There are a few interesting surprises in the collection. The interview with Carol Kidu is one.  When asked, “So what are your personal recollections of the role played by Australians in PNG in the period 1960-75?”, Dame Carol replies that she doesn’t have any. “I had no contact with them.” 

She explains, “I never lived in the Australian community.  I lived completely in the Motu society.”  And, of course, she did and still does.

There are other interesting gems to be found as you troll through people’s memories.  From my own point of view, the kiaps come up looking good. There is none of that boorish kiap-bashing that academics indulged in immediately before and after independence.

I think the post 1990s problems in PNG have finally put paid to the furphy that it was all the kiaps’ fault.

There is nothing really new in the book and I imagine that the only people who will read it are those who have a close association with PNG.  That’s a shame, but what can you do?

Our current foreign minister says that PNG is one of her favourite places.  It is a pity that she and the Australian people can’t see a bit deeper into the relationship than that.

It would be nice, too, if the PNG government itself could get its act together on behalf of the whole nation.


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Barbara Short

Good idea, Paul. The PNGns are football mad. They also need a Rugby Pukpuks team in the Super Rugby comp.

Paul Oates

Leaving aside those who go to PNG and gain or take home no lasting impressions, it took a certain kind of person to want to leave the comforts of home and endure the delights of the PNG outstation.

That sort of person generally only relates to others of their persuasion and those from the cultures they lived in. You only have to look at who leaves comments on the Attitude after all.

It is therefore any wonder that, in the past, these sort of people were irrevocably changed in personality, cultural experience and not to mention disease and injury.

Having then returned to their previous culture and society, it was no surprise when they found out no one wanted to know about what they had learnt and experienced as this was far beyond the normal experience or knowledge.

The point about intercultural exchanges in today’s Australian society is that they still mostly focus on the differences rather than the similarities.

If PNG were to have an ARL team in the Australian comp for example as does NZ and dare I say Melbourne, it might start to crack the current impervious cultural divide and so provide immeasurable benefits to both nations.

Perhaps even, dare I say, a PNG AFL team might sheet home the message to Victorians that they do have other cultures residing vaguely somewhere near them. That’s a tall order I’ll admit.

During a recent tour through fascinating ancient Roman ruins and wonderful Italian cultural masterpieces, our bus load of Australians still revelled in hearing the latest local football scores after each weekly round had been played at home.


Chris Overland

When I returned to Australia in 1974, after 5 years in PNG, I soon discovered that very few people much cared about what I had seen and done as a kiap.

What people grasped was that I had worked somewhere "exotic", which involved darked skin people with hardly any clothes, some of whom lived "wild" in the jungle and used bows and arrows.

As this was quite beyond their knowledge or experience, the subject soon turned to the footy or politics or something that otherwise mattered to them.

I learned that, like a war veteran, I could only really talk with those who had shared my experiences in some way. Strangely, when late in my post PNG career I worked with veterans, I found that they seemed to relate very strongly to some aspects of my experience.

In truth, PNG hardly impinged upon the national consciousness at all in 1974 and nothing much has changed since.

These days, round Anzac Day, people will allow themselves to get slightly misty eyed about the Kokoda campaign and the wonderful "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" but that sentiment soon fades away again.

Like Phil, I find it both puzzling and rather sad that many Australians seem quite unaware that a nation of approaching 7 million people, with whom we have strong historic and current links, is actually on our proverbial doorstep.

Perhaps PNG is in a sort of "phantom zone", only perceptible to those with arcane knowledge of the distant past?

Barbara Short

Thanks for these comments. I agree with them. The Aussies who worked in PNG who came home and wrote books about their exploits now often bore me. The country of PNG has moved on at a rapid pace. There are more interesting things to learn by tagging along with them, even though you might live back in Australia.

I'm really enjoying being part of the Sepik mob on Facebook and am at the moment even talking to the Sepik triathlon competitor, Casmer Kamangip,a Wewak boy, from Brandi Secondary School, who is now in Glasgow, and giving the Sepiks a little bit of understanding about Scotland. I can go onto his Facebook page and chat away about what is happening to him over in Scotland then tell his wantoks what he is up to on the Facebook Forum. Wow!

Well, my ancestors came from Glasgow in the 1850s and I visited the place in the 1960s. The world is becoming a much smaller place and it is wonderful that PNG has been able to send so many representatives over to the Commonwealth Games. It will be a great experience for them. I can see some great friendships will develop between them and people from other countries.

They have just had this great Melanesian Festival in Moresby. There needs to be some sort of Festival that links Australian with PNG. I don't know how we could do it but bringing down those Bougainville dancers to Canberra last year must have helped. But they passed through Sydney and we didn't see them dance here.

The PNGAA is going to hold this conference at the Parliament House, Sydney and the Art Galleries and Museums are also getting interested in PNG. Somewhere they are going to show all these wonderful old PNG films. There are also a number of PNG students studying in Sydney, so hopefully the people of Sydney will start to become a bit more interested in PNG people and what is going on in PNG.

It is good that your son in following in your footsteps. It is up to the younger generations of Australians to form some good relationships with PNG people. In my case it is the opposite, I'm forming good relationships via Facebook with the children of my former students! Ha! Me no lapun!

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