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Gough Whitlam dies at 98 – he brought independence to PNG


GOUGH Whitlam died this morning at the grand age of 98 and I am filled with sadness.

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Gough on a number of occasions.

He had sharp recall of his work to bring independence to Papua New Guinea and the personalities involved, and he retained a continuing interest in its affairs.

Gough was Australian prime minister between 1972 and 1975 before being dismissed from office in controversial circumstances that resonate to this day.

The achievements of his government were many and some of the most important of them endure.

The following words are a slightly edited version from the Whitlam Institute.... 

The election of the Whitlam government in 1972 was a turning point in Australia's international outlook.

Whitlam moved quickly to re-shape Australia's foreign relations. It sought to abandon the relics of the colonialism and Australia's hostile, fearful and suspicious stance towards its own region.

The arrival of the Whitlam government marked a new period of involvement, amity and goodwill between Australia and its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region.

Gough Whitlam was a strong advocate for decolonisation. Accordingly, he promoted self-government and eventually, full independence for Papua New Guinea.

The Australian government had administered Papua since 1906, and New Guinea since 1919.

Once the Whitlam government was elected, this commitment was swiftly implemented.

Self-government began on 1 December 1973. From that time, the functions of government were progressively transferred from the Australian government to the Papua New Guinea administration, led by chief minister and later prime minister Michael Somare. 

Full independence came on 16 September 1975. In introducing legislation to the Australian parliament to grant Papua New Guinea's independence, Whitlam remarked:

Whitlam in PNG on Independence Day 1975“By an extraordinary twist of history, Australia, herself once a colony, became one of the world's last colonial powers.

“By this legislation, we not only divest ourselves of the last significant colony in the world, but we divest ourselves of our own colonial heritage.

“It should never be forgotten that in making our own former colony independent, we as Australians enhance our own independence.

“Australia was never truly free until Papua New Guinea became truly free.”


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Roseanne O'Rourke

Michael, I agree, the timing argument is irrelevant. I would ask "If not Gough, who then?" and simply say " Vale Gough and thank you".

Let's get on with it and hope Papua New Guinea can have her own Gough sooner rather then later. If I may borrow the famous campaign slogan "It's time"...Papua New Guinea.

Addendum: I could be proven wrong but the last time The then Prime Minister of Australia Gough Whitlam and The then Governor General of Australia Sir John Kerr shook hands was at the Papua New Guinea Independence Ceremony(ies) September 1975 as captured in the film "Yumi Yet".

Corney Korokan Alone

A prime minister of many local Australian and foreign policy firsts - ‪‎PNG‬ definitely treasured his friendship and beliefs.

PNG got independence under his leadership just two months before he was deposed.

One of those great leaders who rejected fears and was fiercely bold and pragmatic to reach out for the good of others - an accomplished PM who shaped Australian and world history RIP.

Paulus Ripa

I wonder whether it isn't a case of the “road less travelled”. I can think of a number of worse case scenarios if we had not received independence when we did.
As a highlander who grew up during that period I also had the firm belief that we had become independent too early. Before Whitlam came to power John Gorton was PM and he toured PNG. As primary school students we went to Mt Hagen to see him and he was very well received.
More than a decade later watching old ABC news footage I realised with surprise that his visit hadn’t been all that friendly on the coast. There was a riot in Rabaul where a DC had been murdered by the Mataungan Association. In Bougainville there had also been riots.
I wonder whether if we had delayed Independence PNG would have become fragmented. We may have elected less enlightened leaders or that there would have been no Natschol scheme and in terms of an educated workforce highlanders would have been considerably disadvantaged.
Also as a medico who spent a decade working in Australian hospitals I think Gough Whitlam’s greatest accomplishment was the Medicare scheme which has with modifications stood the test of time (particularly at a time now when Americans are still trying to come to grips with a scheme that ensures affordable healthcare for all).

Gough Whitlam was a great Australian and citizen of the world.

Michael Dom

The timing of Independence in 1975 may have had very little to do with how we have elected our representative MPs since then, and allowed our public service to deteriorate.

That was us.

Once we can all agree that the 'timing' argument is irrelevant we might all get on with the future.

Its like arguing with dead parents that they could have waited a few years before you were born.

We're alive, let's live life.

RIP Gough Whitlam.

Mathias Kin

RIP, a great Aussie! Now would you all agree New Guineans were ill prepared for different roles in the public service, in politics and in business at independence?

After a decade or so of colonialism on the coast and four decades in the highlands, New Guinea did not have the trained manpower required to go it alone.

Australia on realising this fact, hurriedly tried to make amends in the 1960s but by 1973 it was clear there wasn't enough trained New Guinean people to steer their own ship.

On this basis, should Australia have hanged around for another decade?

I think there were good domestic and international political reasons for Australia handing over control when it did. The critical question, I believe, was whether the transitional process post-independence was too hasty. The exodus of skilled Australians around independence was swift and great. Nevertheless, PNG had 10-15 pretty good years before self-interest and corruption really grabbed it by the throat - KJ

Phil Fitzpatrick

It is sobering to think that if independence had been delayed PNG would have been taken over by an entirely different class of politicians.

Instead of the stalwart and honest PNG politicians who existed at the time, the independent country may have been handed over to the sort of greedy self-interested politicians we see today.

If you think about it things had begun to go belly up by the mid-1980s, which is the time that many people thought PNG would be ready for independence.

Like Chris, I've changed my view about the timing of independence.

Barbara Short

Thanks Keith and Chris. From what has happened in PNG, I think it would be reasonable to say that, whoever these people were who prepared the Public Service and the politicians for Independence, they did not put in place strong enough monitoring tools.

Also, I guess, they should have left some Aussies there to check what they were doing and see that the monitoring tools were being used and to stop the rise of all this corruption.

I remember when we had all that trouble with the millions for Keravat going missing, I was talking with one of the men who set up the Education Department and he was horrified when he was told they no longer called for tenders. Of course, the jobs went to the wantoks.

Chris Overland

I was one of the kiaps who felt that the rush to independence was more about satisfying the left wing of the Whitlam government, which had a passionately anti-colonial ideological stance, than it was about PNG's long term future.

All kiaps knew that independence was inevitable, and sooner rather than later. The issue in contention was the timing.

Most kiaps believed that the country was grossly under prepared to govern itself and that aspects of Melanesian culture, notably the wantok system, posed a grave risk to good governance.

Most feared that a combination of naivety, ignorance, incompetence and corruption would gravely compromise the effectiveness of any national government and inflict considerable damage on the people, especially those living in remote areas.

I think that history has borne out these fears as being well founded.

That said, PNG has not yet utterly failed as a state and there remains some prospect that it can turn itself into a much more successful entity in future.

The resources are likely to be there to do this; it is question of whether the political, bureaucratic and business elites can get their snouts out of the trough long enough to do what needs to be done.

Personally, I have come to the view that Whitlam was right to confer independence when he did if for no other reason that waiting another decade probably would have made no appreciable difference anyway.

By 1975 the colonial era was well and truly over and Australia was under great pressure internationally to bring to an end the last vestiges of a totally discredited European imperial system.

Ironically, in 2014 we now have imperialist activity on the rise once again, with two of Australia's foremost anti-colonial critics, Russia and China, behaving in ways that would arouse in equal measure the concern and admiration of any self respecting European statesman in the mid to late 19th century.

I wonder what Gough may have thought about that?

Peter Kranz

Gough also had a distinguished wartime career in the RAAF and served in Dutch New Guinea.

He applied to join the RAAF in December 1941. The following May he was called up and underwent training as a navigator bomb-aimer and in 1943 he was posted to No. 13 Squadron RAAF.

The squadron mostly operated out of the Northern Territory and from Dutch New Guinea, patrolling northern Australia, providing convoy escort, and attacking Japanese positions and shipping.

In April 1944 Whitlam went to Merauke, from where operations were conducted against Tanimbar and Aroe Islands.

The next year he was flying from Truscott airfield in northern Western Australia as far as Soembawa. During 1945 his crew flew long routes, usually through Morotai. These operations extended to the Philippines.

Andrew Leslie Phillips

A real PM. RIP

Barbara Short

Somebody told me that at the recent PNGAA Symposium there was a speaker who spoke about the problems that developed in PNG in the period 1972-75, when the patrol officers were stripped of their powers and the Australian government sent up people with little understanding of PNG traditional politics to prepare the country for Independence.

Hence all the problems that developed in the administration of PNG where the "monitoring tools" were ignored, and all the "checks and balances" forgotten and corruption was able to raise its ugly head.

I was wondering who this speaker was and I would love to read a copy of this speech.

I'd love to see the evidence. Many of the kiaps who were disgruntled (to say the least) with the timing of independence and who blamed Whitlam for getting out of PNG "too soon" found it convenient to forget that this was a bipartisan policy in Australia. But they have never forgiven Whitlam and never forgave the Labor Party.These people will take their disgruntlement with them to their grave - KJ

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