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Reminiscences of a long association with Papua New Guinea

Michael Somare & Gough Whitlam 1975GOUGH WHITLAM

MY first visit to Papua New Guinea was late in World War II on my way back to the Philippines, where I was navigator of the only Empire [flying boat] aircraft attached to [General Douglas] MacArthur’s headquarters.

I frequently saw the pioneer Mick Leahy, who was working for the American forces. I did not always share Mick’s views but I learned much from him.

In April 1965 my wife and I attended a seminar in Goroka. Nugget Coombs supported the assumption of some responsibility for the allocation of budget funds by elected members of the House of Assembly.

I declared, “The rest of the world will think it anomalous if PNG is not independent by 1970.” CE Barnes, Minister for Territories, opposed my view.

John Guise, the leader of the elected members of the House of Assembly, did not publicly support me but privately conceded that he shared my opinion.

In July 1970, prime minister John Gorton made an extensive tour of PNG. He was greeted in Rabaul by an audience of 10,000 who were as hostile as our 11,000 (on an earlier visit) had been enthusiastic.

Tom Ellis, head of the Department of the Administrator, gave Gorton a handgun. In a panic, on Sunday 19 July, Gorton called a cabinet meeting, which, without a written submission, agreed on the precautionary step of calling out the Pacific Islands Regiment.

Tension between Gorton and Malcolm Fraser, the Minister for Defence, over this proposal was a factor in the resignation of Fraser in March 1971 and the replacement of Gorton by McMahon two days later.

When PNG achieved independence our security agencies asked me if we should leave our bugging equipment in place as the British had done in Africa. I told them that we should not. The equipment, however, was still in place when the Hawke government took office.

I still hear it asserted that my government was in error in pushing PNG into independence too soon. It is exactly the argument used 150 years ago against self-government for the settlement colonies of the British Empire.

I simply assert that, had we delayed PNG independence, even for another year, we would have put the country in the gravest danger of breaking up.

The other thing that impressed me about Hasluck when I became a member at the end of 1952 was that young men in my local RSL Club – it used to be quite a respectable organisation and I used to attend it - who wanted to go on the land in Papua.

I went to see Hasluck, who was very approachable in these things. He said, “No, I see what has happened in Africa – Rhodesia and so on. I do not favour soldier settlement in our colony or our trust territory.” He was quite unequivocal.

Ceb Barnes was a real gentleman, an honourable man. I pestered him with incessant questions, which he always answered candidly.

The trouble was that the Country Party wanted the Territories portfolio because it did not want those tropical areas to grow anything that was not already being grown in Australia. Ceb was a prisoner of that.

The real change came when Billy McMahon was prime minister. In February 1972 he appointed Andrew Peacock. Peacock’s people skills are very great. He is more than a show pony; he has gifts in diplomacy and of course he ingratiated himself with all the emerging people in PNG and he got on very well with them.

We had a lot of way to make up and we were far too slow in doing these things. There are people like Gunther and Les Johnson to whom I give very great credit for picking up the opportunity to use the teacher training colleges and then the universities to train the future governors, future leaders of PNG.

Source: EG Whitlam, The Decolonisation of Papua New Guinea, Hindsight: a workshop for participants in the decolonisation of Papua New Guinea, Australian National University, November 2002


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