WHEN I was first recruited as a Patrol Officer in 1969, I was responding to an advertisement much like that featured in Phil Fitzpatrick’s recent article about kiaps being dupes of a mean, calculating government.
The advert shows an apparently khaki clad figure striding out at the head of a carrier line, his slouch hat tipped at a jaunty angle; the very picture of the purposeful, intrepid “outside man” on a mission to bring the manifest benefits of civilisation to wildest Papua New Guinea.
As a marketing strategy, this approach was calculated to appeal to those men whom my first District Commissioner, the late Bob Bell, succinctly described as “the right type”; just as the US Air Force sought out men with “the right stuff” to become the first astronauts.
Quite what being “the right type” entailed was and remains somewhat mysterious. It seemed to involve a combination of above average intelligence, a thirst for adventure, courage, self-reliance, reasonable physical fitness and an indefinable but essential amount of tough minded common sense.
Quite how Bob Bell deduced that I possessed such qualities, I’ll never know.
This recruitment policy seems to have worked pretty well on the whole, but the attrition rate for new recruits was still high. The initial strangeness of the PNG environment and society, the isolation of outstation life and the physical and mental challenges of the job could produce what could be described as “culture shock”.
New recruits often experienced this, to some degree at least, fairly soon after arrival in PNG. Culture shock turned into a personal challenge that tended to winnow out, very quickly, all but the hardiest souls and so produced a body of men who could cope with the rigours of a kiap’s life.
To illustrate the impact of culture shock. Of the 40-odd men in my 1969 intake, only 19 were still kiaps a bare three years later. The person posted with me to the Gulf District lasted only six weeks before simply fleeing south on the first available plane.
The survivors of this process, superficially at least, fitted what I call the ‘kiap myth’. By this I mean the archetypal “outside man” who was tough, fit and determined enough to take on any task allotted to him and, in so doing, help bring peace, good governance and good order to the people for whom he was responsible.
At the turn of the 20th century someone like the infamous and, in many respects, deplorable Papuan colonialist CAW Monckton might well have epitomised the “right type”. Later, after World War I, men like Ivan Champion and Jack Hides came to represent the mythological “outside man”.
Following World War II, it was the exploits of men like JK McCarthy, James Sinclair, Ian Downs, Des Clancy, the legendary Tom Ellis and many others, who helped further entrench this myth.
These men, collectively, helped create the legend of the kiap as a courageous and relentless “warrior”, who came to impose the law of “gavman”, to which all must submit without exception.
This had at least two very important effects upon the governance of Papua New Guinea in the pre-independence era.
First, many Papua New Guineans came to believe that kiaps were, in some sense, the invincible and sometimes dangerous representatives of a remote but all powerful “gavman”, whose physical embodiment was “Missus Kwin (Queen)”. The latter’s glamourous portrait was, after all, frequently seen on prominent display at patrol posts and in schools and court houses.
It is easy to see how this idea could arise amongst people undergoing first contact with what was an alien civilisation and its associated technologies.
For a start, many people knew that armed resistance to the kiaps, in some instances at least, had fatal consequences. There arose an entirely reasonable fear of the guns carried and sometimes used by kiaps and police on exploratory patrols and during their formal police work.
Also, for many coastal people at least, the experience of World War II left a deep impression about the power and sheer ferocity of industrial scale warfare conducted by, from their perspective, hugely technologically advanced societies.
The result was that people tended to comply with the instructions of the kiaps not so much because of their actual or perceived individual power but because of the established mythology surrounding them, and the understanding that behind them stood a vastly powerful “gavman”.
Also, I think that it is fair to say that the arrival of the kiaps brought with it a level of peace, security and certainty about life that was, once experienced, greatly to be preferred to traditional life of all too frequent inter-tribal violence and chronic insecurity.
Second, the prevalence and power of the kiap myth came to affect those of us who subsequently joined the service.
Essentially, most of us felt it necessary to live up to our predecessors’ standards. Thus there was, within the ranks of kiaps, a culture which both valued and promoted stoicism, courage, physical endurance, adventure and achievement. Conversely, it was contemptuous of any perceived weakness or lack to resolve in getting the job done. A tradition emerged of achieve whatever it was and do whatever it took.
A shared experience of what has been called the “loneliness and the glory” of a kiap’s life, bound these men together tightly, much as a shared experience of combat binds veterans. There was amongst kiaps a recognisable esprit de corps that tended to both exclude and annoy those who were not kiaps.
As a junior kiap, I remember being very anxious to “earn my stripes” through the hard discipline of patrolling, preferably in the most remote, rugged and dangerous terrain possible. I also remember how proud I was to return from my first patrol into the rugged mountainous country north of Kerema, over two stone lighter and considerably fitter than when I left a bare 33 days before.
This feeling of being able to take my place as a “real kiap” was heavily reinforced when, after a second solo patrol in the same area, I was praised by District Commissioner Bob Bell for doing a good job under very adverse conditions.
Many, perhaps most, of my contemporaries were motivated in the same way: we wanted and needed to fit into the kiap myth and earn the respect of our peers as being “the right type”.
It seems to me that this mythology is a significant part of the explanation for how a quite small group of men, never numbering more than a few hundred at a time, could exert such effective control over literally millions of people living in remote parts of PNG.
It was government on the cheap by a handful of multi-skilled and multi-tasking individuals, supplemented by a small but committed groups of doctors, nurses, agricultural officers, surveyors, teachers, architects, engineers and tradesmen.
No Australian state with a population of 3.5 million (as it was around 1970) could possibly have been governed, then or now, by such a small group of people, exerting their influence mostly based upon a combination of bluff, reason, cajoling and, very rarely, resort to coercion in some form or another.
It was, in truth, a quite astonishing collective achievement which I think was neither really understood nor acknowledged by the politicians and bureaucrats in distant Canberra.
It may well have helped Gough Whitlam and others develop a false sense of complacency and optimism about the prospects for an independent PNG, believing that there was a system of governance in place that could survive the demise of the colonial structure, the most notable element of which was the kiap.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the power of the kiap myth is that, subsequent to the dismantling of the kiap system, the PNG government seems to have never again been able to fully exert its influence in rural and remote PNG, except on a fairly temporary basis.
The evidence of PNG’s generally peaceful economic development and social progress up to independence, supports the contention that a relative handful of “the right types”, operating within the context of the kiap myth, could and did serve the people of rural PNG remarkably well.