IN 1970 I was seconded to the Security and Intelligence Branch of the Papua New Guinea Administration.
Kiaps [patrol officers] in the border districts of Western District and West Sepik District were rotated as cypher clerks through the branch in three month cycles.
It was also an attempt, I think, to make us aware of how the spooks worked so we could apply the learned principles to our dealings with West Papuan refugees and Indonesians.
Most of us saw it as an opportunity to play up bigtaim in the big smoke of Port Moresby.
The head of the Security and Intelligence Branch was an aloof, upper-class type, who had difficulty concealing his racism.
He seemed to be suppressing other things too but I could only wonder at these because he deigned only to speak to his second-in-command.
Any communications to the likes of me came down the line.
The second-in-command seemed to have stepped straight out of the pages of a Biggles novel and was very smart in an obscure sort of way.
His esoteric interpretation of everything often left me bemused. He had the knack of making even the simplest proposition sound deep and profound.
It was only after you worked out exactly what he was saying that you realised he was wanking. I think the Branch Head resented his second-in-command’s mind.
The Branch Number Three was a perfect counterfoil. He was portly and middle-aged, with the demeanour of a distant but enjoyable great uncle. He knew exactly what was going on all of the time, and was damned if it was going to interfere with his comfortable sinecure.
He smoked a pipe, of course, as did the other two; but whereas they gripped theirs, mostly unlit, in their steely-jutted jaws, he used his to generate great clouds of aromatic smoke and to shed copious quantities of tobacco all over his desk and the surrounding floor. I was always shaking little shards of Blend 11 out of the paperwork he gave me.
There was a typist come secretary and the inevitable office ‘boy’. The latter was Abraham and he was about fifty and came from West Papua. He had a neat row of scars on his back and a raggedy set on his chest from a lucky hit by an Indonesian paratrooper firing at him as he was swimming across the Fly River into Papua New Guinea.
Abraham had no family because the Indonesians had shot them all, along with most of the other people in his village who had been silly enough to fly Dutch flags.
He had regular contact with an OPM cell in Port Moresby, but no one in the Branch seemed to be aware of this possibility — which was strange because Australia’s official stance on West Papua was pro-Indonesian and the OPM were technically the enemy.
Indonesia, as everyone knew, was the only thing stopping the communist hordes in the north from sweeping down to our doorstep. This was true, because John F. Kennedy had said so!
It turned out that the typist come secretary was also more than she appeared. Her husband was a lecturer at UPNG. The university was perceived by the branch as a hotbed of political dissent.
One of her husband’s friends was Josephine Abaijah’s political adviser. Josephine headed the Papua Besena Movement. Papua Besena was a separatist group that didn’t like the idea of being paired up with New Guinea come independence.
The secretary knew what Josephine was doing long before the Branch ever found out. And she wasn’t party to the view that Josephine was the political pawn of her academic adviser.
She told me that the branch was staffed by a bunch of misogynists who couldn’t see women as anything but typists and housewives!’ I later discreetly looked up ‘misogynist’ in my Oxford dictionary.
1970 was an interesting year in Papua New Guinea. The Mataungan Association on New Britain, Napidakoe Navitu on Bougainville and the Kabisawali Movement in the Trobriands were all nascent political organisations calling for local autonomy.
They were unsettling to the European population of the territory, whose favourite reading matter tended to be books like Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Tribe That Lost Its Head and Robert Ruarke’s Uhuru.
But it was the Pangu Pati that had them most worried. Pangu was representative of people from all over Papua New Guinea and its main platform, as outlined in a submission to the Select Committee on Constitutional Development, was nothing less than independence.
Many in Pangu enjoyed their newfound notoriety. When they found out the Branch was spying on them they played up to it. Ordinary meetings at the college or the university became secret meetings and anyone who had a telephone thought it was being tapped. It all became quite bizarre.
Port Moresby was such a small place that the Pangu Pati leaders and Administration heavies were on a first-name basis and could often be seen drinking at the same watering holes.
While the Australian press played the ‘dangerous radicals’ line to the hilt the local press took a more realistic view and usually reported both sides of the story. Pangu got quite a good run in Port Moresby’s daily papers. Many of the journalists were sympathetic and a few of them were active within the party.
The day after I arrived in Port Moresby I was introduced to the ‘spaghetti machine’. I stepped closer to the shining copper-clad column with its myriad sockets and flailing red and black leads. Each socket and lead had a number to identify it.
Number Three tried to explain it to me. ‘It’s your job to crank it up every morning,’ he said as he puffed out clouds of smoke. ‘What you do first is look up the daily code.’
‘Where do I look that up?’ I naively asked.
‘In the Daily Code Book, of course,’ he replied.
‘Which is kept where?’
‘In the Number One’s safe; he’ll give it to you each morning.’
‘Bugger. Does that mean I have to talk to him?’
‘Not necessarily,’ Number Three said warily, ‘if he talks to you first you can reply; otherwise say nothing’.
In a nutshell the setting up of the ‘spaghetti machine’ entailed plugging a myriad of numbered plugs into differently numbered holes. On one morning plug 23 had to go into hole 9, for instance. Once that was done it was theoretically possible to send coded messages straight from Port Moresby to Canberra.
As time passed I got to know some of the ‘radicals’, both black and white, and grew to like a few of them. Some of them were on ego trips, especially the whites. These people were hard to like because they didn’t realise how much damage their political games caused. Some of them didn’t care and they were the ones I liked least.
The honest ‘radicals’ were generally dedicated people who were invariably polite. It was a bit unsettling to hear lines like ‘death to imperialists and colonialists’ shouted in a totally inoffensive way.
I had also developed a relationship with a young Papuan journalist working for the Post Courier. I had originally met her in the Western District when the Ok Tedi exploration was being stepped up. We often went out to dinner together and attended the plays and other literary events at UPNG.
When my three months secondment was up I was summoned to the Number One’s office. He ushered me in with a peremptory wave and left me standing while he shuffled about at his desk moving papers and pens about for no apparent reason.
When he had gauged that I was sufficiently disconcerted he indicated that I should sit. I acknowledged the offer with a flicker of interest and tried to maintain an expression somewhere between boredom and indifference.
I had watched Numbers Two and Three do this on many occasions but didn’t realise it was such a cultivated art. I wondered if I could pull off their best trick, which was to feign total disinterest no matter what disastrous thing was revealed.
‘You’ve been with us for almost three months now,’ he began. I nodded — waiting for the punchline. He paused and looked at me over the rim of his reading glasses.
‘You’ll be on your way in a week or so.’ I know that, I thought; get on with it.
‘Your time here has been, um, satisfactory, I think?’ Was this some sort of cynical praise? Did he want me to reply? I wondered what to say but needn’t have bothered because he continued in his nasal monotone.
‘You’re to be posted to Nomad River, I believe!’ That one took me by surprise! He stopped there and stared at me. I tried very hard but couldn’t control it and grinned.
There was a brief flicker of satisfaction on his face and then he bent down and began shuffling papers. Was I being dismissed? I rose and ambled over to the door.
‘One more thing.’ I stopped and turned. He still had his head down and was still playing with a file. ‘The local ladies — not the done thing. Best find a nice white girl, you understand?’
Don’t say a thing, I thought. Take a deep breath and walk through the door; don’t turn around and for God’s sake don’t slam the door.
The secretary watched me as I walked past.
‘He’s a silly little prig; take no notice of what he says. He’s living in another world,’ she said.
And that, I thought, summed up the Security and Intelligence Branch.