This article was first published in PNG Attitude on 13 September 2007
SYDNEY - Sir Jack Keith (JK) Murray OBE [1889-1979] was an agriculturalist, a soldier and an administrator – and he excelled in every field.
His parents separated when he was two and his mother supported him by working as a domestic servant.
Murray later wrote he found it “impossible to pay an adequate tribute to her”. His mother saved the money that enabled him to enter St Joseph's College at Hunters Hill in Sydney in 1904.
He graduated from Sydney University just after the start of World War I with bachelors’ degrees in agricultural science and arts and, after service with the Sydney University Scouts, a diploma of military science.
In 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, serving in France before undertaking post-war agricultural studies and being demobilised in 1920.
In 1923 he became principal of the Queensland Agricultural High School at Gatton and later took up a concurrent appointment as foundation professor of agriculture at the University of Queensland.
The severely run down Gatton was transformed under his direction and Murray became a leading figure in Queensland affairs.
In 1940, at the age of 51, he rejoined the Army as Colonel and was given command of the 25th Battalion, Darling Downs Regiment, spending the next three years administering army training establishments.
He looked the part too: fit, wiry, of middle height and upright bearing. He wore a full moustache, clipped at the ends.
In February 1944, Alf Conlon appointed Murray as chief instructor at the School of Civil Affairs in Canberra, the precursor to the Australian School of Pacific Administration, ASOPA, where he trained personnel to administer Australia's territories.
As Papua and New Guinea returned to civil control after the war, Minister for External Territories Eddie Ward wanted an Administrator who would pursue his reformist aims for the territory. Murray was sworn in on 16 October 1945.
Murray dealt with problems of reconstruction, paying special attention to the plight of the people in villages devastated by war.
Each year he spent months visiting outlying districts, talking with village leaders and missionaries, encouraging his staff and restoring people’s confidence in the Australian administration, a confidence that had been shaken by the war.
Murray obtained from Canberra neither policy direction nor decisions. He believed action could best be taken in Port Moresby.
In pursuit of a 'new deal' for Papua New Guineans, Murray supervised the establishment of village courts, village councils, cooperative societies, extension courses in agriculture, aid posts, training of indigenous medical officers and orderlies and moved the workforce from an indenture system to one of free labour.
The local white establishment found Murray's attitude to Papua New Guineans scandalous. When the Murrays invited Papuans to functions at Government House, whites boycotted them and Murray was dubbed 'Kanaka Jack'.
As a Labor appointee, Murray was regarded with suspicion when Robert Menzies was elected in 1949 and a major rift occurred in 1950 when Murray disagreed with an order from Canberra that Papua New Guineans should not speak directly to a visiting mission from the United Nations.
In 1952, new Territories Minister Paul Hasluck dismissed Murray, not offering him the opportunity to retire or resign, and replaced him with Liberal Party operative Donald Cleland.
Murray lived in retirement at St Lucia, Brisbane. He was a member (1953-68) of the senate of the University of Queensland. In 1959 he was appointed OBE and he was knighted in 1978. He died on 10 December 1979 at Jindalee in Queensland.
JK Murray focused and epitomised reform in post-war PNG. While he was Administrator, change was the central issue. By the time he was removed from office, the pattern had been set, and the best policies of the following decades flowed from those he had supported and proposed.
Source: Brian Jinks, 'Murray, Sir Jack Keith (1889 - 1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 15, Melbourne University Press, 2000