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10 years in the morgue: JK (‘Kanaka Jack’) Murray, nation builder

Colonel JK ('Kanaka Jack') Murray as Administrator of PNG


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.

JK Murray in 1954
Sir JK Murray in 1954

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


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Rob Parer

It was due to the recommendation of the recently independent (1975) Papua New Guinea government ( Sir Michael Somare ) that Sir Jack Murray was knighted in 1978.This was many years after he left PNG,but the people remembered how he was one of the few white people ( Kanaka Jack )who encouraged & believed that PNG people could be trusted to be independent.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Readers might be interested in this book review that appeared in the Canberra Times in 1981.

Leading Papua New Guinea towards independence. A task discharged with distinction and honour

A book review by John Farquharson

'THE AUSTRALIAN TRUSTEESHIP PAPUA NEW GUINEA 1945-75' by Ian Downs. Australian Government Publishing Service. 587pp. $28.

“There is a civilian sitting on a suitcase here who says he is the Administrator of Papua and New Guinea".

That prosaic telephone message from an Australian soldier at Jacksons Airfield to his commanding officer in Port Moresby announced the arrival in Papua New Guinea of Colonel J. K. Murray, the newly appointed Administrator, in late October 1945. It also marked the beginning of the resumption of civil administration in the war ravaged territory.

It was not exactly an auspicious beginning, but rather typical of things as they were at that time.

And who would have thought then that in just 30 years — on September 16, 1975 — Papua New Guinea, amidst all the colour, pomp and circumstance of such occasions, would become an independent State and that 24 days later the country's first Prime Minister, Mr Michael Somare, a former cadet journalist from the Sepik, would be addressing the United Nations General Assembly as that world organisation's newest member?

It must have been gratifying to Colonel Murray to be able to attend the Papua New Guinea independence celebrations. But in October, 1945, independence must have seemed a distant prospect indeed, if he gave it a thought at all.

When he arrived to take charge he did not even have a car of his own. The only vehicle available to the Administrator was an old sedan without a bonnet. As for a place to lay his head, a working party was patching the roof of Government House.

There were no furnishings of any kind nor even a refrigerator in the empty, sprawling bungalow on a hill above Konedobu.

Murray had to take his meals in the mess of a nearby army communications unit and an open building with an earth floor served as his office.

It was from that makeshift beginning that Murray began the daunting task of restoring the civil administration and laying the foundations for the Territory's first, hesitant steps toward nationhood.

In the eyes of the man who undoubtedly left the deepest imprint on post-war Papua New Guinea, Sir Paul Hasluck, the Murray administration was lacking in nearly all aspects except public health.

It is not surprising, therefore, that just over 12 months after becoming Minister for Territories in the Federal Ministry formed by Menzies after his double-dissolution electoral victory of 1951, Hasluck had Murray's appointment terminated. He was succeeded as Administrator by Brigadier (later Sir Donald) Cleland, who had earlier been appointed Assistant Administrator.

Hasluck, of course, was not the only one to have found shortcomings in Murray's administration. But this book's author, Ian Downs, who served in the Territory administration before becoming a coffee planter and politician in the Territory, credits Murray with having done more than anyone else to restore the confidence of the people in the Australian Administration in the years after the war.

This, he says, was Murray's major achievement and a most essential one in those difficult, demanding years of reconstruction in the aftermath of the war.

Hasluck has said that he had little zeal or liking for his portfolio when he took it up and that it "killed all personal political ambition in him".

Yet he stayed in it for more than 12 years in a remarkable partnership with CR Lambert, the man he chose as permanent head of the Territories Department and with Cleland as Administrator.

As an explanation for why he stayed in the job for so long, Hasluck has suggested "some stubbornness" and then added curiously "but what else could one do but stick at a job that no one else wanted?"

However he felt about the portfolio, I do not think anyone will dispute that during those 12 years he made an immense contribution.

When Hasluck took office, a new beginning was needed and he brought it and ushered in a period of great administrative improvement and expansion.

His administration, in which the assertion of ministerial authority was a dominant factor, began with the inauguration of a Legislative Council dominated by appointed officials and ended with a decision to create a House of Assembly in which there would be a majority of Papua New Guineans elected from a common roll.

And in lan Downs' words, "In a country in which there was so much to be done before it could become a nation Paul Hasluck had done more than anyone else". Some may quarrel with the way Hasluck went about it, but his contribution cannot be denied.

Downs goes on to deal with the other administrations, discussing the work of Hasluck's successor, the Country Party's Charles Barnes, and his departmental head, George Warwick Smith, and the emphasis they placed on economic development and during which indigenous political movements began to emerge.

Barnes's problem was his conservative appraisal of the future and his lack of sensitivity to the political aspirations of the people and particularly his refusal to set political target dates.

Fortunately, he had an Administrator in David Hay who had a surer touch with the people. Though his task was often made harder by the department in Canberra, Hay's persistence and patience provided needed stability during a period of political unrest, particularly in the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain, and in Bougainville.

The troubles with the Tolai people in the Gazelle, culminating as they did in the murder of a District Commissioner (Jack Emmanuel), and some of the ugly scenes which developed with the Rorovana people of Bougainville over land for a township to serve the Panguna copper mining project, were blemishes on the escutcheon of Australia's administrative achievement.

In the event, reason prevailed and these disputes, through the painstaking work of various individuals (some recognised and others not yet given the recognition that is their due) were all settled peacefully. So overall they do not detract from the overall effectiveness of Australia's trusteeship role.

Nor is the achievement lessened by the fact that mounting international pressures, a quickening of some indigenous aspirations and the break from bipartisan policies in the Australian Parliament, brought on the final transfer of power under Gough Whitlam's Labor Government more quickly than some might have wished. Yet it is one in which Australians have been typically reticent in expressing much pride.

As that distinguished chronicler of the British in India, Philip Mason, has pointed out, "There comes a time in a man's life when he may well stand back and consider what he has built, planted, written or begotten and whether it was worth doing".

For Papua New. Guinea Ian Downs has taken up that task in this detailed account of Australia's administrative effort. The book owes much to Downs; first-hand knowledge derived from 30 years in the Territory, under girded by scholarly research.

Though it has been published under official auspices, it is by no means a bland, public-relations account. Just the same, it breaks no major new ground, nor makes any startling revelations, not that that is a prerequisite of history.

It is a down-to-earth account of each period of administration in which the politicians and officials' involved come to life as men earnestly seeking to do a good job within the political constraints of the day.

They did not always succeed, but in the main they strove mightily with real dedication in the interests of the country and its people.

It is also a fitting and necessary background volume to Paul Hasluck's own account of Papua New Guinea under his administration, 'A Time for Building', published in 1976.

As he stated on more than one occasion, and in various ways, the overriding objective was to bring Papua New Guinea to self-government and independence by a "path of peaceful, progressive change" without indigenous resentment, rebellion and bloodshed.

Ian Downs's book is testimony that the task has been discharged with distinction and honour.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Another one of those great politically-motivated, blunders so common in Australian politics.

One can only wonder how it would have turned out if JK Murray had been left to continue.

Hasluck and Cleland slowed the whole process of PNG development down under the assumption that they had years to spare. A fatal mistake we now know.

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