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Death of Leo Hannett - a Bougainville leader of the middle way

Leo Hannett
Leo Hannett - politician, administrator, thinker & a true son of Bougainville


BUKA - My friend and colleague Leo Hannett, who died on Friday 15 June, was a man of passion tempered by common sense.

He had remarkable ability to bridge the gap between educated leaders and leaders at the village level. He was a leader gifted in finding the middle way through situations where people were deeply divided. He used his very many gifts in many ways that brought great benefits, especially to the people of Bougainville.

I first knew Leo in 1963, when he and I entered the same class at the Catholic major seminary in Madang.  We spent five years together, to the end of 1967, studying to be catholic priests.

Leo decided to leave the seminary  to be more involved in active politics. He  studied at UPNG and at the University of Hawai’i, where he developed his abilities as a commentator on pre-independence PNG politics.

Like me, I am sure that Leo was shaped in many ways by our joint experience of seminary education. Our training there included human rights and social justice and we had access to what was, by the standards of the day, a very good library.

Although the widespread assumption in the mid-1960s was that independence for what was then the Australian territory of Papua New Guinea would not be achieved for a long time, the group in our class became very interested in the politics of the day.

We were influenced too by events and developments elsewhere in the world, especially in Africa where the winds of change were rapidly ending colonial control.

But we also focused on what was happening in Latin America, where leaders in the Catholic Church were taking the side of justice and developing a radical theology which challenged the Church to take the side of social justice.

We also followed developments in the United States, where the civil rights movement was challenging centuries of racism and injustice.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that we also became aware of injustice around us. For example, we could see how unfair were the conditions in which plantation labour lived and worked. We saw that even the church, with its large plantations intended to finance its work, was guilty of injustice in its treatment of the labourers.

We became interested in the application in PNG of universal ideas about freedom and self-determination and the need for people to be involved in decision-making in relation to things that impacted on their interests. We were against ready-made answers coming from outside the situation involved and instead wanted to see participatory exploration of possible answers and solutions.

We explored our concerns and ideas in a magazine that we published at the Seminary, 'Dialogue'. We spoke out at the public meeting in Madang when the United Nations Decolonisation committee visited in, I think, 1965. Several members of the UN group were so interested in what we had to say that they arranged a separate meeting with us at the Seminary.

We used to talk in other meetings, including with  various visiting Bishops from different parts of PNG. I think we sometimes annoyed them by our questioning attitude.

I saw that in his writing for 'Dialogue' and his participation in public meetings that Leo was straight talker. He brought passion, good sense and clarity of ideas to any argument in which he took part. I have no doubt that the training we were receiving at the Seminary had a part in developing his ability to communicate, and it was also true that he had great innate abilities.

Leo was already getting directly involved in pre-independence colonial politics while he was studying at UPNG. Late in 1968, for example, he helped convene a meeting of about 30 Bougainvilleans in Port Moresby which made one of the first public calls for Bougainville to become independent.

It was Leo who spoke for the group and he published a public statement calling for Bougainvilleans to be able to choose between staying in PNG, joining with Western Solomons or becoming an independent nation on its own.

By the time Leo came back from Hawai’i in 1972, I was a new member of the colonial legislature - the House of Assembly. I proposed to  then chief minister Michael Somare that Leo become his special political adviser on Bougainville affairs based in Bougainville.

In that role, Leo became a well-known public figure. He rapidly became a voice for not just the educated Bougainville elite but for  local government councillors and other local leaders.

Over the next few years, from 1973 to 1980, Leo played central roles in the complex and difficult politics of Bougainville. In the very tense situation that developed in 1973 after the deaths in Goroka of two senior Bougainville public servants, calls for immediate independence became widespread and strident.

It was Leo who played a key role in helping to find a compromise based on autonomy for Bougainville, initially in the form of a Bougainville Interim Provincial Government.

When the PNG national government and Bougainville could not agree on the share of mining revenue to come to the provincial government, and when the national government deleted from the draft independence constitution all constitutional provision for the proposed provincial government system,  Bougainville leaders, including Leo, opted for immediate independence. A unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was made with effect from 1 September 1975, just two weeks before PNG’s independence day.

When recognition of our UDI was not forthcoming from other countries, and when we got no results from an appeal to the UN for support, we eventually agreed to negotiate a settlement with the national government. I was the chair of the Bougainville negotiating team, and Leo worked very closely with me. Here once again, he showed his ability to bring together both visionary and pragmatic thinking. And once again he demonstrated  his ability to communicate well with both educated leaders and village leaders.

In July 1996, after six months of negotiations, the Bougainville Agreement was signed. It provided for a provincial government to be set up under the first amendments to the Independence constitution, and for the North Solomons Provincial Government( as Bougainville’s Provincial Government was called) to receive the mining royalties previously received by the national government. These were dramatic developments.

Leo had been one of the main people involved in establishing the Bougainville Interim Provincial Government from late 1973, and continued as perhaps the main political and administrative planner in the transformation of the Interim Provincial Government into the North Solomons Provincial Government.

He took the lead with a group of young, highly educated Bougainvilleans, all ex seminarians, who came home to Bougainville to help establish the North Solomons Provincial Government. They included Theodore Miriung, Mel Togolo, Joe Noro, Simon Tania, James Togel, Thomas Anis and John Dove.

Leo was very effective in this new role even though he had no special training in the multiple and complex tasks involved in establishing a new government from the ground up.

In 1980 Leo became the second Premier of the North Solomons Provincial Government after Alexis Sarei. He served in that role for four years until 1984.He was equally effective as Premier as he had been in his earlier roles in establishing the new provincial government.

After his term as Premier he went on to play many other roles, including becoming a member of the National Parliament from 2005 to 2007, and a member of the Autonomous Bougainville Government from 2010 to 2015.

As for his roles in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005, I do not know as much as I do about those earlier roles beween 1963 and 1984.

I look back on all he did and achieved in that short time, and I see a man of vision, a thinker, a man who read widely and wrote powerfully.

He turned vision into practical reality. He contributed much to Bougainville. We can safely say that he was a true son of Bougainville of whom all Bougainvilleans can be extremely proud.


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William Dunlop

Vale Leo Hannett. I first met Leo shortly after my posting to Kieta with the Plant and Transport Authority in 1976.

Leo was the then Provincial Planner for the Bougainville Provincial Government and the assistance that he rendered me made it possible for me to function as a professional manager in what was a volatile situation within the Plant & Transport Authority in Bougainville, a case of tails wagging the dog or so they thought.

With Leo's full support the problems were quickly addressed, The tail wagger's services were dispensed with and I was able to get on with my job.

I take this opportunity to wish Leo Hannett's family condolences, And all the citizens of the North Solomon's all the very best in the future.

Garry Roche

John Momis refers to the Catholic seminary at Madang. This seminary later moved to Bomana just outside Port Moresby. Two others mentioned by Momis, namely Theodore Miriung and Alexis Sarei were also students at the Seminary. Miriung was killed in 1996 during the Bougainville Civil War, Sarei was at one time Premier of the North Solomons province. Fred Reiher, a former diplomat, and Ignatius Kilage, former Governor General, were also students at the seminary at the same time. The magazine ‘Dialogue’ that Momis refers to did indeed cause a stir because of what was then considered radical thinking.

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