‘The Northumbrian Kiap: bush administration in self-governing PNG’ by Robert Forster, UK Book Publishing, Whitley Bay, 2018, ISBN: 978-1-9-12183-36-4, 294pp. My copy from the Book Depository UK, AU$25.80 with free postage
TUMBY BAY - By 1960 the training of local indigenous officers for the public service in Papua New Guinea had accelerated dramatically.
These officers were paid the same rates as expatriate officers. As a result the wages bill of the Australian Administration rose rapidly.
In 1962 Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck decided to restructure the public service. His aim was to cut costs by turning it into “an essentially territorial service based on local conditions and rates of pay, staffed as fully as possible by indigenous officers and assisted by an auxiliary service staffed by expatriate officers”.
This was the beginning of what later became known as “localisation” and signalled the end of career paths for expatriates in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
This development caught a lot of people by surprise, including a lot of local staff whose salaries were suddenly reduced.
A group of surprised Australian cadet patrol officers about to commence their induction at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in August 1963 were told abruptly that no more permanent positions would be available and they were offered six year contracts instead.
There were further changes to expatriate recruitment as independence loomed.
When I joined in 1967 it was still a requirement that cadet patrol officers be unmarried and under the age of 30.
These conditions then began to be modified. Cadet patrol officers soon gave way to assistant patrol officers with “accelerated” training.
Then, by the early 1970s, older, married recruits with “life experience” were being employed. They were colloquially referred to as “instant kiaps”.
Robert Forster became a kiap in June 1971. His life experience included a stint as a forestry worker at Bundi after being recruited in England by Voluntary Service Overseas, “a government-sponsored organisation which recruited restless young people who wanted to exhaust their surplus energy while working in underdeveloped countries”.
His cohorts comprised an unusually large and disparate group. “There would not have been a straightforward CV among them,” Forster writes.” The age range was 19 to 41, eleven out of the intake of 39 were married, seven were born in the UK, one in Canada and two were Vietnam veterans. Perhaps half had secured a tertiary qualification”.
Forster at least had experience living in the bush and knew Tok Pisin but many of the others had no experience at all. Compared with previous intakes, they all looked pretty scruffy.
Quite a few didn’t last the distance. We had one from Forster’s intake arrive at Balimo. He was a likeable Englishman with a likeable English wife and two lovely kids but they were gone within 12 months.
Balimo was a muddy, soggy, mosquito-infested backwater and I can’t blame them for fleeing back to England. Shortly after they left, I too engineered a move out of the place.
However, those tail-enders who stayed on were important because they saw through an important stage in Papua New Guinea’s history.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with Fortser’s assessment that the 1972 general election “triggered a political earthquake” or that the Administrator “hurriedly evacuated his office” and made certain files disappear into the night before handing over his job to Michael Somare, but it was, nevertheless, an interesting time.
Rather than an earthquake, I think what happened after 1972 was entirely expected and understood, especially by the more senior and longer serving kiaps.
It was no secret that Michael Somare and many of his ministers had an intense dislike of kiaps and the power they wielded. Out in the districts, they often competed with local political aspirants for the minds of the people. Something had to give.
When the politicians and senior Papua New Guinean public servants began to seriously interfere in the work of the Australian kiaps by undermining the decisions they made, the writing was on the wall. Many kiaps realised this and accepted their fate.
As I recall, a very apt quote, attributed to Lawrence of Arabia, was doing the rounds among the kiaps: “It is better to let them do it themselves imperfectly, than do it yourself perfectly. It is their country, their way and our time is short.”
In Port Moresby, the boss of the kiaps, Tom Ellis, pretended to grovel and crawl across the floor of the House of Assembly and asked Somare and his cohorts, “Is this what you want?” And, of course, the answer was yes.
Up in the Highlands at Minj, where Robert Forster was posted, assistant district commissioner Nigel Van Ruth, a pugnacious Dutchman, launched a long last stand, shock and awe patrol under the guise of political education to demonstrate his power.
He was promptly arrested and moved on at the behest of Kaibelt Diria, the local member and Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.
Many of the more senior kiaps watched all this unfold and decided their best course of action was to keep their heads down and concentrate on securing promotions to bolster the amount of their final golden handshake.
The timidity and paranoia induced among many senior kiaps following the Van Ruth affair and similar incidents is nicely illustrated by an event at Bereina in 1973 on the day self-government was declared.
Forster had been transferred there from Minj and wasn’t enjoying it at all. Like me, he had found himself stuck in a hot, muddy mosquito-infested backwater with an apathetic population and nothing much to do.
In this case, member of parliament and founder the Papua Besena political party, Josephine Abaijah, momentarily helped enliven the ennui by deciding to visit Bereina to declare Papua independent of New Guinea.
The assistant district commissioner panicked and ordered a clandestine action to defend the station from the insurrection that was bound to erupt with Josephine’s presence. On the day he gathered all the expatriates in one house, made sure they were all armed, and awaited the long knives.
A more down-to earth, trade store owner, Dulcie Hides, the widow of Bruce Hides and sister-in-law to the famous Jack, arrived in her “best frock carrying a bottle of gin and a handmade .22 rifle … she wasn’t going to miss out on a rare chance of company and conversation”.
Nothing happened of course. Josephine “declared independence for Papua in front of not more than one hundred mildly enthusiastic people, and almost as many newsmen and cameras, then returned to her vehicle and left”. The end of Australian colonial power in Papua New Guinea was quickly descending into low comedy.
Meanwhile, out at the coal face, it was left to the tail-end kiaps, like Forster, to bear the brunt of the changed times and try to ease the transition towards independence for the ordinary villagers.
He finally and reluctantly left in 1975 after his family life began to suffer. Quite a few of his cohorts stayed on, some into the early 1980s.
I’ve always been surprised at the number of men who stayed on as kiaps well after independence given that their authority was reduced and constantly undermined and that the worsening law and order situation was making life onerous for their families.
This eloquent book is an important contribution to the history of Papua New Guinea and the kiaps in particular because it covers the end days of Australian colonialism, a subject that hasn’t had much attention before.
Robert Forster returned to Northumbria and became a successful journalist but the bones of the book were essentially compiled in 1977. In polishing it for publication he remarks that, because of its earlier manifestation, the “temptation to indulge in hindsight has therefore been resisted.”
This is an important book, even if you don’t entirely agree with its assessments and sentiments.