Living at ground level, Part 2 – More musings from Stan
Security: Does Australia’s view align with the Pacific islands?

After $50 million, Kokoda suffers from Australian meddling

Major Charlie Lynn
Major Charlie Lynn

CHARLIE LYNN | Spectator Australia

SYDNEY - Community museums and trade centres under construction along the Kokoda Trail are the latest taxpayer funded folly of our so-called ‘Australian – PNG Partnership’.

The use of ‘partnership’ by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade operatives in Port Moresby is an oxymoron based on the principle of ‘we pay – you agree’ and it’s indicative of the empathetic divide between them and the people they are supposed to serve.

In this case there has been no consultation with trekkers or local villagers to see if such an initiative would meet their needs and no cost benefit analysis to justify the expenditure of other people’s money.

Apart from a few rusted rifles, rotted boots and mortar shells community museums will have little to display – and apart from the odd bilum bag or carved stick, villages along the trail have little to trade.

Their culture has been subjugated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church – grass skirts, swaying hips, beads, decorative head-dress and kundu drums have been replaced with Western clothing, bibles, twice-daily church services and a strict observance of the Sabbath.

This latest folly has all the hallmarks of the failed ‘Village Livelihoods’ project implemented soon after the Australian government hijacked the Kokoda trekking industry in 2009.

‘Village Livelihoods’ was invented in Canberra to ‘help’ villagers earn additional income from trekkers. Trouble was the envirocrats who designed it didn’t consult with PNG government officials, local villagers or trekkers – it’s as if they regarded them all as lesser beings.

As a result they blew more than $1.5 million of other people’s money on a thought-bubble that didn’t produce a single vegetable from a garden or generate a single dollar in additional income.

The military significance of the Kokoda Trail has emerged as an inconvenient truth for DFAT.

What other excuse can they offer for their refusal to develop a master plan to protect honour and interpret our shared wartime heritage along the Kokoda Trail after a decade in-situ and the expenditure of more than $50 million of other peoples’ money?

And who can explain the logic behind the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs has responsibility for Gallipoli and World War I while DFAT and Environment are responsible for Kokoda and World War II?

It certainly doesn’t make sense to us lesser beings.

DFAT officials and their cronies embedded in strategic PNG Government departments are now faced with the dilemma of being seen to honour our wartime heritage of the Kokoda campaign while pursuing an environmental agenda opposed to commemoration.

If our veterans had displayed the same lack of fortitude as today’s crop of DFAT Ministers in defending our wartime heritage we would have surrendered at Tobruk; did a runner at El Alamein; and prepared a sushi banquet to welcome the Japanese to Kokoda in 1942.

View-of-the-trackThey would do well to reflect on Slim Dusty’s tribute to our diggers during their struggle against the Japanese in 1942: ‘They beckoned you and taunted you to face eternity …. you saluted with a burning Thompson gun!’

Today’s leaders would drop their daks, bend over and wink at their rising suns.

DFAT’s cunning in creating perceptions of interest in our wartime heritage while pursuing a patronising environmental agenda is remarkable.

Their deception is based on avoiding the development of a Master Wartime Heritage Plan at all costs.

Rather than engage an accredited military heritage architect to develop a plan they recruited an American anthropologist as their National Military Heritage Advisor.

The position was advertised during the peak Christmas holiday period last year and limited to a small group of institutions which excluded the Australian War Memorial. Nothing to see there, your worship!

The anthropologist has since been engaged in exploring ‘lost battlefields’ that have never been lost; checking out Blamey’s respite centre near Port Moresby; and developing ‘community museums and trade centres’ in areas that have no historic relevance.

These projects are on a par with the massage parlours his predecessors funded at Efogi and Isurava. They were dismantled after the first year because nobody booked a massage. Yet another DFAT thought-bubble developed without consultation and inevitably punctured by reality.

Politically correct panels at Owers Corner were designed without consultation with the Australian War Memorial and cunningly sought to reinterpret ‘mateship’ into ‘friendship’.

Then there was the DFAT ‘gender equity study’ conducted from the secure comfort of five-star hotel room in Port Moresby.

If their consultant had bothered to set foot on the trail he/she would have learned that the roles of men, women and children in subsistence villages hasn’t changed much over the past thousand years.

The study was conducted under the guise of their ‘Kokoda Initiative’ even though it had no relevance to the military history of the Kokoda campaign.

The PNG prime minister’s recent call for a review of the dysfunctional management system put in place by Australian government officials saw DFAT scramble into ‘Yes Minister’ mode.

Terms of reference were drafted to achieve a neutral outcome. The consultant engaged to conduct the review did not set foot on the trail to meet trekkers or village communities and the inevitable outcome was basically a re-adaption of the status quo. A close call for Sir Humphrey but he quickly rose to the challenge.

DFAT has now spent more than $50 million of other peoples’ money on their ‘Kokoda Initiative’ over the past decade.

During this time trekker numbers have declined by 43%; significant historical sites have been desecrated; the environmental condition of the trail has been degraded; and PNG guides and porters are shamelessly exploited.

Local villagers are now mere spectators to a passing parade of trekkers – and there is still no master plan to honour the wartime heritage of the Kokoda campaign.

It’s enough to make old soldiers and lesser beings weep.


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Rashmii Bell

As I've referred to in my previous comment, it is my hope that Kokoda Initiative, Kokoda Track Authority, PNG National Museum Art Gallery, Australian High Commission etc would include trek operators like Adventure Kokoda in these community museum/ trade centres project along the Trail.

At their own initiative, Adventure Kokoda (via Network Kokoda) have for years delivered philanthropic projects to promote the inclusion of girls and women's economic participation in the trek tourism industry. An example is included in the 'Trail of Woe' series I wrote in 2018.

This catering service I believe would be well received by trekkers.

Adventure Kokoda already provide the drum ovens which the women's group use for baked items.

Rashmii Bell

I was in the room when this implemented concept of 'Community Museums/ Trade Centres' was presented, via a slideshow of pictures. A slightly elevated structure of a corrugated frames and roofing with a small extension of a wooden slats verndah with a few plywood-built tables, appeared on screen. I assumed the latter to be the "Trade Centre".

And I'm confused as to who exactly is charge of decision making of this Museum/ Trade Centres project as the no Papua New Guinean representative from NMAG was in attendance, but the American anthropologist unloading all the business of the 'partnership' activity.

Australian trek tour operators and the the individuals from multiple agencies involved in the (mis) management of the Trail looked as bewildered as each other as none but a few were privy to the fact that this structure has come into existence in recent weeks (prior to the Forum).

I'm curious to know how exactly Papua New Guinean women from the Trail communities are to generate a sustained income from these 'Trade Centres', unless the intention is for the current practice of selling cans of soft drinks and twisties on ground (grass) level to be elevated to trade on plywood tables instead.

I was particularly disappointed to know that Adventure Kokoda had not been involved or included in the roll out of Trade Centres, particularly as they have an excellent project involving the women of Abuari village who provide an excellent trekker-pays lunch spread upon arrival in their community.

I would have asked this question at the time, but was unable to I was reeling in confusion after having my question about atrocious toilet conditions directed to KI being then diverted to CEPA then back across to Aus High Commission.....

Eventually everyone in the room agreed that yes, disgusting toilets has been a long-term issues and somehow, someday the issue may be attended to...

Chris Overland

As a career bureaucrat, I was unsurprised by Charlie's observations.

For over a decade, I was Chief Executive of South Australia's busiest regional hospital at Mount Gambier, which is located some 450 kilometres south of Adelaide.

More than once I had to explain to an Adelaide based Department of Health employee not only where Mount Gambier was but that it was, in fact, part of South Australia.

The latter confusion sometimes arose because the hospital statistics showed many admissions from Victoria giving rise to the erroneous belief that it was actually in Victoria.

Mount Gambier is 11 kilometres from the Victorian border so, unsurprisingly, many Victorians choose to use its services rather than travel much greater distances to find a Victorian hospital.

My point is that if some members of the SA bureaucracy did not know that the state's largest regional centre was actually in the state, it is utterly unsurprising that Canberra based bureaucrats know little or nothing about the Kokoda Trail.

In age when you can google pretty well anything, it is possible to believe that by doing so you acquire meaningful and comprehensive knowledge of the topic being researched.

Worse still, you can delude yourself into believing that your google acquired knowledge enables effective decision making.

While I agree that it is perfectly possible to acquire useful preliminary knowledge in this way, in the context of the Kokoda Trail it is no substitute at all for putting boots on the ground.

Famously, Brisbane based General's McArthur and Blamey initially misunderstood the Australian's masterly fighting withdrawal across the Kokoda Trail in 1943 as a defeat. Blamey even castigated the survivors in public for running like rabbits.

Worse still, he sacked the architect of victory, Brigadier Arnold Potts DSO, OBE, MC on the grounds that he had not shown the required leadership or fighting spirit! What a travesty.

Of course, based upon more complete and better first hand accounts of the terrain, the numbers of troops involved and the nature of the fighting, it eventually dawned upon McArthur, Blamey et al that the battles on the track had, in fact, staved off almost certain disaster for the Allies.

Of course McArthur, being an egoist of Trump like proportions (albeit hugely smarter) had to suffer the ignominy of seeing his US Army 32 Division badly mauled at the Battle of Buna-Gona before developing a proper understanding of just what fighting the Japanese Army would require of his troops.

It is therefore more than ironic that remote bureaucrats charged with responsibility for administering Australia's efforts to help preserve the track and simultaneously assist those who live along it, should fall into essentially the same sorts of errors as McArthur and Blamey.

Whatever it faults, the old fashioned kiap system at least ensured that those discussing problems in remote PNG locations usually had some first hand knowledge of what they were talking about.

It seems that the same cannot be said today, either of those based in Moresby or the even more remote Canberra.

Paul Oates

Hi Charlie - Many of us are aware of how the bureaucracy works in both Canberra and Waigani. The problem is how to get something tangible achieved despite the obstacles.

What therefore is the solution?

The current Australian PM has actually walked the track so that might be a good place to start. Are you able, through your contacts arrange for a meeting with the PM whereby an achievable objective can be agreed upon without the clutter of Canberra and Waigani getting involved?

Is there or could there be a viable plan that is inclusive of local landowners whereby they could share ownership and ensure continuity?

What do you and the landowners need to help?

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