BILL BROWN MBE
SYDNEY - I had intended to leave discussion of former Papua New Guinea public solicitor Peter Lalor’s vital role in the Bougainville story until a later chapter of my Kiap’s Chronicle, but a comment from Peter Salmon suggests I should include Lalor’s view now.
Salmon noted, “It's interesting to ponder that our Aussie enslavement to British law and the concept of crown mineral rights led to this tragic situation in Bougainville”.
Lalor had expressed his views on this unequivocally in a long letter to the editor of the South Pacific Post (now the PNG Post-Courier) in October 1966:
“The common law of England always was and is that the owner of land is entitled to all minerals beneath and within it with the exception of the royal metals, gold and silver, which belong by ancient prerogative to the Sovereign…. Copper is owned by the landowner....
“If he is unable or unwilling to work it or to allow others to work it application may be made to the High Court for the right to work it.…which will be granted.…if in the national interest and for public benefit.
“The common law principle of the ownership of minerals is equally part of the law of Australia as of England. Both State and Commonwealth Governments have relied on it to assert their title to minerals.
“In Australia however [according to the law at the time] all land was owned by the Crown and hence all minerals belonged to the Crown.… It is true that when Australia was given the Mandate over New Guinea in 1921 the Common Law of England was introduced.…
“Hence the landowner could claim under common law to be entitled to the minerals other than gold and silver in his land. However, those property rights in minerals were taken away without compensation on 1 January 1923 when the Mining Ordinance 1922 came into force.”
Despite the objections of the Australian government, the Australian Administration in PNG and Bougainville Copper Ltd, Lalor mounted an unsuccessful challenge against the mining law in the High Court of Australia in 1969.
All going well, I will get around to Peter Lalor’s magnificent contributions in chapters of Kiap’s Chronicle to come.
Peter William Andrew Lalor (notes from Una Voce)
After service in the Australian Army, Peter joined the Provisional Administration of PNG as a Patrol Officer in October 1946 and was posted to the Milne Bay District. He was in Samarai when a power line came down and, whilst he was rescuing another person, he stepped on the live wire and had his heel badly burnt. This necessitated long treatment in Melbourne where he also finished a law course and met and married his first wife, Mary.
On return to PNG he joined the Crown Law Department and was assigned to several special projects. In 1960 he was appointed the first Public Solicitor in PNG. Over the years he was very active in the affairs of the Public Service Association, particularly in negotiations with Canberra concerning the status and serving conditions of expatriate officers when self-government was introduced into PNG.
In 1965, whilst on duty as Commissioner for the Girl Guides, Peter's wife, Mary, died in a plane accident. He was greatly affected by this tragedy so in 1967 friends arranged for him to go to Canberra, where he spent six months as Associate Professor of Law at the Australian National University. It was there he met Lynette (Netti) Peterson and they were married in 1968.
Peter was highly respected by both practising and academic lawyers in Australia as well as PNG. He had a strong social conscience reminiscent of his namesake (possibly forebear) at the Eureka Stockade.
Although some individuals or groups may have disagreed with some of his actions as PNG Public Solicitor none ever doubted his integrity. He felt that conciliation was far more preferable to riots and saw the court system as a way of taking the heat out of some social issues. He died on 28 March 1992 aged 71.