TUMBY BAY - The argument goes that it was Australian opposition leader and later prime minister, Gough Whitlam, who led the charge for early self-government and independence in Papua New Guinea.
This is a naïve and simplistic view cherished by many observers in both Australia and Papua New Guinea. But the real story was decidedly more complex.
In 1960 the United Nations established a committee on decolonisation.
In the United Kingdom the pragmatic prime minister, Harold Macmillan, famously talked about the ‘winds of change’ that were stirring anti-colonial sentiment in its African colonies.
In Australia prime minister Robert Menzies also acknowledged that decolonisation was an issue and in the early 1960s the territories minister, Paul Hasluck, introduced constitutional reforms aimed at beginning the process of self-government and independence for Papua New Guinea.
However, under the Liberal government, the process was slow. In contrast the opposition Labor Party began to speed up its discussions and planning.
A key figure in these discussions was the charismatic and progressive South Australian politician, Don Dunstan.
At the 1961 ALP federal conference in Canberra, Dunstan tabled a report by the party’s standing committee on foreign affairs, defence, immigration and territories that included proposals for Papua New Guinean independence.
Dunstan had grown up in Fiji and had experienced colonialism first hand. He had also visited other colonial dependencies, including Cyprus, and made several fact-finding trips to PNG.
In his opening speech at the conference, Dunstan said, “The Labor Party declares that the sole right of Australia in Papua New Guinea is to develop the territories to independence at the earliest possible time and that it must then withdraw.”
Under Dunstan’s proposal Australia was to aim for development that included all adults in PNG being on an electoral roll and a legislative council as well as local government councils with regular elections.
The proposal also stipulated that no further local land would be alienated, there would be free and compulsory education for children, child endowment would be paid to voting parents and free medical and hospital treatment would be provided for all Papua New Guineans.
It went on to say there would be freedom of speech, assembly and worship and that the native contract system would be abolished and replaced by an industrial system that included union involvement.
The proposal was then duly ratified as official ALP policy and then re-ratified with a few amendments in 1963. Dunstan formally drafted the final official policy.
It was this policy, devised and drafted by Dunstan, that Gough Whitlam used while pursuing independence for PNG.
In a 1970 radio program, after Whitlam had visited PNG as opposition leader, Dunstan said that Australia had taken money out of PNG and had done a poor job in developing the country.
He added that it would be disastrous for Australia to be seen before “the bar of world opinion as the last remaining power prepared to exploit indigenous people for our own wealth and to refuse them an adequate say in their own future development”.
Dunstan became the premier of South Australia in 1967 and proceeded to drag a state “shrouded in Calvinistic gloom” into the sunlight.
His progressive reforms became shining lights that were emulated Australia-wide and even internationally.
Although Gough Whitlam proudly talked about being the prime minister that saw PNG become independent in 1975 he was singing from a song sheet devised by a South Australian.