Tribal Fights
Our horrible history

Turning point: Dorney’s history revisited

Sean Dorney on the job. His early independence history reveals a significant turning point in PNG's story as a nation


Papua New Guinea: People, politics and history since 1975 by Sean Dorney, 335 pp. ABC Books, 2000. ISBN-10: 0733309453. Available from Amazon here for $US31.70

PORT MORESBY – In this book, first published in 1990, the noted journalist Sean Dorney gave us a glance of Papua New Guinea, its people, politics and history over its first 15 years after independence.

Dorney lived and worked in PNG for 17 years as the correspondent of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation having previously been assigned there in the early 1970s to work with the embryonic National Broadcasting Commission.

Dorney coverDuring this long association with the country, Dorney married a Manus (Mwanus) lady and captained the PNG Kumuls national rugby league team.

All this experience perfectly positioned him to comment about PNG’s post-independence journey.

The first decade of nationhood was exemplary but challenged by multi-cultural and linguistic disparity across provinces and districts and internal security and border issues. Dorney concluded that PNG could utilise this diversity for self-sustenance.

PNG is predominately Melanesian with traces of Polynesian and Micronesian ethnicity in coastal and atolls regions and is the most culturally diverse country in the world: more than 700 spoken languages and a culture spanning tens of thousands of years.

The political implication of diversity meant that no one system of government would fit all.

The North Solomon Province (now the Autonomous Region of Bougainville) implemented community government ahead of the introduction of the provincial government system in 1977. New Britain had its own version and pre-independence the Papua Besena movement made it clear it did not want to be part of an independent PNG.

The first 15 years of political independence were filled with drama and no-confidence votes made popular by the late Sir Iambakey Okuk, was described by onetime prime minister Sir Julius Chan as a ‘time-bomb’.

The contest for the scarce resources in the young country was manifested in the infighting as the new national government was faced with the impossible task to satisfy all members of parliament and constituencies.

Reality dictated that only a handful of MPs could become ministers, which led to a suggestion at the time that backbenchers should be made chairperson of statutory organisations like Air Niugini, PNG Power and the PNG Ports Corporation.

This did not work out and more time was devoted in every government to managing the politics ahead of managing people.

The infighting meant that important state institutions and government machinery fell short of delivering to expectations.

Dorney notes that “PNG Defence Force professionalism and discipline [had] declined since the force was given to PNG at independence by the Australians.”

Moreover, he highlighted the chief ombudsman’s report that corruption, like a disease, develops through four progressive stages: from lowly corrupt to highly corrupt.

The report claimed that by 1982 PNG had reached Stage 2 as corruption filtered through to senior public servants where it was condoned and tolerated by the political leadership.

However, what had not changed since independence was the vibrant Ombudsmen Commission and an independent media.

That the media has a much greater responsibility to be accurate in its reporting had been a concern in the early years after independence: greater independence coming with greater responsibility.

Communication minister Gabriel Ramoi in the Wingti government brought in legislation to scrutinise “what is published” in all forms of media.

The first attempt failed with even members of cabinet voting against the bill. A backbench MP remarked that “such freedom is good as it will ensure our voices are heard when we are in the opposition.”

Despite all this, though, the need to train good journalists and investigative journalists remained a challenge throughout.

The 1980s was characterised by increasing drama across the PNG-Indonesia border with a mass exodus of people in 1984. Australia was kept abreast every step of the way but it was expected that PNG would stand on its own and face its own challenges.

Deputy prime minister Iambakey Okuk faced opposition for an outburst against Indonesia about their dealings with the Melanesians in Irian Jaya. Months before elections, his unconventional approach drew the attention of the Indonesian Embassy in Port Moresby.

“If one would become a leader of a certain nation,” the embassy stated, “one has to understand the nature of international politics.

“Otherwise such a person will create disaster instead of developing peace and harmony between neighbouring countries.”

Dorney suggested, however, that “Okuk’s unceremonious defeat in the 1982 elections has more to do with his provincial and national rivalries.”

Dorney wrote that as the 1990s turned into the 2000s, the increasing use of factory made weapons had defeated the original impact of tribal warfare, making it an internal security issue.

The police were often mobilised to quell warfare in remote places which took a lot of resources. This brought to the fore the two-faceted justice system: one administered by the formal courts and the other by custom.

The pillars of the formal justice system PNG adopted at independence had sought fairness and justice, whereas the latter sought common peace and reconciliation.

Dorney also wrote about the third principle of the five national goals emphasising self-reliance. In the 1980s, the Burum community government area in the remote hinterland of the Finschhafen district mobilised and constructed an airstrip to transport their coffee to Lae.

Over time they also built a school and a sub health centre, both outside the national and provincial government plans.

Chris Banga
Chris Banga

Their latest self-help venture had been to buy a D4 bulldozer costing about K50,000 – money they collected from various villages in the valley.

Instead of waiting for service delivery, these people decided to provide for themselves.

Mobilising this strength could be more powerful and a catalyst for a lot of good things.

By the end of Dorney’s history of those early independence years, even though corruption is becoming more assertive, there is still hope for a resourceful people.


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Lindsay F Bond

Pleasing to see Chris Banga's review. More celebration of instances of 'self-help' is an opportunity for PNG to engage with it and encourage it.

I confess to needing to get hold of Sean's book, but will.

Meanwhile it seems, the Australian administration of TP&NG was never a course for the new nation, such that progressively the constituents (not just politicians) brought dissemblance of procedures and laws.

This outcome (whether or not lawful) had cash (wealth and sustenance) delivered to local bigmen, as of yore. Even the matter of the Maseratis seems to have gone down that road.

Paul Oates

I happen to know something about the 'Burum (Bulum) Valley' and the building of airstrips to fly coffee to Lae. It's mentioned in my book 'Small steps along the way' that is freely available to download from this site thanks to Keith and Phil.

Peter Sandery

My recollection is that the communications minister referred to was Gabriel Ramoi.

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