TUMBY BAY - It began about 10 years ago when a group of ex-kiaps sought to have their services in pre-independent Papua New Guinea formally recognised.
The end result was a reluctant awarding of a Police Overseas Service Medal by the Australian government for those interested in applying for it. It was a fancy piece of tin to keep the old chaps quiet.
The award failed to recognise the kiaps’ primary function as change and development agents and concentrated solely on their police role, which in many cases was minimal.
The result: not a lot of kiaps bothered to apply for the medal.
As the years have gone by the need for formal recognition has morphed into a concern about their legacy - how history will remember them.
This concern flares up every now and again. There is currently a debate in progress on the Ex-kiap website.
One of the driving factors behind the kiaps’ concern about their legacy is what has happened in Papua New Guinea since independence.
This period is seen as a slow degradation of civil society and a collapse in national infrastructure because of corruption and exploitation from both inside and outside the country.
The establishment of civil society and construction of infrastructure were both elements in which kiaps played a major role prior to independence.
Of late, emerging historical research and publication by a number of Papua New Guinean writers, particularly as it concerns the first contact period, has been of concern because of its possible impact on the reputations of some kiaps and their legacy.
As the ranks of the kiaps rapidly diminish under the siege of time, their concern about their legacy grows.
They worry that not only will history be unkind to them but that they might be used as scapegoats for the decline of Papua New Guinea since independence.
They don’t want to be seen as the precursors of what transpired in Papua New Guinea after independence.
They want to be recognised for their efforts in building a new nation, not as responsible for why it didn’t turn out as they envisaged. They want a happy ending, not a sad one.
At an individual level their concern is deeply personal. Every time a disaster befalls Papua New Guinea, be it a corrupt politician stealing money or a major public service failing, it is felt as an affront to their integrity as past administrators.
Legacy is a curious beast. It can simply be about what you leave behind for your children or what a leader might leave behind for their nation.
At a crude level, legacy is about material things but, more than that, it is about truth, values, capability and morality.
These aspects are ones the kiaps find hard to rationalise.
Looking at the current corruption in Papua New Guinea, they wonder about how this could have happened. Was it something they did to cause such an unholy development?
Most of them are mystified about where the bloated and repugnant creatures, who seem intent upon bleeding their fellow citizens to death, came from. ‘Surely we kiaps had nothing to do with creating them,’ they think.
Will the legacy of these uncaring and repulsive creatures, who seem to have no regard for how history will see them, be conflated with the legacy of the kiaps?
That idea might seem far-fetched but one only needs to remember the years just after independence when academics and others in Australia lined up the kiaps in their sights as causative agents of much that was wrong with the colonial experience and what sprung from it.
Kiaps were by no means perfect but they tried hard against the odds of an unsupportive and fiscally mean Australian government to do the best possible job in bringing Papua New Guinea to independence and a successful future.
The last thing they need to be told is that they failed.
They didn’t fail. It was the people who came after them that failed, both in Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Hopefully history will share that view.