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Time of tension: Revisiting Kerry Dillon’s ‘Chronicle’

Kerry Dillon
Kerry Dillon today - his perceptive chronicle of a time in PNG as independence loomed is well worth reading


The Chronicle of a Young Lawyer by Kerry Dillon, Hybrid Publishers, August 2020, 384pp. ISBN: 9781925736410, $35. Available from Booktopia & all good bookstores, www.hybridpublishers.com.au and as an ebook from Amazon, Kobo, Google Books and Apple iBookstore

NOOSA – In case you missed it, or on the off chance you want to know more, in this piece I’m revisiting Kerry Dillon’s memoir, ‘The Chronicle of a Young Lawyer’.

After publishing a brief review of the book in PNG Attitude in August, I exchanged a number of emails with Kerry, mainly on the subject of Rabaul in 1969-70 when his and my paths crossed during the tense days of the Mataungan Association’s challenge to the colonial Administration.

In fact, although Kerry also writes on his experiences in Bougainville, Simbu and other places of significance in Papua New Guinea, I rate the Rabaul chapters as the best. They are nicely researched and make a fascinating read.

This article is derived from our email exchange.

Along with my then wife Sue and son Simon, I arrived in Rabaul by sea in late January 1970 at about the time Kerry was on his way to the Madang and East Sepik court circuit as a public defender.

I was taking up the position of assistant manager at Radio Rabaul and I was there until November when I was deployed to manage Radio Bougainville.

One of the most extraordinary events (and there were a few) of those 10 months in Rabaul was Australian prime minister John Gorton arriving at the airport to confront 10,000 angry Tolais.

We later learned he had a revolver tucked in his pocket, slipped to him by a senior kiap, Tom Ellis. Sheer stupidity. A massacre may have occurred if it had been used. Gorton later said he had accepted the offer of the gun in order to protect his wife.

In Chronicle, Kerry writes of the then East New Britain district commissioner, the late Harry West, and refers to how a number of Harry’s peers regarded him as a weak man, a characterisation both Kerry and I disagree with.

Harry West may have been a mild man but he was not weak. He was a man in an invidious position who had reason for aforethought before acting. In the incendiary Rabaul of 1969-70 to act in foolish haste was to invite possible calamity.

Australia’s then opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, also did not have a kind word for Harry, although it wasn’t weakness that disturbed the future Australian prime minister. A few years ago, I twice spoke with Whitlam about PNG in personal conversations.

Whitlam believed Harry to be incapable and untrustworthy. I expressed the view to Whitlam, and I still wonder now, whether Harry was made the scapegoat for the others in the Administration (the Ellis crowd) who were impenetrably hard line on issues like Rabaul and Bougainville.

Kerry related to me, “the available evidence is capable of supporting an inference that the intention was to crush the Mataungans with force”. That did not seem to be a position that Harry would easily have supported.

In 2008, Harry, who I did not know well personally, asked me to stand for the presidency of the PNG Association of Australia, taking over from him. Although quite ill at the time, I agreed and was duly elected in a two-horse race against a representative of what I shall term “the old guard” (which has now disappeared).

Harry was still attending committee meetings and I was able to see how some of the other members - old red necked racists of both sexes - treated him. In short, they were bullies, and Harry tolerated them. I guess they thought he was weak.

While many of his peers in PNG had been given MBEs and such, and deserved them, Harry got no official recognition for his long service which had begun in the war years. So, after I quit the PNGAA, I decided to nominate Harry for an Order of Australia, which he subsequently received. He had earned that and more.

Anyway, back to Kerry’s book.

Kerry tells of an incident in December 1969 when he found himself in a situation where he was the only white man and only Administration official at an angry Mataungan rally in Rabaul that was protesting against the establishment of a multiracial council. There were 800 police in Rabaul at the time. None was present at this event.

Oscar Tammur
The great Tolai leader Oscar Tammur, Rabaul 1970 (Gideon Kakabin)

Kerry had been invited by Oscar Tammur, member of parliament and Mataungan leader, to join him in addressing the gathering. A nervous Kerry spoke to the crowd, not knowing whether the assembly would end in a riot and bloodshed.

“.....Oscar and the [Mataungan] committee, I did trust them, although I had never met them before,” Kerry told me of this incident. “Whether Oscar could manage the crowd was the big question.”

But Oscar was in command, settled the crowd and the rally ended peacefully. This notable event took place in the middle of Rabaul but was not attended by kiaps, police or journalists and went unreported. There can be no doubt that Kerry displayed extraordinary courage in agreeing to Oscar Tammur's invitation.

He and I agree that Oscar was a fine and trustworthy man. But not according to the then Administration, which gave Oscar no credit for his effective work in seeking compromises. At that time, the colonial Administration was interested in control not compromise.

In July 1970 I was at Vunapaladig near Kokopo when police and kiaps confronted Mataungan members and supporters who had occupied the plantation. It was a Mexican stand-off across a narrow creek. Police were busily cutting down trees to create a line of fire.

I was standing by a tent in which senior kiap Jack Emanuel and other officials were bent over a radio-telephone having a conversation with headquarters in Port Moresby. As I eavesdropped I overheard them asking for Code Red to come into effect.

There was no doubt in my mind that this referred to deploying PNGDF troops to Rabaul. Down south in Canberra, prime minister Gorton wanted this to happen. His army minister Malcolm Fraser didn’t. They argued and Fraser won. Within a year Gorton was no longer in office and Fraser was on his way to becoming prime minister.

As Kerry remarked in his communication to me, “The Gazelle problems led to big changes in Australia.”

Back to Vunapaladig. For much of the morning, the aggression consisted of police cutting down trees and Mataungan fist shaking and shouting. But just as it seemed hostilities might be scaled up, what should come dawdling around a bend: nothing less than Rabaul’s Mr Whippy van, tinkling out the Greensleeves theme and selling ice-creams. Vunapaladig was to end peacefully but Jack Emanuel was to die the following year, assassinated on a bush track.

Rabaul was a trigger for accelerating the move to independence in PNG. It opened the eyes of the wise to what may happen if independence was too long delayed. It was a mood Gough Whitlam understood.

Finally, about Kerry Dillon’s book, I especially appreciated his research in bringing together the skullduggery of Canberra and Konedobu during those pre-independence years. His is the best and most revealing description I have read of the political dynamics of that time.

It was a pivotal moment for PNG. Australia would not seek to crush dissident voices but to work with them. The colonial attack dogs in Australia and PNG were called off and pushed aside. The tension dissipated. A new regime took over the Administration of PNG and the move towards independence quickened.


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Bernard Corden

"I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn't make it worse" - Brendan Behan

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's an interesting comment Chips.

The presence of police at such gatherings, especially lately, seems to exacerbate situations rather than quell them.

I guess they are seen as the strong arm of the government and ipso facto, the enemy by many people.

Chips Mackellar

I remember some of these incidents. At the end of the 1969 academic year at Queensland University I was ordered to return to TPNG on posting to Bougainville.

But when my flight landed at Rabaul en route to Kieta I was ordered off the plane and told I had been seconded to the Supreme Court as interpreter for the forthcoming trial of several Mataungan leaders.

The trial never eventuated while I was in Rabaul because of a rumour that the Tolais were going to besiege the courthouse.

In response, the Administration in its wisdom decided to protect the courthouse with, would you believe it, a cordon of police.

Police from outstations all over the Territory were flown into Rabaul to reinforce this cordon. With nothing else to do, because I could not be the interpreter if there was to be no court hearing, I went out to have a look.

The police were standing shoulder to shoulder in line around the police station and court house complex, forming the traditional 'thin blue line' just like a British Square.

There must have been a thousand policemen in line in square formation. A huge group of Tolais faced them.

From inside the square I asked a Rhodesian police officer what was happening. He said, "Can't you see? We are surrounded." And indeed, we were.

But I noticed that the surrounding crowd consisted mostly women and children. So I walked through the police cordon into the crowd and asked why they had gathered there.

"Oh masta," one Tongan lady said, "we have never seen so many policemen before. We have come to look at them."

Later that morning there was a crisis meeting in the District Office of kiaps and police, the subject being how to disperse the crowd surrounding the police cordon.

There were various suggestions, like tear gas, shooting over their heads and so on.

I piped up and said, "I know how to disperse the crowd. Get rid of the police. The crowd are only sticky-beaks because of so many police. Get rid of the police."

I was howled down and told to go back to the university.

Next day I was sent on to Bougainville. Did the Administration overreact? I think so.

Lindsay F Bond

Under the guise of law and order, lesser leaders lurk emboldened.

Thus it was that “repression of Indigenous Australians increased between the wars [WW1 & WW2], as protection acts gave government officials greater control over Indigenous Australians. As late as 1928 Indigenous Australians were being massacred in reprisal raids.”
See: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/indigenous

It was in the Northern Territory and 1933, that events of rights began to turn.

“First Indigenous High Court case [1934] Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a Yolngu elder and Arnhem Land leader, is charged with the murder of policeman Albert McColl.

"Dhakiyarr is sentenced to death, but his case draws national and international attention. He appeals to the High Court, which overturns the sentence, affirming the right of Indigenous people to a fair trial in Australian courts.”
See: https://explore.moadoph.gov.au/people/albert-mccoll

Historians might concur that a crisis at Caledon Bay [northeast Arnhem Land] “was a decisive moment in the history of Aboriginal-European relations”.
See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caledon_Bay_crisis

Quite likely, Harry West would have had closer knowledge of that as “one of the last incidents of violent interaction on the 'frontier' of indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.”

Lindsay F Bond

Perhaps for Harry's contribution in December 1969, an appropriate award would have been a George Medal (or equivalent).

Eric Johns

Thanks Keith for that informative piece and for the reference to Kerry Dillon's book.

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