Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare dies at 84
Passing of a great man

Our Chief has gone: The Michael Somare I knew

Michael Somare talks to Cr Chris Gryllis of Orange and me (Ingrid Jackson)
Michael Somare talks to Cr Chris Gryllis of Orange and me at the PNG high commission in Canberra, 2009 (Ingrid Jackson)


NOOSA – The great nation of Papua New Guinea is in shock and in mourning following the death just after midnight yesterday of its founding father, Sir Michael Somare, long known as The Chief.

Somare was 84, a considerable age in PNG, but his mark on the nation he brought to creation seemed so indelible that he, like it, might last forever.

I did not know Michael Somare well, but the few encounters I had with him were memorable.

The first was in January 1973 when, as Chief Minister, he was visiting a troubled Bougainville. The arrangement was for me to interview him and record a 12-minute talk reviewing his visit.

Somare was a couple of hours late, delayed by a long and fiery meeting in Kieta during which 2,000 protesters demonstrated their anger at a number of things including the ‘invasion’ of Bougainville by outsiders brought in to work at the Panguna copper mine.

He apologised for being late and asked me to have lunch with him, after which we completed the recording and he further invited me to dinner and drinks that evening.

Somare and Ben
In Port Moresby two years ago my son Ben asked Sir Michael if he remembered me. 'Oh yes, is he still alive?' the old man asked, expressing good wishes when the answer came in the affirmative

That night, Radio Bougainville journalist Luke Umbo and I walked into the Davara dining room just behind Somare and as we found our table, an expatriate diner, unknown to us, gestured towards Somare and yelled derisively, “Look at that kanaka in a laplap”.

I could see that Somare was angered, as we all were.

He momentarily baulked but immediately moved on, effectively neutralising the issue.

It could easily have developed into a fracas but Somare showed great poise and the matter was not mentioned again.

As I noted in my diary, “Bougainville is volatile enough right now without a high level political firestorm.”

My late friend the sculptor, Hal Holman OL OAM, was commissioned to render Sir Michael in brass

In 1973, the Government Broadcasting Service and Australian Broadcasting Commission in PNG were merged to form the National Broadcasting Commission and I was transferred to headquarters in Port Moresby to eventually set up a policy and planning secretariat.

Among our projects was one to introduce advertising on the former ABC English-language service. By late 1975 we were ready to start discussing how this might be made to happen.

NBC chairman and my good friend Sam Piniau ran the idea past Somare who responded in a letter saying “the proposal for the NBC going into commercial advertising has my support and the sooner this activity commences, the quicker the NBC will start to earn additional revenue”.

With that agreement, we accelerated our planning and by early 1976 had undertaken a thorough community consultation and presented a detailed proposal for cabinet approval.

Then, just a few months after his first, arrived another letter from Somare.

As I recalled many years later:

“Age might have wearied me since those days, but my mind has not forgotten how influential the Central Planning Office (CPO) was in the period around independence, nor how inclined it was to left wing thought bubbles.

Front Page
Somare was a strong and wily leader. He made a number of comebacks and was finally defeated only through ill health

“The NBC’s proposal to introduce advertising generated an explosive retaliation from a small cabal of expatriate academics in the CPO. That Somare had earlier urged the NBC to get on with commercial broadcasting mattered naught. To these men, that they were ideologically opposed to advertising mattered all.

“Commercial broadcasting was to be smothered in the crib and the measures taken to achieve this would adopt the full ferocity and duplicity of white men wanting to get their own way. It was communicated to me from the CPO that the NBC should back off its proposal. There was much anger and coercion and I was its target.

“One of Somare’s expatriate minders called to tell me that the NBC’s annual grant would be reduced if we did not ‘defuse’ the issue. Then, one evening, after I’d been enjoying a few drinks at the Boroko Aussie Rules football club, a senior CPO officer sidled up to me as I was getting into my car to say that my job was in jeopardy and that “it would be in our mutual interest to cooperate.”

“All of this was unpleasant but it was the monumental backflip by Somare that really took the wind out of my sails when, in a letter to Sam in April 1976, he instructed the NBC not to further proceed.

“He wrote: ‘My prime concern centres on the possible deleterious effects which commercial broadcasting may have on the social and economic environment of our [his emphasis] country.

“The letter further referred to me and Phil Charley, who was running this project for the secretariat, as ‘over-zealous, arrogant and disregarding of authority’.

“That was enough for me. I resigned on the spot, giving myself enough leeway to find a job in Australia.

Somare salute
The Grand Chief (Kalakai Photography)

“There were further discussions and negotiations but, as I told Sam:

‘The commercial broadcasting row was a fight between white men.

‘The cause of creating a better broadcasting organisation is being thwarted by textbook socialists who offer nothing but impractical ideas, alternatively threatening and cajoling, slopping around meaninglessly like water in the bottom of a boat.’

It was time for me to depart Papua New Guinea.

I had no regrets. I’d been in this wonderful country for 13 years. I had seen it as a colony and as a free democratic state.

I’d been married there, we had two children there, I had embarked upon my career there and I had lived amongst a remarkable people. I had nothing to complain about.

Those faux socialist romantics also soon vanished along with the Central Planning Office and PNG got on with becoming a nation.

Michael Somare, once an idealistic visionary – which I believe was required in the foundation of the nation – was to become a shrewd pragmatist, and as required even an opportunist.

But he retained the strength of character, the mental toughness, the political agility and the rare talent of intuitively understanding how to bind together a disparate people, the attributes that had caused Gough Whitlam to remark of him, “Papua New Guinea has found a man whose time has come”.

It had indeed.

Michael Somare celebrates self-government in 1973; independence was just around the corner
Somare celebrates self-government in 1973, with independence just around the corner

The last time I met Somare substantively was at the PNG High Commission in Canberra in 2009.

Somare was there to tell Australian prime minister Rudd that the time had come for PNG “to assert and accept more responsibility for national development” and to “forge a new relationship of equitable partnership with Australia”.

In my conversation with him I recalled meeting him for the first time in Kieta and we laughed about the radio advertising kerfuffle. Time eases even the worst of moments.

“PNG and Australia are true friends,” he said. “Our partnership has withstood the test of time.”

And so Sir Michael Somare has gone from our midst.

He is rightly designated the father of the nation. He is rightly honoured as the man who was able to bring diverse tribal peoples into a nation state.

And this was a particular talent in terms of a populous highlands region that was so wary of independence, recognising its unpreparedness and fearing it would lose out to the coastal people. 

Highlands politicians needed a coastal man they could trust - and that man was Somare.

Somare also practically implemented the template of a nation that would remain democratic, that would retain an independent judiciary and a free press, and that would uphold its constitution.

Sir Michael and Lady Veronica
As The Chief lies dying, his wife, Lady Veronica Somare, stays with him, holding his hand

Of course each of these things has come under pressure at times. But now we know that can also happen in the oldest democracy of them all, the United States.

We recognise Somare’s flaws, and indeed they should not be overlooked by history, but at this moment we can choose to focus on a life that was productively lived and in which so much was achieved for a people that would often frustrate him but who he always loved.

To slightly paraphrase Whitlam, “Papua New Guinea found a man whose time has come”.


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Philip Kai Morre

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare was a humble person with an outgoing personality. A man of insight and vision to move the country forward.

Despite his busy schedule in politics he even had time for everything. He was deeply spiritual and attended Sunday mass in his entire life.

Back in the 1980s I saw him cutting grass around Waigani Catholic Church while still prime minister. When someone asked to assist him, he said, "No, I am doing this for my own soul".

You wouldn't believe how he interacted with street kids and the marginalised. He did not need police personnel to be around to protect him because he is enemy to none except politicians.

May the archangel Michael and the angels welcome him to Heaven. May God grand him eternal peace.

Fred Griffiths

I remember Sir Michael Somare fondly after encountering him in Wewak, probably around 1969. At the time I was acting station manager at Radio Wewak.

By some coincidence Mr Somare (as he was then) and I ended walking side by side, and chatting during a 'walkathon' from Wewak to Moem, raising money for some charitable cause.

I treasure the photo someone took of us walking together along the dusty road.

In the years since I have followed his amazing political career from as far away as Canada. It was an honour to have known Sir Michael Somare - The Chief.

Daniel Kumbon Jnr

It was a coincidence when I appealed to friends on my Facebook account to change their profile picture to Sir Michael from a picture I downloaded off the internet on Thursday 24 February.

I was prompted to do this after being tasked to work on an activity on reporters in my class.

Researching this, I happened to read in ‘The National' ” online an article written by Bertha Somare about the illness of her father.

It was a sad state when one of the last founding fathers passed away just after midnight on Friday 25 February 2021.

I had often seen him on TV during annual independence celebrations.

I had always read his best wishes during every celebration on print media and social media and now wonder who will be that next person.

Has Papua New Guinea, aspiring to become the world’s richest black nation, ever created a leader like Sir Michael Thomas Somare?

Asking such a questions, I don’t seem to see where I will obtain the answer. Do I have to deeply research the issue as a concerned citizen of Papua New Guinea? We all have lost a very powerful leader, a mentor and a role model.

Therefore, let’s all be vigilant and pay our last respects to the founding father of this beautiful, rich black nation, not as losing Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, who will still exist in the essence of our country.

As we saw during independence, we didn’t shed any blood to gain our independence because of the person whom we have lost.

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare may your soul rest in eternal peace, old champ.

I will personally miss you at every independence celebration I live up to see.

Ed Brumby

In my box of treasured memories, along with the medal awarded to those who officiated at the 1969 South Pacific Games, is a 1968 Pangu Pati membership card signed by Michael Tom Somare himself.

It cost, if I remember correctly, 20 cents.

Just why I joined the Pati – along with several other Wewak schoolie mates - is not a complete mystery.

We all knew Michael Tom well enough and, as others have pointed out, despite his celebrity, back then, as a Radio Wewak journalist and presenter, he was not beyond having an extended yarn with just about anyone.

That we could not vote in PNG elections was neither here nor there in our minds: we all supported the Pati’s mission of securing political independence.

That said, we were not sure that Michael Tom would win the regional seat in the 1968 election.

The Catholic church had nominated the principal of St Mary’s Primary T School in Wewak as ‘its’ candidate and we were well sure that priests throughout the district would be urging their flock to vote for him.

Fortunately, they did not prevail.

Our regular association and engagement with Michael Tom also attracted the attention of the local ASIO representative - who took it upon himself to quiz us about said association.

He was, as you’d expect, most displeased with our obfuscatory responses.

Bernard Corden

My late brother during his tenure with the PNG Investment Corporation in the early 1970s often spoke fondly of Sir Michael and even offered him some advice on negotiating skills when he was a radical young bull before independence.

Rest in Peace.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Sir Michael did have a prodigious memory, Garry. He must have met thousands of people over his career yet he still remembered a lot of them.

I’d met him a couple of times but the most memorable time was in a supermarket in Port Moresby in 1972.

I’d managed to inveigle my way into a job as the general factotum and dogsbody for the Commission of Enquiry into Land Matters chaired by Sinaka Goava.

As such I got to trot along behind the commissioners and their consultants whenever they went to meetings or on their fact finding tours to different parts of the country.

In this way I’d got to meet many of the ministers and other important people involved in progressing Papua New Guinea to independence, including Michael Somare.

In 1972 there was a small supermarket in Douglas Street next door to the Commonwealth Bank and I went in there one weekend to pick up a few groceries.

As I pushed my trolley between the aisles I caught up with a short man in a laplap and sandals who was dutifully following his wife as she shopped.

We both stopped in front of a shelf of biscuits. By then I’d recognised the obedient husband as Michael Somare. To my surprise he recognised me and said hello.

From there we ambled along together for a short while, mainly discussing a mutual acquaintance, Joe Nombri, who I’d worked with as a kiap in Kiunga.

Joe had been a founding member of Somare’s Pangu Pati, a brilliant and colourful character who had been ‘banished’ to the remote Western District by the Australian Administration because of his perceived radical political associations.

We chuckled over some of Joe’s more outrageous antics and then parted at the checkout.

Years later when I thought about that chance meeting with the great man it occurred to me how ordinary it seemed and how unpretentious he was.

Unlike many politicians today he wasn’t driven by ego and no matter how much power and wealth he accrued he seemed to remain relatively humble.

That, I guess, is the mark of a great leader.

Michael Dom

Indeed, sir, rest in peace.

Garrett Roche

Sad to hear about death of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, however at the same time his family and friends can be proud of his many achievements over so many decades.

And as Keith has said: " this moment we can choose to focus on a life that was productively lived and in which so much was achieved for a people that would often frustrate him but who he always loved."

I first met Michael Somare back in the early 1970’s when he came to Rebiamul, Mt Hagen, to give a talk at an orientation course for new missionaries to PNG.

The course was organised by the Melanesian Institute and participants were from Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican, United Church, SDA, etc.

This was, of course, before independence, and some expats at the time considered Michael Somare to be a ‘radical’ because he was known to favour independence.

Many years later, when I was involved with Divine Word University, I met Sir Michael many times as he was often invited to Madang for the annual university graduation.

After graduation he would join us for meal etc. Normally his wife Veronica was with him. On one of those occasions I told him I had listened to him talk years ago in Hagen, he told me that he remembered the occasion and he even remembered that he had been talking about the importance of education.

Maybe Michael Somare was more relaxed when he was away from Port Moresby, but on those graduation days in Madang he usually impressed me as being quite easygoing and was not at all officious or domineering.

He struck me as being a good listener, and he had a good sense of humour. Perhaps on our part we endeavoured to talk about matters that were not too political. I can say that we enjoyed his company.

May Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare rest in peace.

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