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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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”.