Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare: a reflection

The handful of men who made PNG a nation

Phil Fitzpatrick - "For Somare the kiaps seemed to represent the worst anachronisms of colonial rule"


TUMBY BAY - When leaders with an aura of greatness die, there inevitably follows an assessment of their life and work.

Initially this reckoning will be largely praiseworthy but, as time goes by, a deeper analysis will occur. This is sure to happen in the wake of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare’s death.

Given his status as the founding father of Papua New Guinea’s independence much of that assessment will be concentrated on his role in making that happen.

With his departure from the scene those carrying out this assessment should feel freer to express opinions that they might not have wanted to express while he was alive. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

As has been noted elsewhere by Paul Oates, ordinary Papua New Guineans were never afforded an effective choice about PNG self-government and independence. Their opinions were sought and then largely ignored.

As such there was an autocratic element involved in the progression to independence. As Chief Minister, Michael Somare was a primary instigator in this episode of undemocratic autocracy.

There is a fine line between autocracy and despotism. Autocracy for the right reasons, as China maintains, is not necessarily a bad thing. For the wrong reasons it can be evil.

While Somare had to weigh up the political considerations in his push for independence, there is no escaping that he had developed a predisposition for early independence at a young age.

In that sense his push for independence was both political and personal.

Another view that he had developed was a dislike for the kiap system: the system of colonial administration that ran from the top of government literally to the villages.

For Somare the kiaps seemed to represent the worst anachronisms of colonial rule.

And when, in their interactions with Papua New Guineans at the grassroots, they were reporting a general reluctance to embrace the idea of independence Somare probably hardened rather than softened his decision to act more unilaterally.

If Somare and the Australian government thought they had general support for independence they might have been tempted to hold a referendum.

However, a government is often reluctant to hold a referendum if it’s not sure of a positive outcome. In the case of PNG, I believe it was plain the outcome would have been firmly against early independence.

And, of course, a referendum would have necessarily been largely conducted by kiaps, and there was a real risk that some of them would have unintentionally or perhaps deliberately manipulated local outcomes.

The other factor militating against a referendum was that both Somare and the Australian government didn’t believe the average Papua New Guinean was well enough informed about the complex issues involved to make an educated decision. In that aspect they had a good point.

How was it possible for an average Papua New Guinean villager in some remote part of the country, who had only the vaguest idea of what independence involved, to objectively weigh up the benefits of Papua New Guinean rule compared with Australian colonial rule?

In forcing early independence, Somare and his colleagues, with the Australian government complicit, were in all probability making a decision that the majority of Papua New Guineans would have shied away from.

As such, they were undemocratic and autocratic in their belief that they were best placed to make the decision on what was in the ultimate good of the new nation and its people.

It is this type of unfettered discussion that will be had now that Sir Michael Somare is gone.

It’s a discussion that, over time, will assign his role in deciding Papua New Guinea’s future into an historical context, giving the academics much to consider.

It will also be a useful matter for future leaders and citizens to contemplate as they ponder where their country should be headed.


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Corney Korokan Alone

Papua New Guineans know and understand that, there have been repressive slave holding governors, senators supreme court judges, monarchies (who'd prefer one becomes 50% less of themselves) and presidents. Stuff like these have been tolerated for centuries and even to the 21st century.

Our people have been mostly insulated from the exploitative market grabbing tactics, and raw material extraction havens with equally unsavory treatments dished out to indigenous people before we became independent.

For the price of freedom, human decency, respect and self-determination, Papua New Guineans are and will be willing to let go speed bumps, short-comings and minuscule errors of judgement with respect to our founding father.

Papa Somare will always have an unparalleled place of honor and respect by the citizens of beloved homeland, Papua New Guinea and the descendants to come because we are writing our own story and recording our own seminal events as a 45 year independent country.

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