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The hair-trigger path to independence

Papua Besena membership card - the Papuan separatist group under the strong leadership of Josephine Abaijah was a destabilising influence leading to independence


TUMBY BAY - In the end, Papua New Guinea’s peaceful transition to independence turned out to be a case of the right people coming together at the right time.

On the Australian side was the Liberal Party’s external territories minister Andrew Peacock, who remained committed to independence even after his party was defeated at a general election in 1972.

On the Labor Party’s side was new prime minister, Gough Whitlam, a long-time supporter of independence, and his external territories minister, Bill Morrison.

On the Papua New Guinean side there was chief minister Michael Somare and the talented members of his Pangu Pati.

Without their prescience and the ability to judge the mood of the people and the political situation in both Australia and Papua New Guinea, the outcome could have been quite different.

In short, there could have been a deadly situation leading to widespread civil unrest and even the possibility of civil war.

The path that Whitlam and Somare followed to independence owed much to the groundwork laid by Peacock and the largely unsung hero of PNG independence, Paulus Arek and his Select Committee on Constitutional Development.

Australian prime minister John Gorton faced 10,000 hostile Tolais when he landed at Rabaul airport in 1970

This path followed a course of gradual devolution of power to the PNG House of Assembly.

After the 1972 election in Papua New Guinea it was envisaged there would be a majority of Papua New Guinean members who would guide the nation towards independence.

This is ultimately what happened, but there was stiff opposition all the way from individuals and groups in both Australia and PNG who thought independence was premature.

That opposition was a dangerous ingredient that could have thrown the process into disarray.

Nowadays it is hard to imagine how much a close-run thing it was.

On the Gazelle Peninsula and in Bougainville in the late 1960s and early 1970s, strong opposition to the Australian Administration was fomenting, largely based on land alienation in the Gazelle and resource exploitation in Bougainville.

This led to serious civil unrest in both places, watched closely by activists in places like New Ireland and Milne Bay.

At the same time, Josephine Abaijah’s Papua Besena movement was pushing for Papuan separatism.

Furthermore, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that such unrest could spread further to coastal areas on the mainland.

Keith Jackson in the separatist newspaper, Bougainville News, in 1971. Sent to Radio Bougainville to take the station to 'the middle of the road'

The proof that this could have deteriorated into civil war came in Bougainville in 1989, when people’s grievances led to sabotage and then a 10-year war.

In the Highlands, meanwhile, a strong conservative element was pushing back against the idea of independence.

This movement was ripe for exploitation and that’s exactly what some Australian planters and their Highland friends did.

It is not impossible that a situation could have developed that pitted Highlanders against coastal people, leading well beyond rhetoric.

That none of this happened is largely because of Michael Somare and his Pangu Pati with the able support from forward-thinking Australian politicians of the time.

And if you don’t think this is remarkable, just think what would occur if this was all happening now.

Just imagine the chaos we would have if the current politicians in both Australia and Papua New Guinea were faced with such tough issues.

Luckily for Papua New Guinea those old time politicians were true statesmen, a species of politician now sadly almost extinct.


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Paul Oates

That's very true Phil, but not in the peremptory way in which it was allowed to happen.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm not sure that's true Paul. The irreversible march to independence was well in train by the time Whitlam came to office.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that ordinary Papua New Guineans had absolutely no say in the matter.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Select Committee's tour was in 1971.

Paul Oates

If one was to bequeath a view of history as it happened, Chips’ recollection is spot on and reflects the general view of most PNG people at the time of the early 1970’s. That’s what Kiaps who were in the bush heard from the PNG people they met and worked with.

There was a general view that more time was needed in order to effectively transfer the power of a so called ‘western government’ onto a people who had never experienced anything like it in the past.

The transfer of knowledge and expertise was naturally perceived as being something that should not be rushed lest the value of what had been built up could well be lost forever.

Into that conservative climate came two irrepressible motivators. Gough Whitlam who wanted to make a name for himself with the developing nations of the then world and the young leaders of PNG who saw opportunities and grabbed them with both hands. There were some PNG leaders who spoke out against a fast transfer but they were overtaken by the two unstoppable motivational forces. Most PNG were never really consulted or taken note of if they were.

Over the last 40 plus years, PNG has seen most of the infrastructure existing in 1975 fall apart and a more traditional PNG concept of government take over. I among many, found this firstly very hard to accept as the type of government that I was used to and educated about had been evolving for hundreds of years. It was clear to me that unless you had free, democratic elections and a separate government and opposition you would quickly descend into a form of dictatorship. The examples of how easily this happens are readily available all around the world today.

To the extent, the PNG people’s conservative views about Independence have mostly been proven correct. Yet at the same time, the traditional PNG concept of a village council sometimes being dominated by the occasional ‘big man’ has been shown to actually work, at least on the surface.

World events are moving with increasing rapidity towards a showdown with competing powers for world domination. How that confrontation will affect PNG’s people and their way of life could well be predicted and anticipated by looking at the past invasion of PNG in the early 1940’s.

The only certainty in life is that nothing is certain except that history keeps being repeated by those who will not learn.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Between 4th January and 19th February Paulus Arek took his Select Committee on Constitutional Development on a fact finding tour to gauge the feelings of Papua New Guineans about self-government and independence. They visited all of the districts and met with most of the LLG councils and produced a report of their findings.

They found overwhelming support for delaying both self-government and independence, the general sentiment being that Papua New Guinea needed more time to develop before it thought about such matters. At the same time, however, they found many 'hot spots' where opposition to the Australian Administration was strong and people were calling for independence.

Arek (and Somare) had previously visited Africa and had met people like Tom Mboya of Kenya, who, like Arek had been a committed trade unionist. From their discussions with people like Mboya they formed the view that PNG should already have been independent. Mboya had visited PNG in 1964 and had said, “How am I going to tell people in Africa that the people of Papua New Guinea don’t want to be free? Nobody will believe me.”

Mboya's visit to PNG was very important and as Ian Downs noted, "many of his proposals became part of the Australian program."

Faced with these conflicting views and encouraged by Australia Somare obviously decided that the issue had to be forced even though many people in PNG were against it.

In this sense meetings like the ones Chips describes were rather pointless because the decision had already been made. When the administration appointed Political Education Officers in each district (drawn from kiap ranks) their task was to explain to people that self-government and independence was coming whether they liked it or not.

As a footnote it’s worth noting that there was always a strong propensity among Papua New Guinean people to tell whoever in authority was asking them questions what they thought they wanted to hear rather than what they actually believed. This was (and is) a form of Melanesian politeness.

Tom Mboya was assassinated in 1969 and Arek died of cancer in 1973 so neither of them lived to see PNG gain its independence.

Arthur Williams

Phil. the anti-Australia sentiments on Lavongai pre-dated the Tolai's Mataungans.

Lavongai was in early 1960s and there is even an alleged movement in 1930s wanting to shed Australia.

Only recently Sir J Chan marked a U-Turn in the province's political history when yesterday's 'longlongs' became revered pace setters:

2021/02/26 Lavongai LLG opens building at Taskul -The National of PNG

Sir Julius reminded the people of Lavongai that they were a revered people.

“A people that should be proud of their achievements and as pace-setters towards independence long before the rest of New Ireland conjured up thoughts of becoming an autonomous part of PNG.”

Chips Mackellar

My recollection of sentiment among the general population of the Highlands in those days is quite different.

I remember we had to convene meetings of Highlanders to explain that independence was coming and to assess what the general consensus of opinion on independence then was.

The questions we had to ask included what sort of independent government the people wanted.

For example, did they want a single inclusive government like New Zealand, or did they want a Commonwealth government like Australia consisting of separate states.

In the PNG context, this would be a separate state each for Papua, New Guinea Coast, New Guinea Islands except Bougainville, with Bougainville a separate state, each with its own parliament, all combined in a federation, to be known as The Federated States of Papua New Guinea.

Surprise, surprise, the answer we got on every occasion was "Mipela laikim kiap goverment', which was a clear indication that the general consensus of opinion was that the people had no interest in Independence and wanted the Australian Administration to continue.

Garrett Roche

Phil stated that in the Highlands “a strong conservative element was pushing back against the idea of independence.” I agree with that statement.

My experience in the Highlands in the early seventies was limited to Western Highlands, which then included what is now Enga and Jiwaka.

I suspect that the push against independence was motivated in part by a certain fear that independence would lead to domination by coastal politicians.

However some Highlands politicians like Thomas Kavali from the Jimi, and some also from Simbu, were in favour of independence and they persuaded some of the other highlands politicians, such as Kaibelt Diria, to join them.

With the help of these politicians Somare was able to get a majority.

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