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.
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.
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.