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The man jailed for urging PNG independence

Brian Cooper - the man who wanted PNG independence
Brian Cooper - the man who wanted PNG independence

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MORRISET – The man in the photograph is Brian Leonard Cooper; convicted in Papua New Guinea and jailed in Australia for sedition.

His crime? Advocating independence for the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

His fate? Suicide.

Brian Cooper was born in Melbourne in 1936 and was a cooperatives officer in the Territory’s Department of Native Affairs.

Cooper was working in Madang in September 1960 when, at a series of informal lunchtime meetings, he encouraged Papua New Guineans to demand independence.

He had previously come under official surveillance by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in 1958 shortly before he left Australia for PNG.

A state police Special Branch detective observed him listening to talks by Communist Party members at Melbourne’s Yarra Bank, a traditional forum for political speakers.

Cooper was informed on following the remarks he made in Madang and charged with “exciting disaffection against the government”.

He was returned to Australia and then, on the instruction of prime minister Robert Menzies, dramatically arrested at Pyrmont in Sydney and extradited to Port Moresby for trial.

In six-centimeter capitals the Sydney Sun newspaper screamed, ‘EXTRADITED’.

At this time, the Menzies government was facing political difficulties on several fronts.

The Australian economy was in trouble, Menzies’ person popularity had collapsed and in PNG discontent was growing on a number of issues: racial discrimination; segregated schools; political censorship; and the denial of basic democratic rights.

By early 1961, disaffection in PNG sparked a mutiny of Pacific Islands Regiment soldiers in Port Moresby who assaulted their officers after six soldiers were jailed for leading demands for higher pay.

Cooper was prosecuted under Queensland’s Criminal Code for urging the natives of Papua New Guinea to demand independence from Australia.

His trial for sedition rested on dubious processes.

ASIO proffered suspicious evidence against him and he was tried without a jury and by a judge who wrongly admitted ASIO’s unproven claims of his alleged ‘Communist’ and ‘atheist’ views.

After what gave every appearance of a show trial, Cooper was convicted and sentenced to two months' imprisonment with hard labour.

Brian CooperHe was the last person to be prosecuted and jailed for sedition in Australia.

His appeal against his conviction was unsuccessful.

Four years later, although by then a free man, Brian Leonard Cooper committed suicide.

The man who wanted independence for Papua New Guinea should be remembered.

Source: WR Stent, ‘An Individual vs the State’, Overland, vol 79, 1980


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William Stent

I have been greatly pleased by the current interest in my 1978 discussion paper 'A Brief Biographical Account of Brian Leonard Cooper' as shown by the number of copies of it that have been downloaded since the beginning of March.

On its frontpage the paper carries the note 'This paper is for discussion and comments only. It may not be cited or quoted without the written permission of the author'. That was written in February 1978. I wish to emphasis that I now withdraw that constraint.

Should anyone wish to discuss this with me please feel free to do so at

Thanks William. I must admit I missed the condition. Grateful that you have withdrawn it. I'm also pleased that this sad matter has been brought to light again - KJ

Ross Wilkinson

There were a number of events occurring causing concern in Australia at this time in the 1960s. Some were domestic and others international but a significant driver was strategic views held from events that occurred during World War II and immediately after.

With the Japanese progressive occupation of South-East Asia, the capture of Rabaul and occupation of much of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and the subsequent attempt to capture Port Moresby, a significant fear arose in the Australian population that the mainland itself would be invaded.

Whilst this never eventuated, a number of towns were bombed from the air and Newcastle was shelled by a Japanese submarine.

During the war, Chinese communist forces emerged and began to resist both the Japanese forces in China and the Nationalist Chinese forces.

Elsewhere, Chinese-backed communist cells began operating and were encouraged to operate as guerrilla forces to defeat the Japanese.

With the end of the War Australia’s concern shifted to the threat of communism that was coupled with the move to independence of a number of colonial states in the region.

In the immediate post-War years in Europe the Cold War developed with the Iron Curtain concept, in 1950 the Korean War broke out and in 1953 Vietnamese communists defeated the French at Dien Bin Phu.

Whilst communism had its beginnings in Australia after World War I, it was with the above developments that people who identified as communists began to be viewed with suspicion after World War II. It caused a significant split in the Australian Labor Party in 1955.

Also in 1955, Australia developed the strategic concept of Forward Defence and Robert Menzies announced that Australia would never fight another war on its own soil and would meet all future threats as far from Australia as possible.

And whilst Australia was being urged by the United Nations to consider early independence for Papua New Guinea, it was not an immediate consideration and the islands formed part of Australia’s forward defensive buffer.

So, whilst independence was a vague future consideration, it was not part of the immediate formal political education program at that time.

It is little wonder then that the government of Australia and the TPNG Administration took a dim view of someone of Cooper’s status and seniority talking in definite terms to the PNG nationals in the manner reported.

Cooper was a very junior officer in the Administration. Menzies was facing economic problems and a difficult election in 1961 (which he won by just one seat). That he personally urged the prosecution of Cooper on the serious and rare charge of sedition and given that Cooper had already been expelled from PNG indicates that Menzies' saw some political advantage for his party - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

I found this a decidedly disquieting story given that I'd attended anti-Vietnam war rallies while on leave, was an avowed aetheist and had some sympathies with the aims of Marxism.

And, as Chris notes, it's all coming back into vogue.

Bernard Corden

Wilfred Burchett was exiled from Australia between 1955 and 1972.

In 1969, under the leadership of John Gorton, the federal government refused Wilfred Burchett entry into Australia to attend his father's funeral.

The following year his brother Clive died and Burchett flew to Brisbane in a privately chartered light plane as the Gorton government had threatened commercial airlines with steep penalties for flying Burchett into the country.

Most visionaries are often maligned by their adversaries and typically scorned by a corporatised media.

Chris Overland

This is a very sad story indeed.

The early sixties in Australia were a period in which there was developing a simmering pent up desire for significant socio-economic change.

This would explode in the 1970's with the election of the Whitlam Labour government which introduced many long overdue reforms, notably a universal health insurance system.

In my own state, the election of Don Dunstan's Labour government saw sweeping social reforms introduced that changed the state for the better and forever.

Sadly, it seems that Mr Cooper became the hapless victim of the anti-communist paranoia of that era, as well as the cynical political manoeuvring of a Menzies led Tory government that was in deep trouble and needed to distract, deflect and otherwise camouflage its failings from a still deeply conservative electorate.

It is still the case that those who choose to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy will be variously ridiculed, marginalised and ignored.

A lesson of history is that it pays to listen to the dissenting voices. Of course, many of those voices will be saying nothing useful but a few will be revealing truths that the powerful fervently wish to deny and hide.

It is a question of discerning the truth from the mad ravings of the usual crowd of nutters whose voices have been so magnified by social media.

Mr Cooper was, in his way, pointing to the blindingly obvious but it did not suit the great and the good to acknowledge this. His reward was to be labelled seditious and treated as a criminal.

They resorted to the usual tactics of oppression and suppression, cloaking their activities in the sanctimonious rhetoric and illiberal laws of the time.

The situation now is not dissimilar, with the defenders of the socio-economic status quo being quite willing to resort to the same tactics to avoid confronting the grim reality that the neo-liberal orthodoxy is deeply flawed and producing perverse outcomes that, ultimately, will force either its complete repudiation or major reform to redress the already blindingly obvious injustice and inequity that it generates.

Of course, as a dissenter from this orthodoxy, I would say this, but I seem much more likely to be merely ridiculed and ignored than banged up for 2 months like the hapless Mr Cooper.

Arthur Williams

Oh, the irony of history and the quest for Independence that led, now 60 years ago, to 'voting' for President Johnson in 1961.

Last Wednesday, Taskul's new Lavongai LLG Council Chambers were opened by the Governor.

The National newspaper reported the event and Sir Julius Chan's honouring of the once 'longlong' people of the island (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.”

The Lavongai people's struggle that was put down quite ruthlessly according to ex-prisoners who I met in the early 1970s, pre-dated the Mataungans of Rabaul by almost a decade.

One of the early elites of the island along with about a quarter of their island laughed and called the 'voters' "longlongs”.

Standing there last week listening to Sir Julius was ex-premier Pedi Anis one of those mockers and he must have been thinking how wrong had been his negative view on TIA president Walla Gukguk, vice president Vaitasvagai of Ungat, treasurer Tom from Tioputuk, or the village 'board' men Pukina & Bosap of Lavongai, Tude of Tioputuk, Parakanai of Vaisavamvam, Silaumiraiken of Neikonomen, Suimilas of Metemana, Woluk of the Tsoi islands, and 40 other 'boards' supported by the majority of their motherland.

By the time I arrived in 1970 the pro-independence organisation that grew out of the protests of 1961 had already planted over a quarter of million coconut trees and organised buying points and owned several small vessels to transport their produce to sell at the CMB in Kavieng.

They were starting to add cocoa to their plantings and had a group of tiny trading posts all around the island except for the non-voter's small area at the western end of the island and a few places on the north coast.

They had even got loyal members of their TIA association many miles away on Lihir Island, which pre-gold mining was another similarly forgotten island in the nation. There was a sister organisation TFA all along the Bulaminski Highway of mainland New Ireland.

I have long felt that if Pedi and his ilk had supported their brothers and sisters of the island in their struggle today we would not have seen the rape of the island's rainforest by the Malaysian loggers.

Of course the ex-premier is mainly responsible for opening up his island's tropical trees to his new found rapacious friends.

Jim Moore

Strange how people who thought outside the square, or were somehow 'different', became threats who had to be dealt with.

I remember a junior officer I knew at one point in the early 1970's. He got a friend back in Australia to post him some dope seeds that were somehow intercepted in the postal system.

The officer was charged with importing dangerous drugs, and fined a minor sum. Forget about the enormous amount of alcohol that was consumed by the expat population, but apparently that was a different, acceptable drug.

The Administration obviously thought he was insufficiently punished. They (or ASIO) did some background checking, it turned out he had been fined $10 in the mid-1960's for the horrible crime of taking part in an anti-Vietnam war rally in Sydney.

He had not disclosed this criminal history when he applied to joint the TPNG Administration, probably on the basis he thought how that could possibly be an offence that would stop him doing the job.

But, the authorities had their way, he was sacked for not disclosing it, and deported.

I also remember the late Utula Samana, who ended up as Secretary for Agriculture. In 1975, as a recent graduate from the UPNG, he was seconded to the District Office in Mt Hagen.

Why the Administration thought he was some sort of threat, I really can't understand now, other than to think because he really did think outside the box, and had ideas that were way ahead of his time, they simply could not cope with him.

So he had to be put somewhere where they could keep an eye on him. Especially at that time, he could have been used as a change agent of the type the country urgently needed.

But that was not to be. I am sure he made up for this treatment in his later career.

The sad tale of Brian Cooper bought back these memories, but like Peter, I had never heard of him.

Utula Samana had a brilliant subsequent career in politics, eventually becoming Governor of Morobe Province where he achieved much and was greatly admired. He died from Parkinsons Disease in 2011 - KJ

Peter Salmon

Now that is very interesting, in all my years in PNG this is the first time I've heard of Brian Leonard Cooper although my move to PNG was five years later in 1965.

I can remember around 1972 a District Officer in the Bougainville political tinder box advocating the Swiss canton system of government to some of the local population and this was in a time when our backs were against the wall politically and physically.

From memory, this officer may have been transferred or was not returned to his Bougainville posting after leave but he wasn't charged with sedition. Oh what a difference 12 years makes.

Any how, the Swiss system of Canton Government, refer Professor Wiki: "The Swiss Federal Constitution declares the cantons to be sovereign to the extent that their sovereignty is not limited by federal law....

"Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, executive, police and courts. Similar to the Confederation, a directorial system of government is followed by the cantons".

Similar to our federal system just substitute "states" for "cantons".

Now upon reflection maybe this may, could have been a solution that would have overcome to a degree the disparity of internal problems in PNG which would have empowered the provinces to a far greater extent than what the 'provincial governments' did.

It also may have satisfied those more politically advanced provinces and enabled them to express their individuality and not tie them to the lowest common denominator in the country.

Enough said, we could go on for hours about this. Too late now.

Sori Brian Leonard Cooper.

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