Remembered: Michael Somare’s escape from Rabaul
Dealing with violence against women in politics

The mythologising of Michael Somare


TUMBY BAY - It’s ironic that in his death Michael Somare seems to have united Papua New Guinea in a way that he could never achieve while he was alive.

Some of this is owed to the cult of the haus krai but more is owed to the nation’s overwhelming need for a universal hero who can be celebrated across all language and tribal groups.

Papua New Guinea is crying out for a founding mythology and this is where history can exert itself in all its manifestations.

The USA has Abraham Lincoln, Australia has Captain Cook and Papua New Guinea now has Michael Somare.

The beauty of history is that it is infinitely flexible and open to multiple interpretations.

A lot depends on who is writing it and who is reading it. Important events and the people involved in them mean different things to different people.

Many historical accounts conflict and contradict each other. History, despite all its claims to objectivity is more that often highly subjective. A science it definitely is not.

The death of Michael Somare and his legacy is a case in point.

Michael Somare is already being depicted as a Mandela-like patriot who freed his people from the bonds of colonialism and led them to the Promised Land.

Even as the soil settles on his coffin he is being elevated to legendary status. A statue of him is planned for Port Moresby.

Of course, at the other extreme, there are those who would prefer to depict him as a quasi-dictator, ably assisted by a malign socialist government in Australia, who took advantage of the moment to ruthlessly advance his personal and political aspirations.

The truth lies somewhere in between. After all, Michael Somare was only human and he was just one character, albeit central and influential, in the lead-up to Papua New Guinea’s independence.

As with Abraham Lincoln, Captain Cook and Nelson Mandela the mantle of the founder of modern Papua New Guinea is one Michael Somare must necessarily share with many other men and women of the time, some who are still alive.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the lionisation and veneration of departed leaders but it also can be useful and dangerous.

Holding up a departed leader as a role model can be positive as long as that leader is someone whose example is worth following. There are few leaders who meet that criterion.

Michael Somare, for instance, faced many accusations over his career as a politician, ranging from corruption through to abuse of power, illegal use of government funds and elitism.

Where this becomes dangerous is when people see this sort of behaviour as legitimate and emulate it on the basis that if the great leader has done it there’s no reason why they can’t do it.

If leaders have used their position to accrue great personal wealth and privilege not available to ordinary people, such as receiving expensive medical treatment overseas, in many eyes that example can legitimise such behaviour.

It could be argued, for example, that all Papua New Guinean politicians who have gorged themselves at the trough of public finance have done so because they saw people like Michael Somare do it and concluded it must be a legitimate perk of office.

It would be interesting to know how many current politicians actually believe that and use it to justify their thievery and corruption.

As the mythology builds up around national heroes, the narrative has to be managed carefully. This is where historians play a role. They can mythologise as well as the next person but ultimately they have a responsibility to represent the truth as far as they can determine it.

They also have a responsibility to point out the fictions.

There is no getting away from the fact that any judgement about Papua New Guinea’s leaders, including and especially Michael Somare, has to take into account the parlous nature of public infrastructure in the country, especially now the Covid-19 pandemic is making that so tragically obvious.

If they had been good leaders, Papua New Guinea, with its massive natural resources, should be in a prime position to handle the pandemic. But it is not.

The legacy of Papua New Guinea’s leaders is a poverty stricken nation. That fact is inescapable. How a heroic legend and a mythology can be cobbled together about a departed leader in such circumstances will require hypocrisy of the highest order.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

William Dunlop

Phil, I'd be thinking it's time for me to indulge in Synge's Playboy of the Western World, first played in the Gayety Dublin in 1907.

It's set in the Arran isles off the coast of Donegall in the original province of Ulster.

Equates for me to the Isle of Innisfree in John Ford' classic with Maureen O'Hara, John Wayne, Victor McLaughlin, Barry Fitzgerald. Another place in another time. Amen.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I thought the term 'ratbags' covered most of the bases William, including those on your illustrious list.

Philip Kai Morre

Cardinal Sir John Ribat followed late Grand Chief Michael Somare all the way to Wewak to conduct the funeral mass. It's a noble idea to do this but it's not fair when the Cardinal did not give a chance to the Bishop of the Wewak Diocese, who was closer to the Grand Chief, to preside over the funeral mass. All bishops and priests have priestly powers and not one person is above the other.

William Dunlop

Ach, now Bernard; there's a thing, The Great pants man Llyod George would have understood.

Bernard Corden

My Dear William,

I thought he was praising Churchill.

William Dunlop

Phil - You have left out Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Hirohito, Caesar, Atilla the Hun, to name but a few in your slagging of Churchill.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The fervency with which the veneration of Michael Somare is proceeding, not only in Papua New Guinea but also in Australia, is quite amazing but also disturbing.

As I’ve noted, it is a symptom of something wrong in society.

While the reaction from Australian politicians can only be seen as decidedly cynical there is something almost religious about the reaction in PNG.

Religion is both a crutch for the unfortunate in society and, with its promise of forgiveness, an excuse for the fortunate to sin to their heart’s content.

As I have intimated there have been many other heroes in PNG just as worthy as Michael Somare.

Allan Patience suggests that Sir Mekere Morauta might be a much better icon and I tend to agree with him.

Then again, I suppose that Michael Somare joining the halls of the venerated ratbags of the world is to be expected.

Maybe he'll get a seat beside that arch racist and imperialist Winston Churchill.

AG Satori

Dino, correct, we needed a voice. The Grand Chief put himself up to it and we are blessed. Dispute all the other things that may tarnish this glow from the legacy he leaves behind,

I rejoice in the fact that Emma Minimbi can attest that she was the lawyer that Grand Chief had said would proudly produce. The same with all the other professionals.

Ever wondered if the voice we wanted and we could have waited until the elks of Okuk appeared. Sir John Guise could not have uttered his epic - peaceful replacement of the flag.

Whilst in the dark corners Grand Chief's secrets lurk, let them be for now.

Philip Kai Morre

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare was a simple person and did not expect the highest honour of Great Grand Chief which is just out of step. When we set the haus karai everywhere we devalued his dignity as an authentic leader.

It would have been better for Belden Namah and Peter O'Neill to apologise to Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare when he was alive and not now he is dead.

How would he respond to your apology when he is gone? His adult children can not speak for their father.

Dino Naing

Truth is hard to swallow, always is! And what is stated here is simply that. Fact is he'll be forever revered as our first prime minister, a title that will always hold that honour. I am pretty sure he could have stitched up PNG much better that how he left it, but that was never his purpose. We needed a voice, he became that voice.

Bernard Corden

Discussions on leadership typically accentuate the hero myth and the terms great and good are often used synonymously.

This militaristic and mechanistic paradigm places and inordinate emphasis on individual achievements at the expense of followers and collective triumphs.

It promotes a messianic cult status and crusading spirit, which ignores social interpretation of events and disregards the intricate interdependence between following and leading and the zone of reciprocal relationship.

Leadership is bequeathed by followers and its principal attributes include respect and humility. Many leaders would be ineffective without the positive aspects and perceptions of their acolytes.

A myopic clockwork approach without establishing the context and analysis of social arrangements constrains options.

This often compels followers down restricted and counter-productive channels in an otiose attempt to resolve wicked problems. Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.

During discussions on leadership the terms ethics and morals are frequently exchanged but they have subtle differences and often clash.

Morals define personal character whilst ethics underpin a social system in which individual morals are applied. All ethics are social and relational and conduct is considered unethical when it belittles respect and compassion.

Bureaucrats exercise authority via soft power and expect obedience, whereas renowned sociopaths such as Stalin or Ceausescu used intimidation or fear and enforced people to capitulate.

Effective leaders must make a positive and meaningful difference to the livelihood and learning of others using an influential, reciprocal and interactive process.

Relationships are the foundation of accomplishment and in an era of click democracy it is quite simple to inveigle or seduce the masses.

This is often achieved through social media via false dichotomies, fake news, shallow slogans or nostrums, which readily appeal to the laity.

Father Time or Mother Nature eventually exposes ineffective leadership and inferior judgement from desperate and disparate disciples.

Churchill, Hitler and Napoleon were frequently acclaimed as great leaders but there is ample evidence to suggest they were not good men.

Followers have a responsibility to speak the truth to power, which was particularly relevant to the recent regime in the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump.

Indeed, Sir Winston Churchill once proclaimed that houses don't make slums but I bet he was somewhat reluctant to repeat that statement in front of the Jarrow marchers and every country gets the government it deserves.

Paul Oates

I concur with Arthur, Phil. They say not to speak ill of the dead but facts don't lie.

William Dunlop

Philip, Very well spoken and diplomatic. As to PNG being under the heel of colonialism (i.e. Australia), as conveniently spruiked by PNG gentlemen of political persuasion these days, never the case in any shape, way or form.

I went to PNG in mid-1969 for three months with Barclay Bros in Panguna. On my way back to Australia, I got offered a job with Treasury Transport in Lae by Richard Francis Horne. I said to Dick I'Il probably only stop for three months. Fine by me, he said.

I left PNG 13 years later in 1982 having knocked back the position of Assistant Secretary Finance and Budgets with the Department of Works and Supply offered to me by its Secretary, the late Pius Kerepia in the presence of Mrs Leslie Buck his Executive Officer.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The cult that has built up around the haus krai is a classic symptom of a society in crisis. So too is the adulation, as Arthur puts it, of Michael Somare. No one else seems to be reading the same symptoms though.

Raymond Sigimet

Sir Michael Somare's place in modern PNG history is legendary now. His myth will outlive most of his contemporaries from the early years of PNG's road to independence.

He raised his hand to speak on behalf of those who couldn't. He has been declared the "Father of the Nation" and bestowed the title "Great Grand Chief" by the prime minister James Marape at the Wewak "Haus Krai".

Both titles reserved only for him and him alone. So it seems it won't just be the people who would be mythologising or immortalising Sir Michael, the government is also honouring this champion of this nation.

I think the great man deserves that honour and "luk save" from the people and government. He tactfully negotiated for self-rule and independence without bloodshed.

He united opposing parties and squashed sedition sentiments to create a new country when outsiders predicted that all would fail in due time.

Sir Michael united the people in his early years during PNG's road to independence and he again united his people during his passing.

He cannot be blamed for all the development problems the country is facing. He was the first prime minister removed in the first vote of no confidence in PNG's parliament. He was one amongst seven other PMs.

The great man has done his part. The history books also has to see it from the PNG experience. His myth and legacy will live on. The peacemaker has now rested. His bones will touch the soil of the nation he united as an "angry young man" in life and as the "father of the nation" in death.

Arthur Williams

Phil - I thought that was well written and quite brave in the current climate of adulation.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)