Views against early independence 'were correct'
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Tom Mboya, Paulus Arek & PNG independence

Tom Mboya in PNG 1964
Kenyan leader and independence advocate Tom Mboya talks with a school student when visiting PNG in 1964

PHILIP FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY – In 1971, between 4 January and 19 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.

Arek, the MP for Ijivitari, was first elected in 1968 and was also Minister for Information (1972-73) and the first president of the Federation of PNG Workers' Associations.

The select committee visited all districts and met with most local government councils before producing a report of their findings.

They found overwhelming support for delaying both self-government and independence, the general sentiment being that PNG 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.

Paulus Arek
Paulus Arek - an exceptional leader who guided PNG towards independence but died before it was achieved

Arek (as had Michael Somare) had previously visited Africa and met people like Kenyan leader Tom Mboya, who like Arek was a committed trade unionist.

From discussions with people like Mboya the view was formed that PNG should already have been independent.

Mboya had visited PNG in 1964 and 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 had been influential and, as district commissioner Ian Downs noted, "many of his proposals became part of the Australian program."

Faced with conflicting views and encouraged by the Australia government, 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 described by Chips Mackellar 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 were coming whether they liked it or not.

As a footnote it’s worth noting that there was always a strong propensity among Papua New Guineans to tell whoever in authority was asking questions what they thought they wanted to hear rather than what they believed.

This was (and still is) a form of Melanesian politeness.

Mboya was assassinated in 1969 and Arek died of lung cancer in 1973, so neither of them lived to see Papua New Guinea gain independence.

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Philip Fitzpatrick

When a leader with an aura of greatness dies there will inevitably follow an assessment of his or her 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 been game to advertise when he was alive. It will be interesting to see how this all develops.

As has been noted elsewhere ordinary Papua New Guineans were never afforded an effective choice about Papua New Guinean self-government and independence. Their opinions were sought but 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 positively evil.

While Somare had to weigh up all the political considerations in his push for independence there is no escaping the fact 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. For him the kiaps represented all of the worst anachronisms of colonial rule. That they, in their interactions with ordinary Papua New Guineans at the grassroots level, were reporting a general reluctance to embrace the idea of independence 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, no government will hold a referendum if they’re not sure of a positive outcome and in this case it was plain that it would have been negative.

And, of course, such a referendum would have necessarily been largely conducted by the kiaps and there was a real risk that they would have unconsciously or otherwise manipulated the outcome.

The other factor mitigating against a referendum was the fact that both Somare and the Australian government didn’t believe the average Papua New Guinean was well enough informed about the various 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 only had the vaguest idea of what independence actually involved to objectively weigh up, for instance, the opposing wishes of people in places like the Gazelle Peninsula and Bougainville against those in the Highlands and Sepik?

Somare and the complicit Australian government were essentially going against the wishes of the majority of Papua New Guineans in forcing early independence.

As such they were being decidedly undemocratic and autocratic and believed that they knew better than anyone else and what they were doing was for the ultimate good of the people. Whether that was true or not, it is difficult to imagine such an attitude prevailing today.

These are the sorts of unfettered discussions that need to be had now that Michael Somare is gone, not least because it will place his role in deciding Papua New Guinea’s future into an historical context that will not only give the academics something to worry over but will be useful for future leaders and citizens to contemplate.

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