A true musical treat this Easter
Forget political parity, put women in charge

Looking back at a look back & a look forward

| Oceania vol 85 no 1, March 2015

Australians in Papua New Guinea:1960–1975. Edited by Ceridwen Spark, Seumas Spark and Christina Twomey, University of Queensland Press, 2014.

CANBERRA - This volume is a collection of invited essays by, and interviews with, 17 people, Australian and Papua New Guinean, with firsthand experience of the final decade and a half of Australian rule leading up to national independence in 1975.

This period saw Papua New Guinea move with dizzying speed from a late-colonial society, with all the paradoxes of humanism, racism, and paternalism that appellation suggests, to an independent nation full of promise and hope.

As the editors (two of whom, Ceridwen and Seumas Spark, grew up in Goroka in the Eastern highlands) note in their introduction, little has been written on this crucial period in PNG history; the late historian Hank Nelson believed this was largely because of ‘the country’s post-independence difficulties’, perhaps making the previous years an awkward topic.

This collection is an important contribution to that thinly studied period, a time when idealistic, neophyte Australian civil servants rubbed shoulders with old guard planters and administrators, and a new educated class of Papua New Guineans were on their way towards national leadership.

The book is divided into three sections: ‘Medicine and Science’, ‘Policy, Governance and Justice’, and ‘Education, Race and Social Change’.

The contributors to each section are nearly all luminaries in these fields: medical pioneers, diplomats, advisors to prime ministers, both Australian and Papua New Guinean, a United Nations division director,a World Bank vice president, and former members of parliament from Australia (John Langmore) and PNG (Dame Carol Kidu).

A brief foreword by Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings – another Goroka schoolchild – adds to the shine.

This blue-ribbon line-up may not provide a completely representative cross-section of the expatriate and national urban elite population of the time, but these are certainly voices that count, given their strong ties to PNG.

A reflection by a historian of PNG, Jonathan Ritchie, born in Port Moresby in 1960 to spend ‘an idyllic childhood’ in the territory, serves as a well-considered conclusion that re-distils the ambivalences most contributors express towards the period, and their experiences within it.

All the expatriate Australians recount their often multiple motivations for going to PNG, most for a job, some for an adventure, a few for God, and two for a spouse.

All reflect on the segregated society they found, mostly thorough is former kiap Bill Brown’s account of being the unlucky local front man for the administrative disaster that was the Panguna mine on Bougainville.

Bill Gammage offers humorous yet heartfelt recollections of the rough and ready early days of the University of Papua New Guinea.

Dame Carol Kidu tells her own well-known story of a young Australian woman completely divorced from white colonial society and immersed in local life through her marriage to a Papua New Guinean man.

While the perspectives vary widely, certain topics are returned to by different contributors, providing interesting intersections.

The early years of UPNG are particularly well fleshed out, as is the inception of the nationalist Pangu Pati that formed the first post-independence government.

Of likely interest to historians and social scientists of PNG are the many over-lapping descriptions of Port Moresby as it evolved from a dusty colonial outpost of 15,000 souls in the mid-1950s to a bustling (and still dusty) national capital of 200,000in the 1990s.

Race relations are a central theme for many and, while an extreme example, Dame Kidu’s account of the frosty reception that Buri, her future husband, received when attempting to visit her at her white hosts’ home in 1966 is telling of the time.

The volume goes well beyond being merely a collection of memories, as the title might suggest.

While reminiscences serve as a touchstone for each contributor, with the usual lists of names fondly remembered and a certain rose-tinted nostalgia in places, nearly every chapter moves into even more engaging territory.

Just as PNG refuses to conform to any facile representation, all the contributors transgress the boundaries of the time period laid out in the title.

The fledgling nation’s fall from grace over the post-independence years, especially during the ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, isa presence throughout.

This volume reads as much as a collection of editorials on PNG nationhood since 1975 as it does memoirs from the last years of taim bipo, and is even more rewarding as a result.

Reflections on the ensuing years and the state of PNG today run from those ‘immensely saddened’ (Margaret Smith) by such a ‘miserable failure’(Bernard Narokobi quoted by Ian Maddocks) and wondering what went wrong – a conventional view in Australia and in many ways legitimate – to more measured contemplations.

Some point to specific, often breathtaking, policy failures coming out of Canberra, such as the decision to close the Police Training College in 1975 (Langmore).

While Australia’s departure is often viewed as having been premature, those like Bill Gammage conclude that leaving later could have been much worse.

John Ley points out that despite ‘massive pressures’, PNG’s legal and constitutional structures have remained in place for 40 years. Ken Clezy warns developed nations to look to ‘our own grubby national histories’ before calling out PNG politicians for being categorically different.

PNG High Commissioner to Australia Charles Lepani’s view is that while things obviously have not gone to plan, one cannot say the people or the country has ‘failed’, nor can one blame Australia.

Rather, PNG is ‘a work in progress’ that is still learning about itself and how to move forward. Positive developments are there to see for those who look, and over time, Lepani sees ‘a happier and more prosperous’ country than today.

There is no disagreement about one thing: time spent in PNG during this period was formative to many prominent Australians, leaving an indelible mark that continues to inform both professional and personal outlooks.

Most have continued their involvement in one way or another over the years. Two contributors were medical missionaries, another is an active member of the United Church in PNG, and one contribution (Anthony and Robin Radford) acknowledges the contributions of missionaries to health and education.

Yet given the prominence of Christianity in PNG’s history and present social landscape, the inclusion of at least one Australian pastor or pastoral worker might have better rounded out the volume.

The collection will be of interest to anthropologists working in PNG, who often lack the time to learn as much about PNG’s national, economic, and political history as they would like.

A newcomer to recent PNG history will find these personal essays and interviews much more accessible than more formal works of history, and that when put together, serve surprisingly well as a general primer on the subject.

Those more knowledgeable will find interesting, often alternative, viewpoints on many of the usual thematic suspects beyond those listed above(from the Kokoda Track and kuru to aid delivery and asylum centres, plus many more) and refreshing new connections between various accounts.

Papua New Guineans will surely find the book a noteworthy addition to their history, with quite a few surprises along the way.

An extensive index is appreciated.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Like a lot of PNG Attitude readers I’ve been fascinated by the series of Bill Brown’s memoirs of his time as a kiap and particularly his time as the meat in the sandwich during the development of the Panguna Mine on Bougainville.

From his contribution to this volume what particularly struck me was his description of the clearing of the mine site.

“The people from the villages around the mine were overwhelmed by the destruction. The trees in their forest were poisoned, and then felled by a giant hawser dragline.

"The undergrowth was sprayed with herbicide, and then every vestige of vegetation burnt in fan-forced fires, accelerated with diesoline. The ash, soil, rocks and huge boulders were hosed into the streams by a battery of six monitors (water cannon), each ‘fed’ by three bulldozers.

"One hundred and twenty million cubic metres of soft overburden, followed by the waste rock, were flushed into the Kawerong, thence downstream to destroy the Jaba River environment.

"The Guava people were left first with desolation, then with a void: a gaping oval-shaped hole more than 300 metres deep, 2,000 metres long and 5,000 metres wide. A huge part of their heritage had gone forever”

Bill ends the article by a reference to a giant fig tree and the work of the kiaps during the mine’s development.

“Perhaps the giant gig tree that still stands on the roadside verge in the Pinei Valley is a testament to our endeavours.

"The people said it was of enormous cultural importance – a spirit tree of great age, sacred to their ancestors – but it stood directly in the path of the newly designed highway; the Company [CRA] and the construction managers, Bechtel, wanted to cut it down.

"We could not prevent the mine, but I could save the tree; the road was given an unplanned curve.”

That fig tree and its fate is probably emblematic of what a lot of kiaps feel about Papua New Guinea.

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