NOOSA - Andrew Peacock, who has died aged 82, as Australia’s Minister for External Territories was instrumental in gaining Australian acceptance for independence in Papua New Guinea.
In 1972, then Australian prime minister William McMahon made Peacock, then aged 32, Minister for External Territories, a position that gave him responsibility for bringing Australia's colonial possession, the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, to self-government.
It turned out that Peacock was just the man for the job.
Peacock was raised in a prosperous Melbourne family and studied law on his way to a career in politics. He was only 26 in 1965 when he became president of the Victorian Liberal Party.
The next year, when long-serving prime minister Robert Menzies retired, Peacock inherited his safe Liberal seat of Kooyong. ‘The colt from Kooyong’, as he was known, reflecting a lifelong interest in horse racing as well as his precocity, was handsome, articulate, sociable and ambitious.
As Minister for Territories from January 1972, unique among ministers he knew a number of Papua New Guineans personally, having met them in his previous role as Army Minister when the young soldiers were officer cadets.
On his first day in office, Peacock flew to Port Moresby, the first of many visits that year. But when he landed, as Donald Denoon writes in his 2005 book ‘Trial Separation’, there were no politicians on hand. They were all in their electorates campaigning for a forthcoming House of Assembly election.
“Peacock was not a man to hang around, wrote Denoon, “He drove to the university at Waigani and talked for hours with anyone available.
"The students and staff were amazed that he came at all, let alone debated subjects such as self-government and independence…. Papua New Guineans were bowled over when he sat with them, shared a beer or a meal or a party, and listened rather than lectured.”
The 1972 election was an important one in PNG. It was known that the winner would take the colony to self-government and perhaps independence.
To great surprise it was Michael Somare’s progressive Pangu Pati coalition that emerged as the new government. And it was a a significant moment as well as a delight when Peacock formed an instant and warm relationship with him.
As he new chief minister, Somare told the House of Assembly that Peacock’s appointment “heralds a new era in Australian policies in Papua New Guinea.” After the stodgy, unimaginative conservatism of Charles (Ceb)Barnes Peacock's predecessor as minister, Somare understood how important was the emergence of Peacock.
Denoon writes of the two men that “each was a fine communicator of mood; neither was a deep thinker nor burdened by awkward political principles”. But that opinion to one side, it was a stroke of great good fortune that saw Peacock in that critical role as PNG continued its inexorable progress to self-government, which eventually occurred in December 1973.
In August 1972 Peacock, Somare and a group of senior PNG politician,s including opposition leader Tei Abal and a representative of the Mataungan Association, met in Canberra to discuss the transfer of powers to PNG, Abal making it clear that decisions reached at the talks would in no way bind his United Party.
The official communique of that meeting stated that “a few earlier disagreements were resolved to mutual satisfaction” and that “although some matters remain unresolved all parties were satisfied with the honest exercise of two-way consultation”.
As a result, a number of policy areas were immediately transferred to PNG control, including localisation, wages, industrial relations, training, migration and land settlement. It was also agreed control over the public service would occur before self-government.
Matters such as foreign relations and defence would remain the final responsibility of Australia until independence at a date still to be agreed.
Four months later, in December 1972, Gough Whitlam led his Labor Party to office in Australia and Peacock found himself in opposition. But by then he had established his credentials as a friend of PNG and a strong and influential proponent of Australia’s support for PNG to soon become an independent nation.
As was Peacock, Whitlam was strongly committed to facilitating PNG’s independence “not just because it is Australia’s obligation to the United Nations but because we believe it wrong and unnatural that a nation like Australia should continue to run a colony.”
Whitlam’s anti-colonial stance was clear and powerful. “If history were to obliterate the whole of my public career, save my contribution to the independence of a democratic PNG, I should rest content,” he was to reveal some years later
In February 1973, at a dinner in Port Moresby attended by most PNG politicians, Whitlam said: “In the few short years since 1970 when even self-government, much less independence, was scarcely to be mentioned in polite circles, Papua New Guinea had a piece of unexpected good fortune.
"I refer to the appointment of Andrew Peacock as the Australian Minister for External Territories. I am glad, here, to pay my public tribute to him and his work”.
In December 1975 Whitlam lost the prime ministership to Malcolm Fraser whose coalition won a bitter election following Whitlam’s dismissal by Governor-General John Kerr.
Fraser appointed Peacock as Minister for Foreign Affairs, a position he was to hold for five years. PNG had achieved independence just three months before and once again, despite political foment in Australia, it had the stability of a foreign minister who knew the country, knew its leader and had a fond regard for both.
Prime Minister Fraser himself was comfortable about PNG’s transition to independence and Peacock had his full support in continuing with a positive and constructive approach to PNG.
And Somare and other senior PNG politicians were happy to see him back as the key figure in the relationship between Australia and its former colony. Fraser was to say of Peacock that “we agreed on almost everything.”
Peacock’s bonds with PNG remained close and, by the time he quit political life in 1994, he had visited PNG well over 50 times.
His contribution was recognised on both sides of politics in Australia. In 1985, prime minister Bob Hawke recognised Peacock’s important role by asking him to accompany him to PNG for the tenth anniversary of independence.
And in 2006, to honour Peacock’s vital contribution to PNG's peaceful transition to self-government and independence, PNG awarded him the Grand Companion of the Order of Logohu. This also installed him as an honorary chief for his continuing promotion of goodwill between PNG and Australia.
Andrew Peacock's significant role in Papua New Guinea's journey to nationhood is often overlooked. Partly this was so because a segment of the colonisers who themselves had not wanted independence to come when it did, cast much blame and vitriol on Whitlam. The bipartisanship and Peacock's on support for rapid political change were conveniently overlooked.
Perhaps now, with his passing, the contribution to PNG's nationhood by Andrew Peacock, the 'Colt from Kooyong', will be recognised not only by those Papua New Guinean politicians, most of them now gone, who understood it so well, but by Papua New Guineans themselves.
And maybe even by those ageing Australian colonialists who thought Gough Whitlam alone had made a shocking historical mistake and remain his most vituperative critics.
Vale Chief Andrew Peacock, you will be remembered in Australia's closest neighbour - a wonderful country of wonderful people - for what you did for it at a most critical time in its development as a nation.