| Academia Nomad | Edited extracts
Ken Fairweather: Farewell White Man, An Autobiography
PORT MORESBY – ‘Farewell White Man’ is the autobiography of Ken Fairweather CBE who arrived in Papua New Guinea from Melbourne as a young man in 1970.
Fairweather writes about his life and also tells the story of PNG from the end of the colonial period to self-government and independence.
He was involved in freight, farming and mining but is probably best known for his political period, including as a government minister, for two five-year terms from 2007 to 2017.
Fairweather’s involvement in trucking and freight into the highlands region saw him meet and associated with many bigmen, both national and expatriate.
He later changed focus to agriculture including a cocoa plantation on Karkar Island in Madang Province, which he admits did not turn out well.
These activities occurred in the early post-colonial period when PNG had few people educated to take part in such economic activities at management levels.
As the new indigenous leaders were emerging, white men like Fairweather contributed significantly to the development of the country through their business activities.
Fairweather was one of those who stayed; the people he describes as ‘half colonials’ who genuinely cared about the development of PNG and were willing to continue to contribute to it.
His perspective is influenced by his integration into PNG society, particularly his strong connections with the Chimbu people, and this allows him to be part of both cultures.
Fairweather’s writing style is humorous and conversational, realistic and straight-to-the-point. He is rooted in the art of storytelling and it seems he is telling his stories to you for the first time in person.
He also writes as he speaks - the ‘Aussie way’ spears through his words including the unapologetic use of cuss words. His style also reflects his characters and allows the reader to know what kind of a person he is, or at least what he was at the time.
Award winning journalist Rowan Callick captures the essence of this book through his introduction:
“Papua New Guinea’s intriguing story has been inadequately told. But that is beginning to be remedied by a small but steadily growing corpus of memoirs – from Papua New Guinean politicians and others, and from expatriates who have given most of their lives to the country.
“Ken Fairweather’s new, bright, breezy and characteristically no-bullshit book is a most welcome addition to these instructive and entertaining stories from folk who made their mark on this wonderful nation.”
Several points stand out in the book. Firstly, Fairweather lived through a new and growing country and economy and provides many insights, experiences and lessons. His association with so many other people showed that his social life benefited him in business life.
He was part of several business ventures and, even though he did things differently, sometimes ‘winging it’ and a few times failing, he proved to be very successful.
He tells how events such as stock market crashes and devaluations affected his business and also writes of how the Chinese were instrumental in trade and contributed to PNG’s economy and development.
The author’s experiences can help aspiring business people in PNG understand some of the dynamics of making business in this country and how they can deal with it even though times have changed.
Fairweather eventually gets into politics and this experience presents many interesting and great stories and lessons about PNG politics.
The author talks of his experiences with some of the early PNG politicians and tells of their personal lives. He recounts the reasons why certain decisions were made under their leadership and what events were influenced by politics.
His success in politics attests to the importance of alliances and strengthens the argument that it does matter who you know to get to places you want to be. He points out that his entry to politics may not have been intentional, but the people he associated with had a driving effect on his life in politics.
Fairweather writes of the political culture and norms in PNG and provides his take on several issues.
He writes about the ‘money play’ in PNG politics and the weight it has on moving things and influencing people and their decisions.
He mentions highlanders such as Peter O’Neill and shows it is beneficial to be a businessman and step into politics. He also provides an insight into the liquefied natural gas project in PNG and why it was not as successful as planned.
Fairweather also mentions his achievement in raising politicians’ pay and the story of how he got there is amusing, although many people ask today whether the extremely high salary packages for politicians are necessary.
He writes about his experience working in Bougainville during the time of Bougainville Copper Limited at the Panguna mine. He highlights why it was a failure and what could be done to improve it.
He mentions that the ethnic differences between Bougainvilleans and the rest of PNG are a reason to why we have the whole Bougainville issue today.
In looking at modern day politics, the author mentions several barriers to the country’s progress and highlights positive things as well. He talks about the relationship between Australia, his home country, and Papua New Guinea, his adopted country.
He states that the increasing presence and dominance of China in the Pacific region is challenging Australia but “China is likely to win the economic game in the medium term”. To combat this, he believes Australia should give half of its aid to PNG as direct budgetary support and let PNG deal with it.
This was stopped some years ago and it is questionable whether the Australian government would ever do it again. That said, Fairweather served two fruitful terms in the PNG government and there is a lot to be learned from him and his experiences.
The final point of interest is the author’s personal transition from being a ‘white man’ to becoming a ‘PNG white man’. He writes of the challenges of trying to build an indigenous public service and the barrier of white men teaching a Papua New Guinean how to be ‘white’.
Fairweather also describes his ‘adoption’ by the Chimbu people, a tie which benefited him in many ways. Even though he describes himself as a man who loves beer, gambling and horse racing, he adheres to PNG customs and culture well and found a gap he fit into.
So he can say he is part of two worlds, two cultures and two societies. The author’s personal transition offers a tantalising piece of PNG history and such accounts make one appreciate the value of how far we have come as a country.
In a nutshell, the main purpose of the author was to tell the story of his life in PNG. The book is a great read and I recommend it for every Papua New Guinean and expatriate who has spent time in PNG or is interested in its history and its politics.
‘Farewell White Man, An Autobiography’ by Ken Fairweaher, Jabiru Publishing, Cairns (2019), paperback, 323 pages, colour illustrations. Available for K45 at the UPNG Bookshop
Media release on the publication of ‘Farewell White Man’, 17 December 2019
Ken Fairweather entry in Wikipedia