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Epic years in march to nationhood unveiled

John Gorton -
Australian prime minister John Gorton Gorton decided to proceed to self-government in PNG despite the economic implications for Australia"


Documents on Australian Foreign Policy: Australia and Papua New Guinea: The Transition to Self-Government 1970-1972, Bruce Hunt and Stephen Henningham (eds.), Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, UNSW Press, 2020, 932 pp, eBook (ISBN: 9781742249681), AU$55.51, hardback (ISBN: 9781742237176) AU$89.99, available from New South Books

TUMBY BAY - This impressive volume is the second in a series of three. The first volume published in 2006 covered the period 1966-1969*. The third volume, covering the period 1973-1975, is scheduled for publication in 2022.

The three volumes will no doubt become an important primary source for historians and other professionals but should also be of interest to the readers of PNG Attitude who wish to understand what happened in those formative years.

Those who were in Papua New Guinea at the time, and who were following the day to day march to self-government and independence, had to largely rely on radio and the press to provide them with information on what was happening in what was a rarefied political atmosphere.

What was conspicuously missing then, and for a long time afterwards, was information about the thinking of the higher echelons of the Australian government who were making many of the important decisions.

Even the most optimistic observer was well aware that a lot went on behind closed doors to which the public was not privy.

Not least in this respect were the dynamics and interplay between the powerful individuals within government and the public service with their different agendas and motives.

Prime ministers, ministers, opposition leaders and senior public servants tended to have a public persona as well as a private one that they seldom shared with the general public.

These men, and they were all men, were making calculations, over a range of crucial issues in the lead up to independence, some of them no doubt based on naivety and others that were often confusing and contradictory.

They included, for instance, assessments of the emerging political leaders in Papua New Guinea and their quality and ability to lead the new nation.

So too were calculations being made about issues ranging from Australia’s overall strategic interests to the likely economic impacts on both Australia and Papua New Guinea as well as in the wider region.

There was a hint of Australia’s ongoing paranoia about foreign interests in Papua New Guinea, notably about Japan’s intentions.

One interesting document raised the issue of the increasing numbers of Japanese cars and goods in Papua New Guinea and what this might mean.

However, calmer heads concluded that Japan’s interest was purely commercial and not strategic and might, in fact, be good for Papua New Guinea.

We cannot be sure that the selected papers presented in this hefty tome are definitive or their selection non-partisan, as the editors maintain, but they do present a candid assessment of the period for anyone willing to sift through them.

During the period covered in this second volume, prime minister John Gorton was speeding up the pace of change in response to a visit to Papua New Guinea by opposition leader Gough Whitlam at the start of 1970.

Within cabinet there was a robust debate about the timing of both self-government and independence.

On one side was external territories minister Charles (Ceb) Barnes and the department secretary George Warwick Smith, who were advising caution, and on the other side prime minister John Gorton and David Hay, firstly as Papua New Guinea Administrator and then as departmental secretary succeeding Warwick Smith.

As Administrator, Hay had frequent clashes with Warwick Smith and he also made decisions without consulting Barnes.

Warwick Smith, in particular, but also Barnes were worried about Papua New Guinea’s ability to support itself after independence and the economic burden it might leave on Australia.

Gorton and Hay, on the other hand, accepted that Australia would have to provide economic support well into the future. What they were also counting on was the supplementary revenue that would come from the Panguna mine on Bougainville.

This gave the owners of the mine, Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia (CRA), enormous influence. For Australia to grant Papua New Guinea independence the mine had to go ahead, despite any objections from the Bougainvilleans.

In 1970 Hay spoke to Gorton, after which Warwick Smith was moved to the Department of the Interior. Hay was appointed in Warwick Smith's place.

Les Johnson replaced Hay as Administrator and they apparently enjoyed a fruitful and positive relationship.

Hay’s surprisingly vigorous advocacy for early independence as both Administrator and Secretary becomes very apparent in the documents.

When Andrew Peacock replaced Barnes as minister in December 1972, Hay seemed to have been given his head and the timing of both self-government and independence was a fait accompli, much to the delight of Gough Whitlam.

Many gems, both enlightening and surprising, exist among the documents for those diligent enough to search for them.

The editors provide an excellent introduction which is cross referenced to many of the relevant documents and provides a useful context for any interpretations readers might be inclined to make.

They also occasionally point out where previous historians, presumably without access to the documents, have misinterpreted some events.

It becomes clear, for instance, that the idea of linking self-government to economic self-reliance was not a link that Peacock decided to ignore, as some historians have suggested.

It had been abandoned much earlier when Gorton decided to proceed to self-government despite the economic implications for Australia.

The information held within the documents is too extensive to summarise in a short review but I was particularly interested in the discussions that took place around the retention of key expatriate officers, the localisation programs and the reduction in the numbers of the public service that would be required.

Johnson and Hay clearly recognised the problem of the rapidly departing expatriates in the early 1970s and the impossibility of retaining them even while the availability of appropriately trained Papua New Guineans was limited.

Michael Somare, however, was concerned about the cost of paying the wages of expatriates kept on. He also wanted to cut the public service numbers from around 7,000 to about 3,500 by independence.

In late 1972, Johnson reported that Somare and his ministers wanted “to begin to run down the total number of expatriates”.

He thought 300 to 400 positions could go involving both officers “who are useless and can be dispensed with … and those who are politically unacceptable … some of whom would leave quite substantial gaps.” Somare was no doubt thinking explicitly about the kiaps.

Johnson said that while the idea of localisation was endorsed by most Papua New Guinean politicians, some were worried “that the baby might be thrown out with the bathwater”.

As readers of PNG Attitude well-know, this has been the subject of debate ever since.

Another lingering debate covered in the documents that still echoes, revolves around the issue of Papua New Guinean unity and the various efforts over the years at separatism, notably by Papuans and Tolais but most stridently by Bougainvilleans. 

There are many other instances of prescience in some of the documents about events and the impact certain decisions have had in the long term.

DocumentsThe hardback version is beautifully produced and obviously intended to be read and sit on important bookshelves for years to come.

The binding is top class and the paper quality excellent. For someone who has only ever been able to publish in paperback I am quite jealous.

It weighs almost two kilograms. I compared it to an old brick I’ve got in the backyard that is the same colour as the cover, but it came out heavier at three kilograms. 

A simple doorstop the book isn’t.

* The first volume is available here as a free download from the DFAT website


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