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Norm Oliver dies at 87: A great friend of PNG

PNG landscape
The breathtaking landscape of PNG. In a nation where land is embedded in the soul, Norm Oliver spent his working life managing the volatile balance between its spiritual and economic values


MELBOURNE – It is with enormous sadness that I heard the news of the passing of Norm Oliver – former Land Titles Commissioner in Papua New Guinea, basketball stalwart and a friend to so many people throughout the country.

A native of Tempe in Sydney, Norm was a draughtsman at the Sydney Water Board before joining the PNG Land Titles Commission in the early 1960s.

After a period in Madang he was transferred to the Commission’s headquarters in Port Moresby as a senior draughtsman, eventually leading the Commission. He remained in the position until his retirement and departure for Cairns in the early 2000s.

“He was one of the good guys who dedicated his life to helping Papua New Guinea, both pre- and post-independence,” Geoff Hancock has written on the PNG Association website.

Norm became the go-to person for information and guidance on one of PNG’s most intractable issues: land disputes.

“Land disputes are common to all regions of PNG, he wrote in the study, Making Land Work, “and cause social and economic disruption. Disputes may go back several generations, and settling them is complex.”

Norm Oliver
Norm Oliver as a young man - his role was pivotal in making basketball a successful sport in PNG

Norm wrote prolifically on the subject and, even when he retired as Land Titles Commissioner, was kept busy as a consultant and advisor both to the PNG government and private sector companies.

I first made Norm’s acquaintance at a basketball tournament in Madang in mid-1968 and experienced the substance and generosity of his character at another tournament in Lae later that year.

He paid for breakfast for the entire Port Moresby squad (including me) at the Melanesian Hotel. You can take it from me that basketballers are hungry young men.

At that time, Norm was the backbone of Papua New Guinea basketball. This extended to Port Moresby basketball and to the Kone Tigers team.

He had an athletic stature and great skills, and was both a gifted player and a natural leader.

In early 1969, the South Pacific Games were looming and Port Moresby had no facilities worthy of the event - and there was no government assistance forthcoming.

Norm arranged a $14,000 bank loan (K460,000 in today’s money) to fund the construction of new courts and associated facilities at Hohola.

He also recruited and led a group of volunteers who over many weekends put the finishing touches to the new courts.

The subsequent outstanding success of the South Pacific Games basketball tournament was due, in no small part, to Norm – who was quite properly appointed manager of the PNG national squads.

I shared with Norm not just a love of basketball and rugby league but an abiding interest in films, books, travel and politics (especially of the left-of-centre variety).

All of these interests were the subject of many interesting conversations at the Bottom Pub and other hostelries and clubs around Moresby.

Norm was the best of friends, not just to me, but to a host of Papua New Guineans and other expatriates who served in PNG.

Norm Oliver 2
Norm Oliver in later life - "a legacy of great comradeship"

He moved to Cairns after leaving PNG, and – as a vastly experienced former Land Titles Commissioner, was hired to contribute to both the PNG Attorney General’s Department and the Department of Lands and Physical Planning.

In his eighties he became ill and frail and was a resident of Regis Age Care in Cairns for the last five years.

With the death of Norm Oliver at the age of 87, Papua New Guinea has lost a great friend and a great achiever.

He leaves with us a substantial body of work of PNG land issues and a legacy of great comradeship.


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Ed Burke

Norm - You moved like a panther on and off the basketball court, even when you wore thongs.

I am proud to have known you in Rabaul and Port Moresby.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Richard Jones

Like Leonard I, too, had many a Friday night ale after work with Norm.

It's now more than half-a-century ago, but the Top Pub was mostly where we caught up.

Keith Tetley was another regular. I seem to recall John Stuntz popping in every now and then, as well.

Norm lived in a donga in a little court diagonally opposite the main gates of the Papuan Rugby League HQ.

After we were married in 1971 I saw less and less of Norm, but occasionally caught up at the movies or at eating establishments. Weren't flash enough to call them 'restaurants'.

Leonard Rodwell

I had many a beer with Norm at the Aviat Club in Port Moresby. A very knowledgeable and entertaining man. Very sorry to hear of his passing.

Geoff Hancock

I have many good memories of Norm including one from 1979 I believe it was.

I was watching TV in a remote Pilbara town and PNG were playing in the Hong Kong Sevens rugby league tournament.

The camera zoomed on the small group of PNG supporters and there was Norm leading the cheer squad.

Norm did love his sport.

Bernard Corden

I did not know or know of Norm Oliver although we need many more like him. Rest in peace good man.

Bill McKibben

I worked with Norm in the 1990s and 2000s when he was doing some consultancy work with New Britain Palm Oil Ltd (NBPOL).

Very professional in his dealings with customary land and always had the interest of Papua New Guinea people in his dealings.

I had some very interesting conversations with him on a large range of topics at the Mosa Club at Kimbe.

A good bloke. Vale Norm.

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