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 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.
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.