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Kokoda: Angels & Diggers begat bureaucrats

William Dargie  Stretcher bearers in the Owen Stanleys  1943  oil on canvas
Stretcher bearers in the Owen Stanleys (William Dargie, oil on canvas, 1943). That their legacy is bogged down in bureaucracy dishonours them

| Kokoda Treks | Edited

SYDNEY – In 1990, on the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, Australian prime minister Bob Hawke allocated $10 million so a group of 52 veterans and their carers could visit Anzac Cove in Turkey to commemorate the occasion.

25 years later, prime minister Tony Abbott allocated $100 million to establish the Sir John Monash Centre at Villiers-Bretonneux to honour the centenary of the Anzacs landing on the shores of Gallipoli.

In 2017, on the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign of World War II, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull chose not to attend the Anzac dawn service at Bomana War Cemetery.

Nor did the Department of Veterans Affairs make any provision to support veterans who wished to return and pay a final tribute to comrades left behind.

Australia’s interest in the Kokoda Trail lay dormant for 50 years after the war.

The few hardy trekkers who crossed it each year witnessed Australia’s apathy towards its wartime heritage.

There was not one official memorial or plaque along the 130 km trail to signify its importance in the histories of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Awareness increased after Paul Keating became the first prime minister to visit Kokoda when the 50th anniversary of the campaign was commemorated in 1992.

And it was reinforced when a significant memorial at Isurava was opened by prime ministers John Howard and Sir Michael Somare for the 60th anniversary in 2002.

In 2006, a Frontier Resources’ proposal to mine the southern section of the trail after the discovery of a $3 billion (K7.6 billion) gold and copper deposit caused the Australian government to develop a ‘Joint Understanding’ with a $14.9 million (K38 million) grant to:

“….assist the PNG government in its efforts to improve the livelihoods of local communities along the Track, and establish effective management arrangements so that the Track is protected and delivers increasing benefits to local people. Those funds will also be used to conduct a feasibility study into a World Heritage nomination.”

DVA, which is responsible for commemoration, was not included in the drafting of the Joint Understanding.

Responsibility for the project was delegated to the Australian Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) which had responsibility for overseas sites of historic interest.

‘Heritage’ was later removed from its title and it was rebadged as the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

It was soon apparent that DEWHA officials dispatched to PNG to help ‘save’ the Kokoda Trail had little understanding of pilgrimage tourism, lacked expertise in commercial management and were unfamiliar with Melanesian culture.

As a result, the multi-million-dollar Kokoda tourism industry developed since prime minister Paul Keating’s visit declined by 46%.

The cumulative loss for subsistence villagers along the trail since then is in the region of $19 million (K48 million) in foregone wages, campsite fees and local purchases.

In retrospect the Joint Understanding was a hasty response to a mining threat on the Trail.

At the time AusAID was responsible for the aid projects in PNG and a ‘Kokoda Development Program’ was patched onto the responsibilities of the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby.

The Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) was legally responsible to PNG’s Minister for Provincial and Local Level Government, however PNG Tourism assumed an active role as the Trail was emerging as PNG’s most popular tourism destination.

For some inexplicable reason, DVA, despite being responsible for ‘commemorations, memorials, war graves and research’, was excluded from the development of a plan to protect and enhance the Trail’s wartime heritage.

This led to a nonsensical situation where DVA was responsible for World War I heritage at Gallipoli, while DSEWPC was responsible for World War II heritage at Kokoda.

For several years, the Kokoda Development Program and KTA operated at odds with each other as they worked on separate projects, issues and agendas related to the Trail.

In August 2011, a former Australian Assistant Secretary for International Heritage in Canberra was assigned as ‘management advisor’ to PNG’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA).

Soon after, a ‘Kokoda Initiative’ was added to the mix and embedded within CEPA, which was responsible to the Minister for Environment and Conservation.

CEPA then assumed responsibility for the KTA in managing the emerging Kokoda tourism industry, in addition to its responsibilities for oversight of six acts of parliament relating to the environment.

The result was dysfunction, causing the environment minister to establish a ‘ministerial oversight committee’ within CEPA which was made responsible for the world heritage aspects of the Joint Agreement.

None of the members of the oversight committee had ever trekked the Kokoda Trail and none had previous experience in business management or pilgrimage tourism – apart from the management advisor.

He was appointed committee secretary and his title upgraded to ‘strategic management advisor’.

This effectively meant that responsibility for Kokoda pilgrimage tourism was quietly transferred from the provincial and local level government minister to the DFAT-Kokoda Initiative within CEPA.

The PNG tourism minister, who should have responsibility for the Trail, was thereby excluded from the chain of command.

Around this time a bitter dispute erupted between the DFAT strategic management advisor and the Papua New Guinean CEO of the Kokoda Track Authority.

The strategic management advisor was declared persona non-grata and barred from the KTA office.

The reverberations were felt along the Trail and led to threats to close it because the CEO was also a wantok landowner.

In 2014 the Kokoda Initiative commissioned a review of the Understanding.

The review, which confirmed the CEO’s concerns, was leaked by the CEO to Kokoda trek operators.

It confirmed the impossible situation faced by the CEO in meeting the demands of ill-informed Australian officials while trying to meet the needs of trekkers, trek operators and landowners along the Trail.

It was now evident that the management system imposed on the KTA had failed and that the DFAT-Kokoda Initiative was operating in a parallel universe without any real understanding of the reality of the Kokoda tourism industry.

For example, none of the five key strategies and none of the 33 objectives in a KTA strategic plan developed without consultation with trek operators or landowners was achieved.

The review was quietly shelved and has not been replaced.

Another deficiency was the DFAT-Kokoda Initiative master plan published in August 2016 that ignored the significance of pilgrimage tourism despite this being the primary reason that the Kokoda Trail was an important destination for the 54,623 Australians who trekked it over the past 16 years.

A preliminary review of the master plan was submitted, and ignored.

The master plan had also ignored landowners along the trail, who remain suspicious of it, believing they were deliberately excluded from the process.

According to the Trip Consultants firm, their master plan addressed the “medium and long-term development priorities which support the identified Kokoda Initiative vision and goals and highlights key roles and institutional requirements for support implementation”.

For those closely associated with the Kokoda tourism industry, local landowners and their subsistence communities along the Trail are more interested in short term needs – particularly for food, medicine, schooling and cash flow.

It is therefore a mistake to assume traditional owners concur with a master plan which is incomprehensible to them and irrelevant to their short-term needs.

In early 2016 a ministerial reshuffle in PNG coincided with the transfer of responsibility for Australian aid projects from AusAID to DFAT.

This had no impact on the Kokoda Initiative as its officials were simply transferred to DFAT but it did increase their influence.

The PNG environment minister was one of the most astute and influential members of parliament.

During his time as an MP, he developed extensive personal business interests and now he not only had the struggling tourism portfolio but had the climate change authority handed to him.

The latter obligation required his attendance at numerous international forums.

The effective management of the Kokoda tourism industry continued to decline.

In 2017 prime minister Peter O’Neill became aware of the dysfunctional management and ordered a review of the Kokoda Track Authority.

Around the same time a KTA board meeting was convened to resolve the standoff between the DFAT strategic management advisor and the CEO of the KTA.

The CEO did not attend the meeting but announced his intention to resign.

However, on the following day the board was reconvened by the CEO with his Trail wantoks in attendance. The decision of the previous day’s board meeting was overturned and the CEO retained his position.

Behind the scenes negotiations continued and, soon after, the CEO accepted a ‘lateral promotion’ as a tourism executive with the National Capital District Commission in Port Moresby.

He was replaced by the deputy secretary of the Department of Provincial and Local Level Government, Julius Wargiral, in an acting capacity until the review ordered by the prime minister was completed.

Mr Wargiral is an experienced PNG bureaucrat but had no experience in business, pilgrimage tourism or trekking.

Soon after Wargiral’s appointment as acting CEO, the DFAT strategic management advisor was embedded back in the KTA office.

Trek operators were taken by surprise when they learned that one of the first actions of the acting CEO was to donate K350,000 of their trek permit fees to an Australian NGO, supposedly to distribute as “educational supplements to villagers along the Kokoda Trail and beyond”.

This accounted for a large slice of the K1.1 million the KTA had received for trek permit fees in 2018.

There was no consultation and there does not appear to be any record of KTA board approval for the donation, which contravened KTA rules relating to the disbursement of trek fee income. It also exceeded the authority of an acting CEO.

The donation was particularly galling for Kokoda trek operators who for many years had been calling for the Kokoda Initiative and KTA to spend money on hygienic toilets and campsite management to meet the needs of trekkers.

The refusal of Kokoda Initiative-KTA to publish annual financial reports added to these frustrations. The bureaucrats now seemed to be unaccountable.

Poor governance practices that would not escape scrutiny in Australia now seem to be normal practice in the DFAT funded Kokoda Initiative in PNG.

Australian officials quickly learned their PNG counterparts would agree to any proposal with Australian aid dollar attached to it.

This allowed them to deflect criticism with what has become a cliché: “This is what PNG wants!”.

That trekker numbers have declined by 46% translates into a cumulative loss of $19 million (K46 million) for subsistence villages along the Trail in foregone wages, campsite fees and local purchases.

During this time, the responsible Australian agencies (DFAT and DVA) have failed to invest funds in the development of significant military heritage sites, to enhance the value of the pilgrimage, or in campsite development and hygienic toilets.

As a result, the Kokoda Trail has been prevented from reaching its potential as a world class pilgrimage tourism destination.

There are numerous activities to be undertaken to correct this situation:

Staff employed by KTA require professional management qualifications and commercial management experience

The KTA must publish regular financial reports to account for trek permit fees and other government funding

Implementation of a ‘tour operator license system’ that ensures compliance with the PNG Investment Promotion Authority Act

Development of a ‘campsite booking system’ to enable Kokoda tour operators to secure campsites for groups they lead across the Trail

Identification of sites for camps along the length of the Trail to meet the demands of trek itineraries especially during peak trekking periods

Development of a standard campsite plan (including dining hut, kitchen, drying hut, sleeping accommodation for support crews, hygienic ablution facilities, etc) to meet the needs of various trek group sizes

Train campsite owners to develop individual sites to meet the needs of trek groups

Develop a proper certification program for each campsite

Develop a trek itinerary management system to ensure the integrity of a campsite booking system

Implement a campsite audit program to ensure campsite owners are paid the full amount due from each trek group

Develop and implement an environmental management program for the Trail

Identify the names of landowners along the Trail

Conduct village-based workshops to identify basic and future needs of communities

Provide regular employment for villagers in a maintenance program to keep the Trail clear and safe

Develop a registration system and logbook for individual guides and carriers

Protect the welfare of guides and carriers by limiting the weight they are authorised to carry to 18 kg, ensuring they are provided with a trek uniform, sleeping bag and mat, paying a minimum daily rate of K70, paying a day’s bonus payment at the end of each trek, paying a K250 walk home allowance after the trek, and paying a minimum of eight-days’ pay for treks of shorter duration as they have to work longer hours covering the same length of the Trail

Invest in any military sites along the Trail to enhance the value of the pilgrimage for paying customers

Invest in signage along the Trail to identify trees, plants and geographical features

Obtain Indigenous names of geographical features, rivers and creeks

Until these matters are addressed, and the PNG government reclaims ownership of the Trail, the potential of PNG’s most popular tourism destination will never be realised.

Charlie Lynn on the Kokoda Trail - committed to ensuring the legacy is honoured


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