When the Treasurer visited Noosa
05 May 2022
NOOSA – My health is so capricious these days I knock back pretty much every request I get to do anything.
It’s like Nature said to me: 'Now it’s settlement time for never knocking back an invite'. It’s a long invoice.
On the rare occasions I accept, I make sure the timing is targeted precisely in a zone when I’m most likely to be alert enough to listen, understand and speak. ME/CFS can reduce a man to surly haplessness.
An hour or so before the event, I administer an appropriate drug to ensure I won’t melt down mid-conversation in exhaustion or cognitive disarray. Mid-conversation I may top it up.
So I don’t do many engagements. But when I do, I do my utmost to ensure I’m in good nick.
When Ingrid and I made the big move from Sydney to Noosa eight years ago, we had many visitors . The most special were always from Papua New Guinea.
In 2014 Gary Juffa drove from Brisbane to catch up for a couple of hours. A four-hour round trip along the Bruce Highway. (Yes, it’s really called Bruce. Bruce was the Australian hero who invented the word 'mate'.)
Gary, who I’d never met in person, but felt I had from his evocative writing, was accompanied by the self-made multi-millionaire gold dealer Justin Parker. We had a splendid conversation before the pair had to head back south.
A year later, in a drunken rage, Parker fatally injured his helicopter mechanic, who died in hospital from what an expert told the court was a "subdural haemorrhage as a consequence of blunt force to the head".
In 2017 Justin Parker was convicted of manslaughter and sent to Bomana for 13 years. PNG being what it is, he was out on parole after two.
It is uncomfortable to juxtapose that pleasant and chatty encounter with the subsequent tragedy. But that be life in journalism.
I had enjoyed the meeting so much. Juffa - a politician honest, gritty and independent - was as smart as a whip and as personable as I’d hoped. Literature can bond without the prerequisite of shaking hands.
In this vein of PNG assignations in Noosa, I recall the fun it was to have Francis Nii, Martyn Namorong, Daniel Kumbon and Phil Fitzpatrick here for a few days before the Brisbane writers festival in 2016.
This occurred not long after Ingrid had been elected to the local Council at a time we were still getting on with the Mayor, even though he rejected my proposed civic reception for the distinguished visiting writers. And I’d offered to pay.
The Mayor was an inherently negative type. I'm not suggesting any specific disapproval of Papua New Guineans.
Anyway he and the local State MP did accept invitations to attend the alternative reception Ingrid and I held at Treasure Cove. He even accepted some beautiful gifts the writers had arranged, the ones from Enga presented by Daniel Kumbon being especially memorable.
And the event did make both Noosa newspapers - along with a photo of white men wearing Enga hats awkwardly and Daniel wearing his like he was born to it.
The appearance at the Brisbane festival of the three Papua New Guinean authors and Rashmii Amoah Bell, editor of the splendid collection of PNG women’s writing, My Walk to Equality, was both a sell-out and a knock-out.
Not long after that memorable weekend my illness took a turn for the worst, and so did my ability to do much more than keep this blog afloat.
The Crocodile Prize, that had brought to the surface so many fine writers and produced five hefty anthologies of essays, stories and poetry, staggered and died. Such a damn shame.
For these last three years my heights of excitement have been a couple of hospitalisations, regular visits with my doctors and occasional visits from family and friends.
Then in March, out of the blue, came a message from Paul Flanagan, the economist who has written some first class articles for PNG Attitude on Papua New Guinea affairs.
Paul, who wears his vast expertise lightly, spent 35 years in the Australian public service when it was still a good outfit.
This was before the right-wingers hollowed it out to give more work to their neoconmen in the think tanks and mega-consulting firms, cronies who pretended they could do anything so long as there was lots of money in it.
Paul’s 35 years covered the Treasury (where he headed the International Finance and Development Division), the Finance Department and AusAID.
His first association with PNG had occurred in 1978 when he spent a month travelling around the country, spending time in remote areas beyond Tari in the footsteps of his uncle Kevin, who had been a Catholic priest there between 1970 and 1974.
Graduating from university, Paul’s honours thesis for an economics and political science degree was, ‘PNG Southern Highlands Integrated Rural Development Project’, a title almost as exciting for us economics nerds as 'Parachuting for Beginners'.
After he retired from the public service in 2014, Paul established his own advisory firm and he now works with Papua New Guinea's Treasurer Ian Ling-Stuckey and a small team trying to revive the country’s budget and economy.
This is a major rehabilitation job given that the Treasury was savaged over many years by poor political decisions, volatile commodity prices and standard corruption.
Anyway, Paul contacted me on a Monday in March to say minister Ling-Stuckey had a gap in his program on the next afternoon and he’d like to drive up from Brisbane to meet me.
I’d fleetingly known Ian’s stepfather, Peter - who died a couple of years ago - when he trained as a teacher at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in 1961-62, a year ahead of me.
I was a first year student in 1962 when Peter was in his second year.
We were technically contemporaries but I was still in the chrysalis and not the brash, spirited fellow I was to become. My trainee teacher confreres – average age about 23 - seemed more like uncles and aunts to a 17-year old tenderfoot from the country.
When he arrived in PNG, Peter was posted to New Ireland’s Utu High School. It was in the province that he met and married Ian’s mother.
While I moved into journalism, Peter remained a dedicated educationist, becoming a teacher educator and trainer of school inspectors, and by the 1980s was a highly regarded senior officer in PNG’s Education Department.
His stepson Ian had been packed off to school in Australia before independence, but New Ireland was still home. His grandparents had owned two coastal trading ships and a bicycle store in Kavieng.
As a young man Ian decided New Ireland would be his place and, when he resurfaced in New Ireland in the mid-1980s, he joined forces with the experienced politician and entrepreneur Julius Chan, a close friend of Robert Cheong, Ian’s biological father.
The bright and assertive young man became a prominent and respected member of the New Ireland community in his own right and in 1997, aged 40, he was elected as MP for Kavieng, and at the 2002 election, he became New Ireland governor.
He lost his seat in 2007 but returned as MP for Kavieng in 2017. Now a youthful 62, Ian’s standing again in next month’s general election.
So to the visitation. On the Tuesday afternoon just after one o’clock a minibus pulled up outside the Jackson compound in Treasure Cove and out of it spilt Ian, his chief of staff the imperturbable Professor Misty Baloiloi and senior adviser Lady Hitolo Amet.
Then emerged media officer Stella Paulus and, extricating himself from whatever part of the bus he had called his own, my good friend Paul Flanagan.
I had wanted to do the lunch at Treasure Cove not just because it was convenient and we were assured of privacy but because Ingrid had rightly insisted that she prepare lunch as a gesture of hospitality and friendship.
We were joined by our son Ben, recently returned from five years in PNG and preparing for a new communications role in Jakarta.
Papua New Guinea is a name that resonates well in my family. Two children born there. Two sons worked there. So many friends there. I don't feel ownership but I do feel the connection.
Our meeting was a delight. Ian led the conversation and he and I did most of the talking. It began with my early days – the sixties and seventies – and moved on to contemporary issues and wonderful anecdotes.
Ian’s grasp of Australian politics is masterful, his command of a complex portfolio predictably thorough and his familiar ease with the byzantine internal machinations of the PNG political class mind-blowing. Getting to the top of PNG politics – and staying there - is a rare skill.
Among many other things, we spoke of the importance of Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Sir Mekere Morauta as economic managers, accountable leaders and as massively underestimated figures in the PNG story.
I mention this because Namaliu (with whom I shared a politics honours class at UPNG) and Morauta gave the world a glimpse of what PNG could become under capable leadership. I believe Ian Ling-Stuckey is a man cut from the same cloth.
I also believe Ian is fortunate to have Paul on board - the veteran stager from Canberra’s economic portfolios bringing to the table bountiful experience and the political acumen I used to see in those 1980s senior public servants, many of whom would have been better ministers than the men and women they served.
In the present, of course, Ian and Paul have the massive and vital task of reforming and rebuilding the PNG economy. I know PNG had a lucky day when those two got together.
“What a wonderful history lesson,” Paul texted me when the team got back to Brisbane. “And what a wonderful outline on strategic thinking.”
I’d given them copies of my monograph, ‘The strategic management of communications’. Subtitled ‘A better way to manage tough corporate issues’, it is derived from my lectures to the issues management workshops I ran for 20 years as one of the many offerings of my late PR company. A highlight of these workshops were those we presented for ministerial staff at Parliament House in Canberra.
When the time came to leave, the team asked me to autograph the monographs and pen a personal citation in each. I obliged, bathing in the celebrity of the moment.
I’d had a great, morale-boosting afternoon, I was honoured my friends had made the journey and I was intoxicated by the long free-wheeling conversation. (Not from a bottle of my excellent wine. Ian Ling-Stuckey is a non-drinker and when the Minister doesn't drink, nobody drinks.)
Through the passion and enthusiasm of Ian, I’d relived the excitement, delight, constant good humour and occasional alarm of those days when Papua New Guineans and Aussies worked side by side to forge a country and make something of it.
They had been the best of days.
Throughout this afternoon of anecdote, insight and badinage, I observed a strong and capable leader and a fine team. It was immensely reassuring given their historic mission.
PNG is not only a nation full of promise, it has always been that. But forty-odd years after independence, it still has the far more difficult task of realising that promise. The promised land is not yet in sight.
And PNG’s beautiful and stoic people deserve a country that works for them. So they need leaders who can give it to them. They haven't had many. Ian Ling-Stuckey is such a leader.
Making Papua New Guinea a land worthy of its people is an arduous and exacting task. It seems almost impossibly difficult. It requires leaders of special character.
On that Tuesday in March I was delighted and relieved with what I experienced. Ian and Paul gave the impression of a partnership that can succeed in a crushing task.
Paul wrote to me later, and I’m sure he won’t mind me quoting this:
“This gig can be very tough. I just accept that a strange set of twists of fate from my Uncle and teenage years, combined with the public service experience and underlying beliefs, have somehow brought Ian and I together.
“My wife and daughters accept that I consider it a public duty driven by my love for the people of PNG. It is a positive symbiotic relationship.
“I found your support in some of those tough years under attack from O’Neill as particularly helpful in keeping me engaged on this path.”
I know from my own career that matters of great moment and extreme stress always go together.
This ‘moment’ can continue for many years and requires real resilience (not the short-term Australian kind), courage and a sense of mission, because, without such attributes, the demands and pressures can grind down a person to a useless assemblage of sapped flesh, gristle, bone fragments and neuroses.
I’m with Ian and Paul all the way and I'm with what they’re doing and the way they’re doing it. I know how hard it can be.
I know, too, the unfair abuse and blame heaped upon proponents of change from people who themselves are culpable: whether they be corrupt hypocrites or bitter Facebook blabbermouths.
But let's not be detained by low life. I’m still honoured and gratified by that visit of the Treasurer and his retinue. And I'm still immensely buoyed and reassured by who they are and what they're doing.
That Tuesday in March was one of those special days.
It is time for a PNG National Biography - before those people - who really knew what folk such as Michael Somare, Barry Holloway and Mekere Morauta were actually like - themselves join the great bung blong ol tumbuna.
Posted by: Richard Jackson | 03 June 2022 at 06:28 PM
Cool piece, Keith. And to echo Paul's sentiments, really someone should be recording these conversations (if the participants agree!) and given that smart phones these days have fairly decent audio recording capabilities, it's not too hard to get some basic tape of things.
Posted by: Johnny Blades | 08 May 2022 at 10:12 AM
Thank you Keith for your very kind words. The Treasurer also greatly enjoyed and valued the experience. I truly believe that we need to learn from our histories, its successes and failures. I was hoping to spend my planned retirement (so much for that plan!) writing and documenting an economic history of PNG. This would have included high quality videos of conversations with leaders past and present. My one regret of that wonderful afternoon is that I had not started the 8K video recording of the extraordinary, wide-ranging, humorous and informative discussion between yourself and Ian prior to lunch. Maybe a treasure to capture at Treasure Cove with hopefully the continuing Treasurer. With respect and thanks again. Paul.
Posted by: Paul Flanagan | 06 May 2022 at 08:55 PM