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After 80 years, is this ASOPA’s last stand?

ASOPA 2004
One of the ASOPA classrooms as it was in 2004


NOOSA – It looks like the heritage of Australian School of Pacific Administration, ASOPA, will be bulldozed in the NSW government’s enthusiasm to monetise and commercialise the valuable public land at Middle Head in Sydney where it once stood.

More than any other institution in the years after World War II, ASOPA provided the personnel that accelerated Papua New Guinea’s road from a colony to an independent nation.

At the end of the war, the visionary Colonel Alf Conlon (once known as the most hated man in the Army) pressed the Australian government to establish a permanent centre where an expert team would train officers to undertake civil administration in PNG and other developing countries and provide advice on aspects of development.

The government agreed and in 1945, Colonel JK Murray became the first Chief Instructor of the School of Civil Affairs, located at the Duntroon Military College in Canberra.

The next year, Murray was assigned to PNG as Administrator of the colony, the School of Civil Affairs was redesignated as the Australian School of Pacific Administration and lawyer John Kerr became its first Principal.

In 1947, ASOPA was relocated to the group of unassuming Army huts on Middle Head, which today are under threat.

You can link here to my detailed account of the history of ASOPA.

Today, the Headland Preservation Group is fighting to conserve “the natural, indigenous and military heritage of Middle Head” to which we could well add ‘historical heritage’.

Jill L'Estrange, president of the group, believes that the government-appointed Harbour Trust is not acting in good faith in dealing with the community about the future of the land which includes what was once ASOPA.

She says recent information about the future of the Middle Head site is “deceptive”, “lacks critical information” and “does not cover the complexities of the proposed changes” provided in a master plan.

“We need to get the planning right for this valuable public asset,” she says.

“The period allowed by the Harbour Trust for consultation is indecently hasty; the community has only weeks to assess and respond to the complex report.”

On Tuesday 18 April the consultation ends and “the Harbour Trust will implement its final master plan without recourse”. This will end community involvement in the process.

L'Estrange said what has been presented to the community “is an architectural vision statement not a draft master plan” which does not “respect the natural, indigenous and military heritage of Middle Head.

“The Trust’s consultation process was flawed and rushed,” she said.

“The community deserves the opportunity to review and respond to a complete and detailed middle head master plan.”

She is urging people to attend a public meeting on Wednesday 12 April at 6 pm in the Mosman Senior Citizens Centre at Mosman Square.


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Paul Munro

The Papua New Guinea Association too has been pressing since about 2007 for better adaptive reuse of the Middle Head heritage holdings of the Harbour Trust, but without sufficient return.

In 2017-20 there was some success in that the heritage values of the 'ASOPA Story' were included by the Trust as one of five interpretive themes in its Interpretation Strategy for the Middle Head precinct.

However in 2021 the Morrison government instituted a changing of the guard on the Trust Board, which was reinforced just before the national election by the appointment of several members closely aligned with NSW state planning and City of Sydney development policies.

From about July 2021, PNGAA seems to have been dropped as one of the stakeholders consulted about such matters as the preparation of management plans.

One result is that the Trust planners have gone overboard for popularisation of 'military village' visions, utterly neglecting to do anything about the ASOPA Story and the 52 years presence of a regional development and decolonisation training village at ASOPA.

Unfortunately thus far, the Headland Preservation Group seems to have been a bit slow in picking up this downplaying of the ASOPA Story.

The PNGAA is preparing a submission and the HPG has been reminded that the ASOPA Story is among the indelible 'heritage values of place'.

Those values extend to the roles of alumni, staff and function from 1946 to 1998 of those unique institutions.

They extend also as a potential platform for emulation in promoting sound relations between Australia and the Pacific Forum nations, involving also what constitute their diaspora communities in Sydney.

Paul Oates

It appears to me there are two initiatives that have become conflated.

1. Should and would the original ASOPA site be restored and used as a site for a re-commitment of Australia's concern and support for the Pacific community?

2. Would a better re-commitment to the Pacific be better built elsewhere?

The issue is really about who cares? Do enough people care about our historical commitment to our neighbours or do they really care about the present concerns by those who are trying to pay their mortgages and feed their families?

Therein lies reality. The 'tipping point' has already been passed as far as history is concerned. Both Chips and others like myself have failed to gain any political interest in thinking, let alone doing, anything along those lines.

Bernard Corden

Dear Keith - Kathryn Campbell, who featured prominently in the Robodebt inquiry, was the former DFAT secretary. She was a member of a team investigating the London car crash involving then High Commissioner George Brandis, which cost taxpayers over $250,000.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Nevertheless, I think there is a good case for the re-establishment of ASOPA as part of the government's sudden interest in the Pacific Islands.

It could be re-established along the lines of its final iterations as the International Training Institute and Centre for Pacific Development and Training.

Training Pacific Island public servants and consultants working in the Pacific Islands still seems a laudable thing to do.

It would be nice too if they reverted to the old ASOPA name.

Maybe locate in somewhere like Cairns.

Ross Wilkinson

Harbour Trust has advised that the exhibition period and time for submissions has been extended to 5pm on Tuesday 9 May.

Thanks Ross. Looks like the complaints of a flawed and rushed consultation process reached the new minister's office which has ordered a little more time for submissions (three weeks) but still no transparency that would allow the community to review and respond to the complete, detailed master plan.

And a reminder of the public meeting which it seems will, amongst other related issues: (1) discuss what is known about the new NSW government's plans for the ASOPA site; (2) agree to a community action plan to resist undesirable changes to the site; and (3) propose how the historic importance of ASOPA can be recognised. The meeting will be held this week on Wednesday 12 April at 6 pm in the Mosman Senior Citizens Centre at Mosman Square - KJ

Chips Mackellar

It probably will be ASOPA's last stand at the Middle Head site, but there was a plan to resurrect ASOPA elsewhere.

The RAMSI operation (the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands) began in 2003, Australian Federal Police and Defence Force personnel being deployed to keep the peace in the Solomons.

With this in mind, John Pasquarelli and I drafted a proposal that ASOPA be reestablished as an adjunct to James Cook University inTownsville.

Our aim was to establish training courses, similar to those taught at the old ASOPA, to be part of the ordinary routine training for Military personnel stationed at Cairns and Townsville, and for selected members of the AFP which wold and DFAT.

The purpose was to establish a permanent reserve force similar to RAMSI in case such a force was ever needed again for the same reasons in the Solomons, PNG or any other Pacific nation.

Part of the proposal was that serving ASOPA personnel would pay periodic friendly visits to remote parts of the Pacific countries to help with routine maintenance of local infrastructure, get to know the local people, and be friendly unofficial ambassadors for Australia, and so help bond us all together into a friendly Pacific family.

I gave the proposal to a then minister in the Howard government, and there was no reply.
And so ended our attempt to resurrect ASOPA.

A noble effort, Chips. The arrogant culture in DFAT that only they know and understand [fill in name of country or countries here].

DFAT also believes that other citizens or entities can be treated with disdain, the exceptions being multi-billion dollar corporations, owners or board members of national media organisations, close friends or relatives of the minister, knights of the realm or US military officers above the rank of colonel.

DFAT's arrogance could be tolerated if it was efficient in its duties, effective in its planning, knowledgeable of other cultures, trusted as a good and strong ally by neighbouring countries, perceived as accountable, honest and outcome-oriented in its performance.

Alas.... - KJ

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