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The making of PNG: JK Murray v Bureaucracy


Evelyn and JK Murray
Evelyn and JK Murray in Port Moresby, 1951

Introduction by Keith Jackson

NOOSA - Within the space of a couple of weeks early this year, Loch Blatchford and I experienced coincidental but catastrophic computer failures.

Mine cost PNG Attitude the bulk of its images and links but fortunately retained most of the textual content. Loch’s resulted in him losing most of The Blatchford Collection, his valuable, impeccably assembled historical compilation of the development of Papua New Guinea’s education system after World War II.

Loch still had the thousands of documents from which he had derived his chronicle, but faced the formidable task of reviewing and rewriting.

After comparing notes and deciding the collection was too important to abandon, Loch and I (but mainly Loch) began the task of reconstruction. You can see this slowly emerging in Attitude Extra in the right hand column of this blog.

For the article that follows, Loch undertook a forensic review of IGF (Ian) Downes’ book, ‘The Australian Trusteeship Papua New Guinea, 1945-75’, published in 1980 by the Canberra-based Australian Government Publishing Service.

This review of 14,000 words will eventually make its way as a free-standing article in The Blatchford Collection.

In the extract below, edited and summarised by Loch Blatchford, Downes examines the troubled relationship between PNG’s then colonial Administration and its masters in the Australian government.


PNG’s post-war dilemma: JK Murray versus the Bureaucracy

CaptureColonel JK Murray served as Administrator of the Australian territories of Papua and New Guinea from 1945 to 1952.

Not long after his appointment he concluded that his plans for the reconstruction of the territories were suffering because he could not get prompt decisions from the Department of External Territories in Canberra.

The unsatisfactory relations cannot be explained in terms of a poor personal relationship between Murray and departmental secretary JR (James) Halligan (1944-51) as he considered his relationship with Halligan’s successor, CR (Cyril) Lambert (1951-64) to be even more disturbed.

It seems that at least part of the trouble between Port Moresby and Canberra arose from Murray's inability or reluctance to use and exploit the fundamental procedures of Public Service practice.

James Brack, assistant secretary of the Department from 1945 until he retired in 1951, recalled that from the beginning, the approvals for various purposes, including the supply of funds) was the cause of Murray's frustration.

His submissions to Canberra often lacked the detail and explanation required to justify the expenditure to be incurred.

Murray had a general understanding with Halligan that, until heads of departments had all been appointed and were sufficiently familiar with the problems facing their departments, there would be no specific budget or limit on expenditure.

While he had personal authority to spend up to £60,000 on any one item, the approval of the Treasury in Canberra was required for proposals above that amount.

Murray said he found it easier stretch war damage authorisations to cover as many projects as possible rather than ask for ‘new’ money.

On 15 April 1947, Australian prime minister, JB (Ben) Chifley, announced that Cabinet had agreed on the need for a 10-year plan for the development of Papua and New Guinea.

A committee representing the departments of the Treasury, Post-War Reconstruction, External Territories, Commerce, Agriculture, and Works and Housing was appointed to produce the plan. Halligan was appointed its secretary.

This committee was not effective: its deliberations lacked continuity and no member was able to devote sufficient time to the committee's responsibility.

There developed an ambiguous vacuum in which Administrator Murray waited for detailed policies and plans from Canberra.

Furthermore, the Department of External Territories only supported projects which had been approved within the annual Territory budget.

Planning was impossible because nothing could be projected in Papua and New Guinea without continuity of funding and nothing could be planned or built without the concurrence of the Australian Department of Works.

Halligan asked Murray to prepare his own development plan and the Administrator appointed a finance committee to correlate the work of three other committees that were producing plans for Indigenous welfare, social development and economic development.

On 18 February 1948, in an address to a conference of District Commissioners in Lae, Murray mentioned he was waiting for a report and said he was hopeful that:

“…. the estimates for 1948-49 [would be] the first year of a five-year program, followed by a second one of similar length.

“In that way we should be able to get somewhere with regard to policy and to know where we are going and I have no doubt as to what should be done, and that is to ask that the Australian government determine that there shall be a policy for at least 10 years and that financial provision be made on that basis. We will then be able to plan effectively.”

Murray was described by a contemporary commentator as loyal, discreet and patient. He publicly accepted the frustrations of bureaucratic delay but complained privately of Canberra attitudes.

Journalist Osmar White described Murray as “one of the poorest politicians and most faithful civil servants a shrewd permanent secretary ever dreamed to see hired”.

Murray's patience must have been sorely tried for him to have told a newspaper reporter before the change of government in 1949 that:

“I sometimes wonder if Canberra realises the urgent nature of the problems which face us here.

“If we Australians cannot justify ourselves in New Guinea soon, somebody else is going to step in and take over-by force, or otherwise.

“Perhaps there is not as much time left as Canberra thinks.”

The correspondence of the time makes it clear there were serious delays in decision-making.

Murray could recall only one instance when he asked to see Chifley, who was both treasurer and prime minister, for a meeting.

At the time Murray faced a desperate financial situation and had his requests for extra funds had been rejected by the Treasury.

The interview was arranged and Murray got the financial help he required.

Considering his success in making a direct approach to the prime minister, it seems extraordinary that there was only one occasion when he chose to do this.

The explanation may lie in Murray’s reluctance to add to the problems of the Australian government following World War II.

In recalling his own difficulties, he mentioned the political troubles that faced the Labor government: the unpopularity of rationing and licensing controls carried forward from the war; strikes in the coalfields; and the political hazards Chifley faced as he sought to nationalise banks and sections of industry.

The government was torn between welfare policies and political survival.

Murray seemed to concede that the Cabinet had every right to allow almost everything on the Australian mainland to take priority over Papua and New Guinea.

Following his interview with Chifley in March 1949, Murray sent him a letter renforcing that he was not kept informed of policy, that he suffered extraordinary delays and that he was isolated from the government he so loyally supported.

Asked if his interview with Chifley had led to a more active interest in Papua and New Guinea by acting minister Eddie Ward, Murray was adamant that this should not be a reflection on Ward.

"If you asked Ward for a decision, you got one. Anything that was delayed was nearly always due to Halligan not putting it forward."

On l5 March 1949, Cabinet approved a recommendation that Port Moresby be selected as the site for the administrative headquarters of the Territory.

But advice of this long-awaited decision was not officially dispatched to Murray until acting administrator, Judge Phillips, cabled Halligan for confirmation after hearing about it on an ABC radio broadcast.

Throughout the war and until his retirement, Halligan's main concern was for the fate of former officers taken prisoner by the Japanese, the situation of their families and the future of dependents of those known to have lost their lives.

The failure of Murray and Halligan to work well together was an unfortunate fact of the post-war period.

All official requests - even those intended to bypass Halligan - had to end up on his desk. Such was public service procedure.

Meanwhile, in PNG, Murray had no executive council to support him and no popular support from the private sector to bring pressure on the government:

“Most of the trouble I had came from departmental heads rather than from ministers who understood the new policy.

“The pre-war economic depression and the generally penurious attitude towards PNG made it difficult for a man like Halligan to understand that we were living in a new age.

“I found the pre-war Papua and New Guinea staff very much on side; but the commercial interests, [assistant secretary] SA Lonergan and Halligan were a constant obstacle.

“[Alf] Conlon was always a great help. While he was there a great deal got done [but] I don't think Chifley appreciated him.”

But Murray continued to rely on Conlon to approach Ward on his behalf long after Conlon's influence had ceased to be effective.

Brack, then senior assistant secretary in the Department of External Territories, was sure that Halligan had no personal dislike of Murray, only occasionally expressing impatience with “too many bloody letters”.

Others recall Halligan's reluctance to part with files that surrounded his desk like a kind of Maginot Line and agreed that decisions were often held up waiting for his personal attention.

The Department was overworked and understaffed. “You have to remember,” Brack said, “that we had Nauru, Norfolk, Cocos and Christmas Islands all in a post-war mess at the same time.”

In Port Moresby, Murray thrived in a “community of scholars” (including those at the newly formed Australian School of Pacific Administration) and patiently waited for ideas to develop.

He sought consensus to share responsibility for decisions as well as ideas.

By contrast, Halligan was an impatient man and suspicious of anything new.

Proposals without precedent irritated him because they usually required legal opinion from the Attorney-General, the approval of the Public Service Board or ministerial consent.

Sometimes all three members of this troika of authority had to be persuaded by means of minutes and detailed submissions.

Delay was not necessarily always in Halligan's department and extraordinary persistence was required to obtain decisions from a minister preoccupied with other events.

In his own fashion Halligan was a loyal and competent public servant and it seems unfortunate that Murray did not visit the mainland more frequently to discuss his problems with both Halligan and Ward.

He seemed also unable to communicate his own sense of urgency. Sir John Gunther, then Director of Public Health in PNG, recalled:

“Halligan always won in the end by just not doing anything.

“I remember being on a committee from which important advice was expected. Halligan was chairman.

“I do not remember that he ever arranged a meeting of that committee.”

Ministerial influence on Territory events declined during Ward's long term in office that ended only when the Labor government lost office in December 1949.

Both Halligan and Murray often found Ward not available to attend to matters urgently requiring his attention as the responsible minister.

Despite these significant difficulties, Murray remained fiercely loyal to Ward.

But his relations with the Canberra bureaucracy suffered because he believed the Department of External Territories was opposed to government policy.

The defeat of Labor increased Murray's feelings of isolation and made it even more difficult for him to adjust to the plans and policies of the new, more active ministers under the new and more active Menzies government.


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Graham King

I spent many hours in the JK Murray Library at Queensland Agricultural College.

Before he became Administrator of Papua and New Guinea, Murray was in charge of Queensland Agricultural College at Gatton.

Chris Overland

Poor JK Murray. He fell victim to one of the most common problems experienced within any large bureaucracy, which is the sometimes serious disconnect between the key executive decision makers and those they are charged with leading and supporting.

The military, which is a famously bureaucratic organisation, understands this very well. Commanders in the field typically clash with staff officers who are charged with planning a campaign because they tend to have very different perspectives about what is actually happening and what can realistically be achieved.

Some generals seek to reduce the level of disconnect by insisting that they and, very often, some of their key staff, venture forth to the front lines to gain firsthand knowledge of what is happening. Generals Erwin Rommel and George Patton were exemplars of this form of leadership and management.

Of course, this necessarily puts such generals in harms way and a few end up being killed. Notable examples of this include Wehrmacht General Georg Stumme who was killed while undertaking a reconnaissance mission during the 2nd Battle of El Alamein and US Lieutenant General Simon Buckner, killed at Okinawa while doing the same thing.

As a rule, armies don't like their generals being killed and visits to the front lines are not encouraged. It is judged better to send more junior and expendable officers to do the more risky tasks.

Within a large public sector bureaucracy there is obviously less risk involved in the executive leaders being out and about amongst the front-line staff although this still tends to be an infrequent occurrence.

Consequently, the risk of a disconnect arising is very real unless, as is often the case, the executive leadership have first-hand knowledge of the tasks their staff are asked to perform.

In Murray's case, he was dealing with people who largely had no idea of the circumstances that confronted him. Worse still they were located very far away and seemed disinclined to devote themselves to acquiring at least a rudimentary knowledge of what was happening in PNG.

Superimpose on this situation Murray's apparent lack of the political skills required to operate effectively within such a system and the opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding are more or less unlimited.

I have worked in a large bureaucracy charged with managing a health system employing 40,000 people and scattered over a state covering around 1 million square kilometres.

At one time, some organisational genius decided that an entirely new executive team was needed to 'fix' the health system. They duly filled the five most senior executive positions with people who had no first-hand knowledge or experience in the operation and management of the very hospital system they were being asked to 'fix'.

You may guess the results of this bold endeavour: 4 years later the problems to be fixed had multiplied hugely and the senior executive team was belatedly replaced by people who had actually managed a hospital and understood how they actually worked.

It seems to me that Mr Halligan epitomises the mistake inherent in asking someone with neither the knowledge nor the skills nor the inclination to provide effective support to an administrator living far, far away in a land utterly incomprehensible to him.

Many ex kiaps like me will recall that the apparent inability of Canberra to understand anything about PNG, including our role and functions, was something of a standing joke.

Of course, it was not really a funny situation and had real world consequences, not least in the stampede towards independence triggered by the Whitlam government's desire to be rid of an unwanted and embarrassing role as a colonial power.

The pursuit of that political objective made irrelevant the thoughts, attitudes and fears about what independence might mean for all but a tiny PNG elite. It is arguable that this has profoundly impacted upon PNG's governance and development ever since.

The problems experienced by J K Murray persisted long after he passed from the scene and doubtless will continue to persist into the future. It is still an awfully long way from Canberra to Port Moresby, in more ways than mere distance would suggest.

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