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PNG’s journey to independence

Forty years ago this week, Sean Dorney was one of the journalists on the spot for Papua New Guinea’s declaration of Independence. He covered it for the country’s National Broadcasting Commission and later spent 17 years in PNG as an ABC correspondent. He reflects on PNG’s journey as an independent nation.

The flag-raising ceremony on Independence Hill, near the present-day PNG Parliament, on September 16, 1975, was slightly delayed because Imelda Marcos, wife of the then President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, turned up fashionably late.

Nobody particularly minded because there was an enormous amount of good will flowing throughout the country on that momentous day.

The previous evening, the Australian flag was lowered at the Sir Hubert Murray Stadium and warrant officer George Ibor of the Pacific Islands Regiment presented it to PNG’s first Governor General, Sir John Guise.

Accepting the flag, Sir John called on all present to witness: “We are lowering the Australian flag—not tearing it down!”

Papua New Guinea achieved its Independence without bloodshed.

Bully Beef Club

Ten years earlier, in 1965, Independence seemed very, very far away. The Australian Minister then in charge of PNG, Charles ‘Ceb’ Barnes, was predicting it would not happen before the end of the 20th Century.

But a young broadcaster with the Australian Administration’s provincial radio network, Michael Somare, and others attending the Administrative College in Port Moresby, formed what they called the Bully Beef Club, which became the Pangu Pati.

“We were a group of people raising our voices everywhere,” Sir Michael recalls. “There were schoolteachers, there were Kiaps—who were the patrol officers—and some university people. There were some people saying this country is not ready for Independence. Even my own father was saying, ‘No, you are not ready yet. The country is not ready’.

“But when I got elected in 1968 I started talking about self-government. I never hid that fact. I told them straight,” Sir Michael says.

Useful ally

He had an ally in Gough Whitlam who, as Opposition Leader in Australia, campaigned in the 1969 Australian election on granting PNG its Independence.

Whitlam travelled to PNG on various occasions and in 1972, after elections in PNG and Australia, Somare and Whitlam headed up the respective governments.

Sir Julius Chan, the leader of the People’s Progress Party, joined Somare’s multi-party government, and became PNG’s finance minister.

“I would say that the period at the beginning was probably the most exciting time of our 40 years of Independence,” Sir Julius says. “By any comparison with other parts of the world we have upheld our democratic system of government.

“I don’t know how they describe stability, but I would say we have been stable. We have not gone and fought each other and the rule of law has prevailed. By any comparison to any developing country – and that is the only guide really – I think we have done pretty well.”
There were those predicting that soon after Independence PNG would descend into chaos and disunity.

“We have so many different languages that we had to borrow a foreign language to communicate, but somehow we have been able to get along,” Sir Julius says.

Setting the tone

Sir Michael set the tone for how PNG could achieve peaceful changes of government when in 1980 he was removed as prime minister in PNG’s first successful parliamentary vote of no confidence. He was replaced by Sir Julius who had split with Sir Michael a year or so earlier.

Speaking of that defeat on the floor of Parliament, Sir Michael says he told his supporters to accept the result. “It is written in our Constitution so let us follow the law. Let us accept the decision and maintain the institutions.”

Another future prime minister, Sir Mekere Morauta, was the head of the Finance Department at Independence.

“At the very beginning, the economic policy foundations were laid extremely appropriately and strongly,” Sir Mekere says. “I remember hearing from Sir John Crawford who was a very important man in Australia and in PNG, commenting that he was very impressed by the processes and structures, the economic and social foundations of policy. His question was, ‘Can you sustain it?’”

The changes

Forty years on, what are some of the changes?

The economy is much, much larger. Then PNG had one world-class mine, Bougainville, and coffee, tea, copra and cocoa plantations. Now PNG has a massive LNG project with a second one possible; several major mines; an agricultural sector that now includes significant oil palm production and developments in the fishing industry that mean PNG is becoming one of the world’s major tuna-processing countries.

The media in PNG is now much more diversified. Then there was one national daily newspaper, The Post Courier, and a national radio broadcaster, the NBC. Now there are two highly competitive daily newspapers, various other publications, competing television and radio broadcasters both national and commercial and exceptionally lively social media.

Then the Government-owned telephone network was pretty basic. Now the mobile phone penetration is astounding with hundreds of mobile phone towers enabling connections to even some of PNG’s most-remote villages.

One of the most ambitious recent changes is the introduction of free education. It is a signature policy of the current PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. He says his aim is to reform the whole education process in the country. “We are allowing tuition-free education for our young from elementary school all the way up to Year 12,” he says. “And now we are embarking on a loan scheme for students similar to that in Australia to enable them to undertake tertiary education.”

‘From walking to flying’

Paul Barker from the privately funded think tank, the Institute for National Affairs, says that while PNG has had its difficulties and problems it has survived.

‘Some people had forecast that the country would fall apart, that it would be chaotic from an early period. But to its credit, despite being extremely diverse culturally, physically and geographically and a very expensive place to provide and deliver services, it has stayed together as a single state. It’s obviously had its conflicts – in Bougainville notably – but by and large the country has stuck together. It still adheres to democratic principles albeit that they are a variation on what some would expect to be the norm.’

Titi Gabi, a journalist who is the general manager of the online news service PNG Loop, does not discount the challenges PNG faces but urges people to appreciate how dramatic the journey has been.

‘We have gone from walking to flying!” she says. “Straight – from walking to flying in one direct hit. There are now a lot of educated Papua New Guineans and highly educated Papua New Guineans today in a lot of fields. That’s one big plus. We have pilots flying passenger jet aircraft in the Middle East making a name for themselves and for the country. That’s amazing when you think back to 1975.’

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