Given the general gloom that seems to dominate contemporary Australian perceptions about Papua New Guinea’s ability to govern itself, it is refreshing to learn how mournfully doubtful successive Australian Cabinets in the late 1960s through to PNG’s independence in 1975 were about our former colony’s future prospects.
Forty-two years on, Papua New Guinea’s survival as a single nation would have surprised them.
Admittedly, Bougainville will be voting on its future connection in the next few years but the view of Australian ministers back than was that PNG was doomed to fragment – and quite rapidly.
In Australia's Northern Shield? Papua New Guinea and the defence of Australia since 1880, Bruce Hunt, a long-time diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and now a Research Fellow at the Australian National University, has scoured the now released Australian Cabinet Notebooks from the 1960s and 1970s during which Australia, tentatively at first but then with a rush, propelled PNG towards Independence.
Hunt recounts how the Australian Defence Minister in 1969, Allan Fairhall, was fearful that the Pacific Islands Regiment (which became the PNG Defence Force) might fall apart with the PNG troops rising up against their Australian superiors who then dominated the officer corps.
Fairhall ‘saw the possibility’ Hunt writes, of the PIR splintering along race lines with 'many tribes and white officers' with the result that it 'could escalate into white versus black'.
In the same Cabinet discussion, which was about whether the PIR should aid the police during civil disturbances, the then Australian Prime Minister John Gorton made reference to Biafra - then trying to break away from Nigeria in a bloody civil war.
The year of 1969 was a particularly worrying one for the Australian administration in PNG. There was civil unrest on the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain over land issues and the establishment of a multi-racial local council. The Australian District Commissioner Jack Emmanuel was later murdered.
In a section headed ‘Internal Problems in Papua New Guinea erupt’ (in the chapter dealing with the period from 1966 to 1972), Hunt relates how other developments in two other parts of PNG added to the pessimism.
On Bougainville Island there were the first signs of a serious political crisis emerging as Conzinc Rio Tinto (CRA) began the development of the Panguna mine in the centre of the island. In August 1969 the population of Rorovana village at Loloho rioted and was removed by the police to make way for a new wharf to service the mine.
And the Papua Besena separatist movement, under the leadership of Josephine Abaijah, emerged to argue the case for Papua to remain a separate entity from New Guinea.
Abaijah won a seat in the 1972 House of assembly elections and, as Hunt says, she and Papuan separatism ‘were to be a thorn in the side of the administration in Port Moresby and the government in Canberra until independence in 1975'.
The tribal fighting in the Highlands was an additional ongoing concern.
Some Australian academics writing on defence and security issues at the time shared the Australian Cabinet’s extreme pessimism. Hunt quotes Robert O’Neill in an article from 1972 on ‘Australia’s Future Defence Relations with Papua New Guinea’ as saying ‘Australia should be chary of more direct involvement … putting Papua New Guinea back together again is likely to be beyond Australia’s capacity.’
In 1973, there was an outbreak of serious fighting in Port Moresby between Papuans and New Guineans following the annual Papua verses New Guinea Rugby League clash - sparked when a Papuan woman disparagingly referred to New Guineans as ‘kaukau (sweet potato) eaters’.
That violence, Hunt writes, ‘marked a nadir in law and order and in Canberra’s confidence about the prospects for a peaceful, united Papua New Guinea'.
What is also very interesting from the Cabinet Notebooks of the period is the acknowledgement of how poorly Australia had done providing PNG with a police force to manage the multiple law and order issues in the emerging nation.
After Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972, Bill Morrison was made Minister for External Territories. Hunt says that Morrison ‘believed that the Territory’s ability to respond to the internal security challenges it faced was best ensured by a dramatic overhaul of the country’s poorly funded, badly resourced and inadequately trained police force'.
Hunt goes on: 'Morrison argued for a significant increase in funding for the police force and suggested such funding be drawn from the Australian-provided budget for the PNG Defence Force.’ But that never happened.
There is much, much more in Hunt’s book particularly on the defence relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea and fully one-third of the pages are devoted to the often-fraught relationship with the big, common next door neighbour, Indonesia.
This is a most welcome addition to the literature on the Australia/PNG relationship.