Sir Michael Somare vs Australia: An Issue of the Past?
Since Kevin Rudd has taken power in Canberra, there has been an obvious change in stance regarding Australia’s dealings with Papua New Guinea. Howard’s staunch, inflexible, and often aggressive policies toward the Pacific – reminiscent of an aged Head Master disciplining a young lad, has been replaced by a breath of fresh air.
It’s no longer a “I talk, you listen” approach, the name of the game is co-operation and the co-creation of value relevant to both countries. As a result – and can I dare say, an actual proper working relationship has developed between the two nations since Rudd emphatically defeated Howard in the November of 2007.
Of course, if Rudd had followed Howard’s example in PNG – I think Australia would be in dire straights regarding its influence in the South Pacific. After all, diplomacy is a strategic game, and the past five years has seen China stealthily increase its influence in the Pacific – a factor that has no doubt Canberra wary because it is no longer Australia’s “back-yard”. The play ground’s gate is wide open and during the breakdown of relations between PNG and Australia over the Moti Affair, China took full advantage of a situation where two old goats would not budge.
One must understand that Sir Michael Somare is the definition of old school – he was there before PNG was granted independence and experienced an environment that the generations of today (including myself) have and never will experience. Those experiences will ensure that he will always be sensitive to perceived insults from Australia.
“I first met Somare back in 1968 when he was leader of the Pangu Pati, which formed the opposition in the pre-Independence PNG Parliament.
As we talked over a cup of coffee in Port Moresby, he was smouldering with anger at the way Australian expatriates in PNG — and the Australian territorial administration — treated his people.
It was the widespread use of the terms boi to describe PNG men, meri to describe their women, and masta to describe people of European background that really fired him up.
“These words have to go,” the future PM told me. “They are degrading. We hate them. When someone calls me boi I could hit him.”
Somare was still fuming over an incident a few days earlier when he and another indigenous member of the House of Assembly were ordered out of the saloon bar of a Port Moresby hotel.
“This bar is for mastas,” they had been told. “The bar for bois is over there.”
Here was a man of 32, educated, a former schoolteacher and broadcaster, already a prominent politician who had helped to form what was, at that stage, PNG’s only political party.
Quite a few Australians in PNG back then behaved like unpleasant left-overs from the British raj. They lorded it over the locals in a blatantly racist way.
For someone as proud as Somare to have to cop being called boi, and to be expected to refer to whites as masta, would have been extraordinarily humiliating. It is the kind of thing you don’t forget — or forgive”.
This is just one example of the antagonistic environment the founding leaders of PNG faced when building the foundations of our country – but it provides some insight into why Somare and those of his generation react the way they do to certain demands from Australia.
This is none more obvious than in the manner Somare and others treated the Moti Affair, Howard’s rejection of the Seasonal Employer Scheme, Somare’s infamous “shoe incident” at Brisbane Airport, the failed Enhanced Cooperation Programme – the list goes on.
It also explains why so many young Papua New Guineans can not seem to find common ground with Sir Michael Somare nor make sense of many of his decisions – instead criticising his actions. I’m not saying that all of Somare’s decisions and actions to date have been justified and have been made in the best interest of the people of PNG – on the contrary.
My point is that we weren’t the ones who had to queue at the window hatch at Steamships Cold Store because that was where bois ordered meat, we weren’t the ones that were served soft drinks at Burns Philip Supermarket in blue plastic mugs while Europeans were served from glasses, we weren’t the ones who listened to people of the day term the University of Papua New Guinea as the bois’ university, we weren’t the ones who watched our women being brought into European compounds, stripped naked in the gardens, hosed down for twenty minutes before they were slept with and then immediately kicked out afterwards.
But we are the ones who are enjoying the fruits of the hard work of that most important generation.
Kevin Rudd has ushered in a new chapter of the Australian relationship with PNG. His three-day visit early this year was the first by an Australian prime minister to PNG since John Howard attended the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in October 2005.
During that visit, Rudd bravely conceded the Kokoda Track mining issue by saying that he was willing to come to a deal to allow locals to exploit the areas around the track, while still pursuing the heritage listing. The two prime ministers also signed a pact to investigate a carbon trading scheme between the nations as part of an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions by tackling deforestation.
More recently, the two nations have shown collaboration regarding Fiji’s return to democratic rule – something that John Howard and Alexander Downer would have found almost impossible to achieve.