Australia’s Own History of Apartheid in PNG

Australia's Own History of ApartheidMany of Australia’s colonial and post-colonial policies and practices are a major factor in the problems of Papua New Guinea today, and cause some Papua New Guinean leaders to have serious reservations about their Australian counterparts. That background needs to be understood in reading the excellent article by Chris Harries.

Despite being a colony from the 1890s, Australia ensured that Papua did not get its first high school until international pressure led to its opening in 1955. Very few others were built for a long time in a country of similar size and population to New Zealand.

Likewise for three generations nothing was done to develop Papua New Guinean leadership, in fact everything was done to block its development and ensure that leadership roles and responsibility were held by Australians and that there was no chance for the development of national consciousness or leadership.

I remember, in about 1964, being on a Qantas flight from Port Moresby to Brisbane seated across the aisle from a Papua New Guinean. It was the first time I had seen a Papua New Guinean on a flight to Australia. No one was seated next to him. The hostess gave everyone their meal except the Papua New Guinean. I assumed it was a simple oversight so asked her if she could please get his lunch, to which she replied with scorn, “We don’t feed natives”. I objected but she explained, “It’s company policy, we are not allowed to feed natives”. I took it up with the company and they confirmed that it was indeed their policy – on the advice of the Australian officials who “understood them”. That was consistent with their practices on many fronts.

About 1966 John Guise (later Sir John Guise, the first Governor General of Papua New Guinea) was then an elected member of the Legislative Assembly with the largest majority of any member, and he was Member for Agriculture (a prototype Minister for Agriculture in the lead-up to independence). He had been invited to study agriculture overseas with all costs paid and visited me to ask if I could help him in relation to the document he (and all Papua New Guineans) were required to fill in to seek approval to leave the country at any time for any purpose. It was an official form entitled “Application for Permission to Remove a Native”. The content was as bad as the title. Guise was offended and humiliated by it but was used to constant humiliation, of all Papua New Guineans, not only by officials personally but by the system as a matter of policy.

I was then Director of the New Guinea Research Unit, a facility of the Australian National University (now the National Research Institute) and knew Guise personally. I saw the Administrator, Mr David Hay, about it and told him I would take it up internationally if nothing was done: not only for Mr Guise but to do away with the document for everyone. Mr Hay was genuinely embarrassed by the system he was required by Canberra to administer and assured me he wished to have that document done away with and would act on it. He did get an improvement, but restrictions remained tight for years after.

Chris Kaputin was to be deported because she was white and dared to marry a Papua New Guinean, John Kaputin, now Sir John Kaputin, who later became for many years Minister for Foreign Affairs. Only an appeal to the United Nations stopped the deportation. But it did not stop the personal harassment they both suffered. Any government official who even dared to invite a Papua New Guinea woman to the cinema was whisked off to the most isolated part of the nation or deported back to Australia.

The Konedobu Club was the big club for civil servants at the government headquarters. When Julius Chan (now Sir Julius Chan, twice Prime Minister and a successful businessman and recently Chairman of the Pacific Plan) came back with a degree in commerce from Australia and was appointed to the civil service, he was banned from the Konedobu Club as no non-Whites were allowed. He soon left the service.

When the East West Center and the University of Hawaii began inviting Pacific Islanders from all over the Pacific to study there, with funds provided by the US government for the purpose, students from all islands attended – except from Papua New Guinea. The President of the East West Center told me personally that they wanted to include Papua New Guineans but had been requested by Australia not to do so. We then made unofficial arrangements to get the first two accepted despite the Australian blockage. For fear of international adverse publicity they were allowed to travel. It was a small breakthrough.

When the United Nations Trusteeship Mission issued a blistering critique of Australia for its constraints on education and training, among other things, (and that report was written by the Chairman of that Mission, Sir Hugh Foot, an Englishman and former British colonial governor), Australia could not get enough staff and had to advertise internationally, but it would only do so in White countries. Every applicant had to send a photo so that, as was confirmed to be by an Australian official in the selection process, all non-White applicants could be weeded out without declaring their racist policy.

And all this time Papuans were Australian citizens and had been since 1906, since Britain required that. Australia had made them citizens without consultation, but would not allow them to enter the country of which they had been made citizens, nor any of the rights of citizens, nor any citizenship of their own. When, in the 1960s, some Papuans who were part white Australian and part Papuan, asked to enter Australia, the country of which they were citizens, they were bluntly refused, as were all other Papua New Guineans.

My wife is a Cook Islander who had taught in New Zealand and Cook Islands schools and the Teachers College (and she taught at Port Moresby Teachers College). The first time she went to buy meat at the main Burns Philip shop in Port Moresby she was refused service. She came home in tears after being told that natives can only be served through the outside hatch. She had been in many countries but never treated like that. She never went back, but it was a small part of the accepted code of the Australian system in Papua New Guinea.

Ron CrocombeOne could recount similar examples by the hundred. These were not isolated or atypical events but were rigorously implemented systematic policies. There were many people of good will and good intentions in the government service there. But their best intentions had to be fitted within the policy and practice of full Apartheid. Past misunderstandings can be overcome, and many on all sides are trying their best to do so. But any feeling in Australia that only Papua New Guineans caused the problems they suffer from can only be based on ignorance. The genuine efforts that one sees from many people of all ethnicities and persuasions will pay off in the long run, but it will require deep rethinking of the total relationship (not only between governments) and long-term commitment to contributing to a positive and productive future.


This article was written by the late Ron Crocombe and published on

~ by Tavurvur on August 19, 2009.

11 Responses to “Australia’s Own History of Apartheid in PNG”

  1. Thanks T, I was shocked when I first read Prof. Crocombe’s article a few years back but I guess these were the bitter days that ignited a national consciousness and the spirit of nationalism which our fore father’s took to bring us to where we are now.

    Despite what others say about our underdeveloped status and attributed an early independence for PNG as a result, I sincerely thank the Bully Beef Club and those that pushed for our Independence with my heart because I was fortunate not to have gone thru these experiences.

    Thanks T and keep posting…

  2. Solo,

    PNG is a young country – politically and demographically. I do think there is a trend that many young people today do not fully understand the struggle that has enabled our independence. I don’t think that knowledge should ever be forgotten – not out of spite, but because it is our history. Those circumstances were very real and were the roots of our nation.

    You only have to pick up the literature of the day (1960s – 1970s) and you can read for yourself how it used to be. In that aspect, PNG has come a long way! Kiki’s autobiography is an extremely relevant text as it was written by a PNGean during the period.


  3. Thanks for post. It makes sense as to why September 16 is a proud day for us to celebrate!

  4. * Konedobu club was the Aviat Club. PNG nationals not allowed to join (but open to public on Friday nights)
    * Qantas quit PNG 1957, handed over to TAA. Aug 1963 and before, hostess was not permitted to serve alcohol to natives, by law.
    An incident at Jacksons airport in early 1972 is a good example of why colonialists indulged in “apartheit.” Large numbers of nationals congregated in and outside the terminal on most days, to the extent that it became non-functional. Some altercation between locals beside the roadway was stopped by a DCA security guard (Australian) firing a shotgun into the air. A large number of locals followed him for several days and determined where he lived (Gordons Est). A huge crowd gathered and began to demolish his house. Police arrived, rescued him + wife, + two kids. He was on the next plane back to Bris. Thats how I remember PNG.
    I’ve also spent much time in Fiji…a very different place.

  5. Thanks Tavurvur:

    If one takes the liberty to analyze the Australian white settlement – begining from the first fleet – one would find the Australian stock has much to be desired!

    In her seminal tome, “Damned whores and God’s police,” Anne Summers described various incidents. Take one of the ships in the first fleet that carried more than 200 female conflicts (stymed ‘damned whores’). There was an experience in which Elisabeth Barber accused an assistant surgeon on the ship, one Thomas Arndell this way:’a poxy blood-letter who seduced innocent girls while treating them for fever, using his surgery as a floating whore house’ (p. 269). This was a serious breach of trust by someone in whom patients should confide in. Similarly, a new settler in Port Jackson wrote home (to England) and reported: ‘It will perhaps scarcely be beleived that, on arrival of a female convict ship, the custom has been to suffer the inhabitants of the colony each to select one at his pleasure, not only as servants but as avowed objects of intercourse, which is without even the plea of the slightest previous attachment as an excuse, rendering the whole colony little better than an extensive brothel…’

    If the white male Australians could treat their own with much disdain and recklessness, one sees little difference (or difficulty) in the treatment given to the wantoks – Papua New Guineans! Worse treatments were meted to the original landowners – the Aborigines – too. They are also wantoks!

    In Solomon Islands, today, the Forum-derived RAMSI, is a case of such neo-apartheid arrangements. Every day the ‘Helpem fren’ (Help a friend) arrangement deteriorates! I would not be surprised if Solomon Islanders have felt the RAMSI pinge already! It would not be their first time – since RAMSI is dominated by white Australians!

    On behalf of young turks (new leaders) in Solomon Islands, I take the liberty to salute the late Ron Crocombe for his write-up. Unfortunately, Ron did not live to comple a book-length treatise on the subject. He would have gladly obliged…

    Again, tagio nao, Tavurvur, for the post!

    Mi no moa:

    JM Fugui


  6. JM Fugui, thanks for your post. just a question. in what way(s) is RAMSI arrangement deteriorates everyday? further insights will be very much appreciated.

  7. Well it’s obviously just so much better off now isn’t it Mr Crocombe?

    Without regular aid from Australia (the politically correct form of white control) these island nations would crumble back into the savagery and chaos from whence they came in a matter of decades.

    The primitive world needs apartheid… Why? over 60,000 years of cultural and physical evolution which has allowed us to create and thrive in civilisation.

    I’m not surprised if this condemning article is naught but a means of justifying your own marriage to a native. I.e. there is obviously another agenda here driving your words. Much like Darwin spontaneously altered his theories on human evolution on return from a chartered ship on which he had shared his cabin with an African slave girl but to save face from the scandalous affair he had entered into during a time of loneliness.

    Despite my reservations in reading it, it was a well written article, however your not the first to call Australia’s custodianship of PNG an apartheid and I’m sure you won’t be the last.

  8. Professor Crocombe desrves a round of appluse from my kinsmen (wantoks). This articel certainly shifts my perceptions on the precepts of Australian colonialism. I now cleary see why independence was very necessary and salute those who fought for it. Otherwise our story resonates that of South Africa too.

  9. When “Jack” Goad , a longtime resident,and who was brought up in PNG ,indicated it was time to start training PNG Nationals as Customs Officers and Drug Officers,Canberra told him he was “longlong”! He went ahead .This ws before Self Government. Canberra wanted him out. “Jack” diplomatically told Canbera where to go.They got the message.


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