PNG Independence 1975 – Were We Ready?

To some Papua New Guineans, the above examination remains their K64 million Kina question. The topic of endless conversational debate that never really accumulates with a sound conclusion – while each year, usually around the time of Independence, it resurfaces yet again for another round.

I have blogged before about some of the underlying sentiments that revolve around this issue, particularly in regards to expressed nostalgic sentiments  of “how things used to be”. Personally, I have never found this point of view nor that which answers the above question in the negative, in agreeance with my own opinions.

I must say that those of us who believe that PNG was ready for Independence in 1975 are in the minority – and fewer still believe this from my generation (Generation Y). One reason why I think Generation Y is quite negative about PNG’s journey since Independence is the severe lack of understanding in terms of the historical context of our early years.

PNG kids need to understand where we came from, and how far we have come – this is something that our education system needs to carefully address. The inter-generational bridging of our history as a nation-state is imperative for a unified future.

John Greenwell (Director of the Papua New Guinea Office in 1974 – the office which was the body responsible for advising the Minister charged with bringing Papua New Guinea to Independence) has written a well-constructed argument on the K64 million question:

It is sometimes said that Australia granted independence too soon and should have deferred it until Papua New Guinea was ready.

This is quite wrong — and is so at various levels. First, it assumes that independence could be delayed until the rate of all the various strands necessary for Papua New Guinea to be ‘ready’ — political, economic, administrative and social  could be controlled and determined by Australia. What this overlooks is that the ‘political’ strand in the evolution of the colonial state necessarily has a life of its own. Being ‘ready’ means there are political leaders sufficiently experienced by involvement in government to be able to assume leadership. But that very process naturally leads those indigenous leaders to make increasing demands for further involvement in the leadership of the country and hence for it to be granted self-government and independence.

There would be a number of consequences if Australia had sought to stifle these demands. First, it would have meant rejecting the will of the very institutions it had established for self-government. The House of Assembly was set up in 1964 to enable to engage in government and by self-government in 1973, indigenous Ministers were effectively adsministering most of the Departments of State. The House of Assembly thus represented the will of the people and a United Nations Mission to the 1972 elections endorsed this and found those elections to be free and fair. The dates for self-government and independence were subsequently decided by the House of Assembly constituted by those elections . To have rejected the House of Assembly resolutions on the ground the country was not ‘ready’ would have amounted to a rejection of the will of the people. More ominous consequences were likely. It is now forgotten that there was a quite serious rebellion on the Gazelle Peninsula seeking separate independence. It was sufficiently serious for the Australian Government to undertake the rare action of ’calling out’ the armed forces. Without question any unilateral deferral would have enhanced Mataungan demands on the Gazelle. There was also Bougainville.

In short, unlilateral deferral, in defiance of the House of Assembly, could have both resulted in disorsders and have threatened national unity. In addition, we have proceeded in these comments on the assumption that it was in Australia’s ‘gift’ to decide the date of independence. It was not. Papua New Guinea was administered as a ‘union’ on trust for the United Nations. The Trusteeship Agreement required termination when the inhabitants wanted independence. I went to New York in 1972 and in discussions with the UN Under Secretary General secured UN agreement to the House of Assembly as representing the wishes of the people and that a date resolved upon by it would be determinative of ‘the wishes of the inhabitants’.

But the overriding error in the Hasluckian view of delay until the country was ‘ready’ is the assumption that the political strand in Papua New Guinea could evolve without conferring real power on indigenous politicians or by denying that power when exercised.

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~ by Tavurvur on June 15, 2010.

3 Responses to “PNG Independence 1975 – Were We Ready?”

  1. That sums it up pretty well. You mention the role education can play in uniting PNG. I personally believe free primary education in the short term and increasing the average grade completed to grade 10 in the long term would do big things for PNG. No other intervention will have comparative benefits.

    I also think its worth noting that Bougainville was not granted immediate independence, but rather a period of 10 to 15 years to get its institutions in order before the people are given an opportunity to have their say. I believe in time that this may serve as a useful model on how to manage the transition to independence (assuming the vote is for, not against, but lessons can be learnt either way).

    • Agreed Wolfy. PNG has a large young population – with all respect to our elders, a significant amount of investment needs to be pumped back into our young people. Unlike first-world countries, we don’t share the real problem of replacing baby-boomers with a limited workforce. Our focus should be on getting more primary school leavers to highschool – and then ensuring that highschool leavers are equipped with skills that could qualify them as “skilled migrants”.

  2. Thank you Tavurur for your interest in my earlier post on the timing of PNG self-government and independence. I have responded with some more detail on the issue here;

    You might also be interested in my post on the establishment of village justices in PNG;


    John Greenwell.

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