By FRANK SENGE KOLMA
WHEN nationhood dawned on Sept 16, 1975 it did so upon a strange landscape.
The government system dreamt up for PNG is often declared as autochthonous or home-grown but nothing of its kind had ever existed to govern a population such as existed in Papua New Guinea at the time.
There were no precedents, no rules, no procedures – certainly nothing to stand or govern a nation state although tribal units resident within the future Papua New Guinea’s boundaries had survived for eons under their own crude rules of conduct as secure, independent units.
While much of the rest of the world had been introduced to iron, steel, horse, cart, and gun powder for centuries, our forefathers just thrice removed still wore bark and leaves and had wooden and stone implements at about the time of the first serious European visits to our shores.
This is the society that was expected to understand and apply for its own administration a code of government and rules for conduct which had their beginnings in England in the signing of a charter of royal rights called the Magna Carta Libertatum in 1215 and developed by trial and error across nine hundred years.
It arrived here as the English Common Law and Equity and promptly got adopted into the PNG Constitution at Independence to act as our underlying law until it could be replaced by PNG’s own underlying law based on custom. That underlying law remains undeveloped and it looks like it never will and the Common Law and Equity remain as distant as its place of origin to us yet. Nearly 50 years later we are still learning the ropes about the government system we adopted and whether or not it suits our peculiar circumstances.
A second front that hit us and from the same source was Christianity. The London Missionary Society missionaries touched down at East Cape in 1873 to introduce us to Yahweh God and Jesus Christ His son. Christianity planted itself, yanked out traditional cultures like so much weed and burnt them to ashes, preaching that they were heathen and forbidden by the Christian God.
Exactly 100 years later in 1973 PNG, now considered as having come of age, declared itself Christian and traditional and attained self-governing status. Christianity had tried its best to uproot and burn our traditions but we, trusting our great Melanesian compromise, decided to accept Christianity and run them side by side. I am uncertain that they sit comfortably next to each other today and often I fear we might turn on our traditions in favour of Christianity such as when the former Speaker Zurenuoc declared carvings in Parliament “profane” and “sacrilegious”.
Two world wars visited our shores and taught us that tribal wars were not exclusive to our kind and that they were messier and nastier elsewhere. That was assuring. What was less assuring was the fact that all things modern and therefore utterly foreign were crash-coursed through our people between the 1880s and the present time, in one and a half lifetimes basically.
Change must come
Through it all, our tribal nations stood firm against these forces of change, however forcefully they were imposed upon them, resisting because of the utter foreign-ness of the processes but the modern world forced itself inexorably upon PNG. Change had to happen and it was permanent. It is not a piece of clothing to be worn and discarded.
I hold the view that learned behavioUr courses through society’s veins in the same manner as genetic traits are carried in the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) coursing through our veins. That learned behaviour, culture or way of life make you, you or me, me and us, us.
To interrupt and introduce a new behaviour or unlearn a way of life and introduce a new way is akin to introducing new genetic material in an organism. You fundamentally alter a society or organism so that it is not the same again even if on the outside it appears the same.
The alteration process is easier in the aesthetics of appearance on the outside than upon the psychosomatic innards of society. It must take time and so force-feeding PNG its dose of democracy has not been easily understood or appreciated and that process continues as we discuss this 46 years on. Democracy is not just a form of government; it is a culture-altering way of life. Unless we understand that, we can never make it work.
Gale force wind of decolonisation
With these remarks as preamble we find ourselves in the 1960s at about the time political consciousness was awakening in the territories of Papua and New Guinea.
A wind of conscience was blowing at gale force speed around the globe. The word went out to decolonise; to have members of the old dominant world pull out their unwelcome presence in the new worlds; to grant these new worlds the rights to self-determination, self-government and independence.
Old empires scurried out of worlds they had occupied without compunction, conscience or request a century earlier. They had redrawn traditional boundaries and herded friends and foes together and branded them under new titles. Now, it was time to take their leave, they did so hastily but left their mess behind. However it sorted itself out was clearly no longer their concern.
Even for those that might have wanted to linger, the realities posed by the new world order intruded. The need for territorial possessions and for branding conquered subjects with the identity and psyche of the coloniser became obscured as national political boundaries were redrawn in a Cold War where the world was divided into two opposing spheres of influence – East and West.
Empires crumbled as old world nations scrambled to carve new roles for themselves in the new shrinking world of information and knowledge. First Indonesia, then Indian and soon other nations in Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Caribbean and the Pacific attained independence.
Sadly, the departure was performed in much the same way as the arrival, albeit more peacefully but with the same devastating consequences nonetheless on the indigenes of the new worlds. Overnight, administrators, policemen, warlords, landlord, bosses, mastas, padres and all their cadres packed their bags but never their baggage and turned their backs on people and places they had brought to heel and whose ways of life over generations they had obliterated with a single mindedness bordering on insanity.
The era of decolonizsation had begun but the withdrawal symptoms were delayed and played themselves out over the following decades in all the newly independent nations of the world. The Papua New Guinea experience was no different.
Achievements by 1960
So in the middle of this gale force wind of consciousness, in 1960, the Australian Minister for External Territories, Sir Paul Hasluck announced the following notable achievements in the trust territories of Papua and New Guinea. There were 4,100 schools catering to 196,000 pupils. The education system had 400 expatriate teachers and 5,400 Papua New Guineans. A system of local government system was established since 1949 which had 36 government councils catering for the needs of 1,000 tribes. A national public service was established in 1957 and by 1960 was employing 3,623 Australians and 34 locals. There were 7,500 administrative active employees.
In terms of transport infrastructure, five main centers had wharves built, 5,000 kilometers of road and 10 airfields had been constructed.
In the area of health, four large base hospitals were built as well as 101 subsidiary hospitals, 1,200 aid posts and medical center. The administration extended assistance to church missions to build an additional 92 hospitals, 420 aid posts and 578 infant and maternal clinics.
At this point, housing, sanitation, water supply and electricity were provided exclusively to urban dwellers and mostly expatriate community.
There was no national university, no pool of skilled local managers, businessmen or women or an economic base for the territories.
The Australian administration was quite at a loss as to what to do with the land of the Melanesian black man sitting right at the top of an Australia which wanted to remain stoutly “white” regardless of the fact that before Captain Arthur Philip founded the first convict settlement at Sydney in 1788, indigenous black Australians had occupied the place for over 40,000 years.
White Australia was systematically ‘assimilating’ the natives of Australia which was a hard enough job. The territories of Papua and New Guinea was too big and too hard to manage. The war experience had taught Australians what a nasty place PNG could be.
Australian Constitution allows others to join
The future PNG could not federate with Australia, although the third sentence in the Australian Constitution does provide for any of her majesty’s dominions to join the federation at some future date. For all intent and purpose, Papua was a part of Australia but for the “white Australia’ policy.
What to do with the territories was a big question. The UN-sponsored Hugh Foot mission to the territories in 1962 and its recommendations to prepare for self-governing status must have come, therefore, as a welcome reprieve for a much-flustered Canberra.
Heeding the call of the Foot Committee, national elections were called in 1964 and the first House of Assembly was opened on June 8, 1964 with 64 members made up of 54 elected members and 10 officials.
Also heeding Foot the University of PNG was established in 1966 in Port Moresby and a year later the University of Technology at Lae. The first degrees from both universities were conferred in 1970.
Exploration for Bougainville Copper began around 1964 and five years later the BCL project went into operation but an agreement was delayed to 1974.
Studies were begun as early as1963 to harness the Ramu River for a major hydro power generation project to supply electricity to all the provincial headquarters of the five highlands provinces and to Lae and Madang. The work was finally commissioned in 1971.
Total road network increased to an estimated 18,300 km at about Independence. The national road network has not advanced much with only 21,000 km accounted for currently. Engineering estimates for the Highlands Highway were completed by 1974 to connect Lae to Mendi in the Southern Highlands and Wabag in Enga. Coffee was becoming an important economic driver and so a road needed to be driven into the highlands region.
PNG had about 50 sea ports at Independence, 10 of which – Port Moresby, Lae, Madang, Wewak, Samarai, Rabaul, Kavieng, Kieta, Kimbe and Lorengau could handle overseas cargo. Total tonnage handled by around 1975 was 1.5 million tonnes. Airports and airstrips numbered 470 at the end of 1974.
Other than that the country remained mostly isolated with over 90 per cent of the population in rural communities living off subsistence agriculture. Literacy was low at less than 15 percent and life expectancy put at 54.
The public service had grown to about 49,000 with about 6,700 expatriate positions at Independence. Access to remote areas was only by air, four-wheel drive or by boats. Most parts of PNG could only be reached by walking.
Apart from its usefulness as a source of recruitment for manual labor, for conversion to Christianity, for prospecting for mineral and hydrocarbons and for harvest of rich forest and marine resources, Papua and New Guinea and its inhabitants were largely ignored. There was little in place approaching a level of preparation for self-governing and independent status. The population was largely uneducated and terribly diverse with many hundreds of languages and dialects each accompanied by its own set of customs.
Gathering such a diverse grouping under one flag and one Parliament was a near impossible task. To have it move as a cohesive united whole was like gathering cattle, sheep, goats, cats, dogs and mice in one pen and trying to herd them in one direction.
Local business and commerce and industry was infantile at Independence. Education and medical services were limited and basic. Other barometers of mature societies such as an educated public service, well developed public transport systems, the arts and theatre, social clubs and trade unions were limited. A land and its people in this pathetic stage was expected, at Independence, to sprout magically overnight and carry PNG off to developed state. It was too much to expect.
The experiment was fraught with uncertainty right from the start. If there was political will, and there was plenty at the time, there was almost nil capacity to have it blossom to full flower. Most of the country was unprepared for the system of government adopted at Independence as can be seen from the above.
Even less prepared was the nation for immediate decentralisation of the new National Government system to the provincial level.
When the provincial government system was introduced it came suddenly and unexpectedly one year after Independence, on the back of a blackmail as we discussed last week.
This experiment, for that is what it was, has become one of the most costly in the history of this country and continues to drag it deeper and deeper into the quagmire of confusion, duplication, dissent, debt, corruption, conflicting and competing priorities and even secession.
Next, we shall examine briefly our Failed Experiment No 1.