Remembering Nahau Rooney

Focus
Pioneering woman in politics, Nahau Rooney, was one of the only three female elected to PNG’s first post-Independence election in 1977 to the then 109-member national parliament; SADHANA SEN & GYNNIE KERO write
Australia’s deputy opposition leader Richard Marles with Nahau Rooney in April, 2015. Marles tweeted: “Chance meeting with Nahau Rooney, PNG’s first female member of cabinet. A national treasure. #PapuaNewGuinea #auspol.”

Trailblazing, hardworking, audacious, always vivacious and at times controversial – some of the descriptions offered to Papua New Guinea and Manus pioneering woman in politics, Nahau Rooney, who passed away on Sept 15, aged 75.
Rooney was one of the only three women elected into PNG’s first post-Independence elections in 1977 to its 109-member national parliament.
She served as the regional member for Manus.
Rooney drew controversy during her early career as the minister for justice in 1979.
She was sentenced by the Supreme Court to eight months in jail for interferring with the administration of the justice.
Then prime minister Sir Michael Somare assumed the justice portfolio and overturned the decision immediately.
This early tussle for power between the executive and judiciary – over whether the judiciary had the right to review deportation decisions, but more broadly an assertion of power by a newly-independent government – led to most of PNG’s foreign judges resigning and thus brought about the appointment of first national judges.
On hearing the news of her passing, Sir Michael described Rooney as a “hardworking female Papua New Guinean” during his term as prime minister.
“She was a wonderful woman and she worked very hard for Papua New Guinea,” he said.
“I feel sorry for the Manus people, especially her family.
“Manus has lost a great leader in Nahau.
“She performed very well as a woman and she showed that women in Papua New Guinea can do something.”
Dr Oruvu Sepoe, former head of politics at the University of Papua New Guinea, commented: “Nahau Rooney was articulate and forthright in her views on issues of public concern.
“With a smile always, she made her point, without fear or favour.
“In my view, she displayed a leadership style that was both masculine and feminine, which reflected her vast experience in dealing with the harsh realities of PNG politics.
“She lived her last days in the same neighbourhood as myself, as a humble, down-to-earth citizen.”
Former UN Women Pacific regional director Elizabeth Cox, who spent decades working with PNG women’s organisations, recalls: “Nahau Rooney was an energetic member of the early post-independence governments that made genuine efforts to catalyse constitutional promises of equality, participation and a focus on rural development.
“Sir Michael Somare believed in Nahau.
“Her female peers were inspired by her and she enjoyed the support of a loving husband, happy to let her shine while he worked hard at home in Manus researching disease in staple food crops and building their family’s small business.”
Governor-General Sir Bob Dadae also expressed sadness over the news of Rooney’s passing.
“As the first female politician of our country, Rooney demonstrated early on to the womenfolk that women too can become politicians and be involved in decision making, a task that is, in our society, traditionally performed by the men,” he said.
“She held various ministerial portfolios during her political career and was not one to hold back from freely expressing her opinion.
“She set the benchmark for women at a time when women’s role in society was relegated to the home and not in decision making for the nation as a politician and minister of state.
To the people of Manus, Rooney demonstrated to the rest of the country the potential of what the women of Manus can achieve.”
Nahau Rooney was re-elected in 1982, becoming the only female member of that parliament, but lost in 1987.
In the 2000s, retired from politics, her environmental and women’s rights activism continued while she ran he family’s guest house on Manus Island.
She served on the council of the University of Papua New Guinea, where she had much earlier studied social work.
In 2006, she was honoured with the title of the Companion of the Order of the Star of Melanesia.
She supported many good causes along the way and was a leading advocate for women to organise and raise their collective voice, serving for a time as president of National Council of Women.
She was a constant and inspiring presence at conferences and workshops to encourage women’s participation in politics.
Climate change and its impact on the environment in Manus and elsewhere in PNG and the Pacific were among her many passions and worries, as was the Manus regional processing centre.
Cox recalls: “She was against destructive logging and fishing and, as early as 2001, protested the Australian government moves to make her beloved home a prison for asylum seekers.”
Nahau was married to Wes Rooney, an Australian, who was tragically murdered on her home island of Manus.
She is survived by her children, Kevin, Michelle, Poyap, Gabriel, Nawes, Eva and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Rooney, a pioneer among the small band of PNG women who have been elected to parliament, was an inspiring figure across the generations, not only in Papua New Guinea, but also across the Pacific.
We owe it to her life and memory to make sure that many other women follow in her footsteps into the PNG parliament and cabinet quickly.

This tribute to Nahau Rooney appeared first on Devpolicy Blog (devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University.

Sadhana Sen is the regional communications adviser at the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University.

Gynnie Kero is the news editor with the Papua New Guinea daily, The National.

4 comments

  • Thank you for that tribute. I admired her for being silent most times listening and interested in your story more than telling hers. I remember her telling us that in her time she pushed for a carton of beer broken down into smaller packs from which 12 and 6 packs came about.

  • She was indeed a great voice for our people of Manus, and the women folk of PNG…Thank you for this thoughtful tribute..

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