The PNG connection

Normal, Weekender

Australian High Commissioner to PNG Ian Kemish’ first ‘posting’ to PNG was as a four-year-old in 1965, writes WILLIAM NATERA

IAN Kemish sits on a couch in the Australian High Commissioner’s residence on Touaguba Hill. Seven meters from where he sits is a balcony which offers a magnificent view of Fairfax Harbour, dotted with vessels. Straight ahead, the Napa Napa oil refinery, a testament to Papua New Guinea’s development. To the right lie the Motuan villages of Hanuabada and Tatana and to the left downtown Port Moresby, a hive of activity.
Ian was appointed Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea on Jan 12 this year, but his first ‘posting’ to PNG was as a four year old in 1965.
“A lot has changed”, was Ian’s response to a question on whether he has noticed a difference between PNG today and the PNG of his childhood.
“There has been a lot of development and economic growth, especially over the last year or so. The population has changed – increased – but I have to say that I notice more the things that are the same.”
“The people are the same. Papua New Guineans are both gentle and astute, an attractive combination which I remember very clearly.
 “Growing up here makes me no expert in modern-day Papua New Guinea – I have a lot to learn – but it did give me a lasting affection and respect for the people,” Ian said.
Ian first came to PNG when his father took up a position with ELCOM, now known as PNG Power. This job took Ian and his family to Lae – where Ian’s younger brother was born – Rabaul, and Port Moresby. During his last two years in PNG, Ian’s parents worked at the University of Papua New Guinea, where his father was in charge of stores, transport and housing, and his mother was secretary to the Vice Chancellor. A 13 year old Ian and his family left PNG in 1973, but as Ian grew older he continued to treasure the memories of his childhood in PNG. He missed climbing trees and running wild. He especially missed the freedom of his shoe-free days at Waigani Primary School.
“PNG was a colourful, warm and friendly place, and when I went back to Australia I missed it, and looked back on it as where I came from,” he says smiling.
He looks relaxed, happy to be back in PNG, and very much at home.
Ian’s wife Roxanne tells how for 30 years, she had listened to her husband’s stories about his PNG childhood. Ian has been back three times since 1973. The visits were work-related and short, and he’s pleased to be here again for the ‘longer haul’.
Before his posting to PNG, Ian was Australian Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, a position he held from April 2006. Prior to this, he was first assistant secretary, international division in the department of the prime minister and cabinet. His overseas service has included postings to Vienna and Brunei, and he has also worked on secondment with the New Zealand ministry of external relations.
After Berlin, Ian and Roxanne felt the timing was right for the move to PNG, and pushed hard for it to happen.
“The Australian High Commissioner to Port Moresby has always been regarded as one of the top Head of Mission posts that Australia has, and I felt ready for it. The fact that I grew up here made the appointment a little more special,” Ian says.
They add that this is their first posting without one of their two daughters – both university students in Brisbane – so the proximity of Port Moresby to Brisbane was also appealing.
“But the main reason we wanted this posting was the work, and making a contribution to a country that Ian has such a strong connection with,” Roxanne says.
Ian believes the current Papua New Guinea-Australia relationship is in very good shape. “The overall tone of the relationship is a very positive one at the moment,” he says.
The visits by Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd to PNG and the visit by PNG Prime Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare to Australia in recent years have contributed enormously to the relationship.
“We have quite a lot going on now. It’s a big agenda. I think that we will see further positive change,” Ian said.
He added that PNG’s economy stands to grow significantly and Australia is absolutely delighted for PNG that it was able to attract investment in the PNG LNG project. Ian is equally as delighted that he’ll be able to contribute towards the strengthening of the two countries bilateral relationship.
Roxanne listens patiently to her husband. Molly – the couple’s black cocker spaniel – is happily stretched-out at her feet.  Coming from Berlin – their last posting – to PNG was very different for Roxanne. Unlike Ian, this is her first time here.
“What struck me first about Port Moresby was the landscape and how different it was to what I’d experienced over the last four years.
“I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is go out on the balcony and look at the view. I can’t think that in three years I would ever get sick of looking at the view.
“But as beautiful as the view is, I don’t intend spending three years sitting on the balcony,” Roxanne says.
She has plans of her own and is interested in work, but for now is keeping her options open and standing by her husband, supporting his work.
Ian was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2003 in recognition of his management of the Australian government’s response in the aftermath of the October 2002 Bali bombings.
Ian holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in international relations and South-East Asian history from the University of Queensland and he speaks Indonesian, German and Tok Pisin in addition to his native English.
“I was surprised when I went to Tok Pisin classes before taking up this posting, that I still remembered and spoke the language so well,” Ian reflects. Roxanne jokingly reminds him that he was regularly corrected for ‘his childish mistakes, speaking Tok Pisin like a ten year old child.’
“Well I didn’t speak Tok Pisin much as an adult, so I hope people will forgive me if I sound like a child every now and then,” Ian says with a laugh, looking out over Fairfax Harbour – a view which displays the stunning beauty and rapid development of Papua New Guinea. A country where Ian will be using his childish Tok Pisin more often – a country he loves.