On the death of PNG’s first PM, Sir Michael Somare

Mar 21, 2021

The death of Sir Michael Somare, first Prime Minister of PNG, has occasioned an outpouring of national grief and heartfelt obituaries for “the Father of the Nation”, “the Chief”. That he was, and remains, widely respected, even loved, across the country is beyond dispute. However, it is disturbing that the posthumous record presently being confected in the media and various halls of power has some of the hallmarks of a personality cult. A balanced account of Somare’s time in PNG’s politics is overdue.

The popular portrayal of Michael Somare – indeed one he liked to spruik himself – is as a leader in the movement from the 1960s, championing independence for Papua New Guinea from Australia’s colonial rule. The narrative runs on that he then matured into a wise and outstanding statesman, widely respected locally and across the South Pacific.

He was one of a group of idealistic young radicals who formed the “Bully Beef Club” at the PNG Administrative College in Port Moresby in the years before independence in 1975. Much of the talk of this group was about freeing Papua New Guineans from the grip of Australia’s colonial control. It echoed the fashionable New Left accounts of the time that condemned colonial powers for their exploitation of the lands and peoples under their tutelage. The relationship of this foreign ideology to the actual conditions on the ground across PNG was (and remains) tenuous at best. Nonetheless, it certainly helped to shape the ambitions of not a few of PNG’s emerging political leaders, Somare included.

Australia’s colonialism in PNG has yet to be subjected to an over-arching critical historical analysis, warts and all. Nor has a comprehensive critique of Australia’s post-independence relationship with PNG been undertaken, again warts and all. It is true that there have been various partial accounts of these histories, but there is none so far linking them into the kind of larger narrative that is now needed. Should this larger analysis be undertaken by some intrepid scholars, the roles of politicians, bureaucrats, media commentators and academics implicated in the terrible descent into the chaos that is contemporary PNG need to be thoroughly interrogated, without fear or favour. Not a few of these people are Australians.

The perhaps inconvenient truth is that it was Australia that took the lead in PNG’s decolonisation. Certainly, criticisms from post-colonial states in the United Nations in the 1960s had been stirring Australia to begin planning for an independent future for PNG. However, it was Gough Whitlam – first as Opposition Leader, then as Prime Minister – who led the charge towards PNG’s independence. The conversations and ideological enthusiasm among the Bully Beef Club members had little impact on his thinking. It may even be said that Whitlam should be regarded as the “Father” of an independent PNG.

Whitlam was certainly of the view that colonialism was bad for the colonised, for sure. But he also firmly believed it was bad for the colonisers. He promised that a government he led would grant independence to PNG in its first term of office. This constituted an anti-colonial revolution from above. Nonetheless, despite the excitable idealism of the Bully Beef Club members, there was deep concern, both within Australia and within PNG at that time – and since – that Whitlam was rushing Papua New Guinea into an independence for which it was ill-prepared.

As history has subsequently demonstrated, the exoticism of foreign ideologies and the idealism of the Bully Beef tyros would not be enough to steer independent PNG into an era of prosperity and social justice. They were certainly not enough to curb the ambitions of the nascent PNG political class. The tough demands of post-colonial politics and the heavy responsibilities of governing saw many of the Bully Beef Club generation swiftly shedding their idealism for the comforts, temptations and rewards of political power.

If we consider the trajectory PNG has taken since 1975, it is difficult not to despair. The country has taken on many of the trappings of a failed state. A failed state is one whose politicians and bureaucrats lack the resources and/or the will to guarantee the human security of the peoples whom they govern. Moreover, it is also likely to be a state that is riddled with corruption, misanthropy, and criminality at the highest levels.

Arguably one of the few honourable political leaders with whom an independent PNG has been blessed, the late Sir Makere Morauta once explained that corruption in independent PNG was (is) both “systemic and systematic”, across all sectors of the society and economy. Transparency International annually tracks PNG’s position as one of the most corrupt states in the world.

The country’s health system has become a devastating shamble beset by (among other crises) an HIV-AIDS epidemic, a tuberculosis epidemic, and now an alarming spread of the COVID-19 virus, possibly in new mutations. Hospitals are understaffed and under-resourced, basic equipment is non-existent, wards are horribly overcrowded.

Port Moresby General Hospital has just issued an urgent plea for desperately-needed basic equipment, including essential items for dealing with the alarming spread of COVID-19. Staff and patients alike are living in fear. Beds in the Hospital’s infectious diseases unit are full and overflowing. Mt Hagen Hospital is on the verge of closing. The pandemic is not only a threat to the health of all Papua New Guineans, but also to Australia which shares a porous border with PNG across the Torres Strait.

PNG’s education system has all but collapsed, propped up in a few places by the churches. Illiteracy rates are climbing. The country’s higher education system is fractured, poorly staffed and incapable of providing the human resources – the human capital – so badly needed to service the public and private sectors of the economy.

Law and order have all but broken down, with police among the worst miscreants. Foreign companies are ruthlessly exploiting PNG’s mining and forestry resources as well as being the providers of lucrative bribes for officials. Poverty is increasing alarmingly; government budgets are invariably in deficit and heavily reliant on overseas aid; the economy is tanking.

Meanwhile $20 million of public money has been spent on mourning and funeral ceremonies around the country for Sir Michael. One wonders if he would have approved.

It is this kind of state that Gareth Evans and others in 2001 might have had in mind when they defined the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, subsequently endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. Evans et al. argued that where a state’s leaders lack either the means or the will (or both) to guarantee the security of its citizens, the international community has an obligation to intervene in a variety of possible ways, ranging from sanctions through to military intervention, in order to do so. This can also mean referring some (or all) of those leaders for prosecution in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

It is against this inglorious backdrop that Michael Somare’s political legacy must now be judged. Hagiography must not distort the truth. It’s time for scrupulously conducted research into PNG’s post-independence history to be placed at the top of PNG’s and Australia’s academic agendas. It is highly likely that those who are presently speaking so fulsomely about Michael Somare’s legacy, both in PNG and in Australia, will be red-faced when that much-needed research is published.

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