Julius Chan on Papua New Guinea

Julius Chan, Playing the Game: Life and Politics in Papua New Guinea, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Brisbane, 2016

This article was originally written for the Pacific Institute for Public Policy in 2016

With the United States presidential race heating up, and the ascension of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, there’s an obvious buzz around frank and straight-talking leaders proposing remedies to their national challenges.

And it’s with a similar but slightly more polished candour that Sir Julius Chan – twice Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) – reflects on PNG’s shaky four decades of independence from Australia.

Certainly, it has not been an easy ride for the fast-growing South Pacific nation of eight million. PNG has been pushed to the brink multiple times by a near coup attempt following a decade-long civil war in the Province of Bougainville (1988-1998), and cascading political and economic instability. ‘Whenever there has been a crisis in PNG,’ writes Chan, ‘it is just like the crest of a big, big wave that could destroy everything in its path. But somehow, like a wave, the crisis lands on the shore and recedes.’

Naturally, in the early 1970s as the idea of independence grew, cultural allegiances tugged at the concept of a united Papua and New Guinea (the two territories were jointly administered by Australia). ‘The Tolai people there felt they were superior to the rest of the country,’ writes Chan. The Papua Besena movement, and the Mataungan Association of East New Britain, proved the more vocal pull-away groups, as well as people of Bougainville who ‘identified geographically and ethnically, due to the colour of their skin, as more akin to the Solomon Islands, and had no real desire to continue to be part of Papua New Guinea.’ Even the Johnson Cult of New Hanover, Chan writes, ‘aligned itself with US President Lyndon Johnson and wanted to vote for him and completely break away.’

Today development literature softly explains such cleavages as ‘cultural pluralism’, however, Chan bluntly and correctly reduces this to indifference. ‘You could say that Highlanders are quite a driving force in Papua New Guinea’s future,’ Chan observes of current times, ‘but they are also a terrible force in Port Moresby [PNG’s capital]… over time they have pushed the traditional owners, the Papuans, out.’

Indeed, cultural indifference explains not only PNG’s past and contemporary tensions but, ironically, the nation’s comparatively smooth post-colonial trajectory. He credits, for example, the ‘PNG temperament’ as a reason the country did not erupt into chaos like many post-colonial African states. ‘We were also aware of what was happening in other countries that had gained independence,’ he writes, ‘with chaos following soon afterwards, particularly in Africa.’

Many young people today are conditioned to think of colonial days as purely exploitative or imperialist (and only the domain of the British). But Chan, a recipient of segregation in early PNG, is much more eclectic and precise of its overall legacy. A beneficiary not only of a good education but high quality mentoring within the colonial public service, Chan was a key part of the early government in PNG that included the ‘Kiap system’, consisting of patrol and district officers with wide ranging authority. A time, many older PNG observers say, when things worked.

Today it is PNG’s remote areas, in particular, that illustrate just how sub-standard things have become. In many parts of the country government presence, from law and order to health, is next to non-existent despite numerous attempts at spending and reform. ‘The Kiap system, the controlling mechanisms of government, and even the physical structure of new buildings had a big impact on the people in these remote areas,’ reflects Chan, ‘as did the implementation of public service policies, which were rigidly obeyed.’

It is interesting that Chan refers throughout his memoir to the importance of the capabilities possessed by civil servants – a factor rarely acknowledged in development literature and not easily measured by formal qualifications, scholarships or attendance at seminars (Australia will spend around $90m AUD this year on such assistance). ‘Those of us in Port Moresby, and in my case where I had been educated in Australia and trained as a public servant,’ writes Chan, ‘were much better off. We’d had constant guidance from the colonial government and they had groomed us for the job.’

He extends the same observation to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, whose capability shortfalls emerged during the ten year civil war in Bougainville. ‘There was often talk about winning the hearts and minds of the Bougainville people through the work of the military,’ he writes, ‘but they were not up to it.’

As capabilities declined so too did other factors that assisted with PNG’s unravelling. The rule of law, essential for social cohesion, quickly became bent and moulded by the government of the day. In 1979, for example, Sir Michael Somare, PNG’s first Prime Minister, controversially granted amnesty for a contempt of court charge given to Justice Minister Nahau Rooney. ‘This decision,’ Chan writes, ‘caused a mass resignation of all the expatriate judges and hundreds of prisoners broke out of jails.’

While optimism didn’t entirely evaporate in these early years Chan observed that the broader forecast was not looking good. ‘At the same time,’ he writes, ‘there were divisions between the disciplinary forces and the police, the economy was not running well, inflation was high, there were issues with the currency exchange rate and there was a growing budget deficit.’

Amid the ups and downs, however, Chan reflects with doses of good humour and playful anecdotes. He recalls, for example, that Sir John Guise, PNG’s first speaker, wasn’t entirely across parliamentary procedures despite appearing spectacular in the chamber with full wig and gown. ‘Everyone believed what he said,’ writes Chan, ‘but looking back he was rarely right – he just called the tune and everybody listened.’

Chan, now in his mid-seventies, serves as the Governor of New Ireland Province. Naturally he is cautious about PNG’s future. He recalls that it’s not just the possession of solid capabilities that will decide PNG’s future but, quite simply, decent people. ‘We really need very dedicated people,’ he hopes, ‘people who will abnegate their self-interest for the good of the community.’ But, in Chan’s words, ‘they are not very easy to find these days.’ Many Papua New Guineans, and near neighbours, will hope that he is wrong.

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