BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
WHEN MICHAEL SOMARE WAS AGITATING for self-government and independence the kiaps were a prime focus of his anti-colonial rhetoric.
Along with the opposition, which was then mostly comprised of Highlanders, the kiaps were urging caution in the nation building process.
At the District Commissioners Conference in 1972, Somare said that the kiaps would have to be sensitive to the feelings of the government.
“These officers will also have to be sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of the political leaders representing both central and local government in the field. Much has been said of the overbearing attitudes of some DDA officers.
“This has often been unfair criticism because in the majority of cases such an attitude does not exist. Unfortunately, in isolated cases it does exist. I think I should make it clear that my Government will not tolerate over-bearing behaviour by any public servants.”
Most kiaps, especially their boss, Tom Ellis, were able to read between the lines and a lot of them started packing their suitcases.
Somare’s call was echoed by academics at the Australian National University, the University of Papua New Guinea, within the Australian Labor Party and at the United Nations.
As history records, Somare won the day and the kiaps became the scapegoats for everything that was wrong in Papua New Guinea.
When many of them reluctantly returned to Australia, their reception was not unlike that afforded to the Australian soldiers who had served in Vietnam.
It is only recently that a grudging recognition has been given to both groups. Curiously enough this has come from the very academic institutions which derided them in the first place.
A few days ago I played host to an anthropology student who is writing a thesis about the early interaction between the kiaps and the Biami (Bedamini) people of the Nomad area in Western Province.
His interest partly stems from the fact that his mother is a daughter of the famous Tabua clan of Daru.
In the process of assisting him, I did a trawl through my collection of Papua New Guinea papers.
Among other things, I rediscovered a collection of election posters from the 1968 House of Assembly elections. I also found a copy of the Department of District Administration (DDA) Departmental Standing Instructions: General Field Administration, Volume One (I think volume two was the local government instructions) and a thin green covered booklet, lavishly illustrated, setting out the role of the department.
The booklet was very interesting. In a nutshell it explained that the multifarious roles of the kiaps included collecting census data, running elections, developing agricultural and health projects, anthropological research, supervision of police and investigations, local court magistrate, supervision of correctional institutions, construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, wharves and airstrips, land surveys and purchase, land title claims and conversions, mining exploration liaison, setting up resettlement schemes, exploratory patrols, construction of patrol posts and base camps, border patrols and liaison with the Indonesians, setting up and advising local government councils and mundane things like running banking; the list goes on and on.
This jack of all trades approach was what the kiaps were all about. Not only did they personally see that services and functions were effectively delivered within their rural bailiwicks they also acted as lobbyists for their patch in the excruciating process of extracting funds from Port Moresby. Often they managed to create services and build infrastructure seemingly out of thin air.
Take the building of the Highlands Highway, for instance. District Commissioner Ian Downs collected WW2 scrap metal and sold it to buy shovels and axes which he gifted to workers on the proviso that they try them out for a month or so building his road.
It was an equitable agreement for everyone concerned, especially the coffee and tea planters, both local and expatriate.
This made me wonder. Now that the approbations revolving around the kiaps has finally died down and Somare looks like exiting ungraciously from politics would it be worthwhile to revisit the idea of a kiap system.
A few modifications will need to be made for these modern times but Peter O’Neill’s father was a kiap and he, of all people, should appreciate the value of the role.