His three years as Australia’s principal man in PNG turned out to be tumultuous ones. In future years, I’m sure he’ll look back on them with his wife Roxanne, herself a contributor of note, with feelings of both awe and satisfaction.
Ian Kemish also proved to be right for PNG Attitude and some of our major projects. Indeed, if it wasn’t for him, an important initiative that is proving to be of immense significance in PNG probably would never have got off the ground. More of this later.
The legacy of the Howard-Downer years was still overhanging the Australia-PNG relationship when Kemish was handed the reins three years ago.
Australia as deputy sheriff in the south-west Pacific never played well in Port Moresby nor was it a role that the Yankophilic Australia of the time either understood or, when it came to PNG, was particularly interested in.
In these conditions, PNG’s “look north” policy was invented and the relationship with China began to blossom. The Melanesian nations combined and began to exert some diplomatic muscle as an independent regional bloc.
Australia’s attitude was epitomised by the notorious incident in which prime minister Somare was unceremoniously divested of his footwear by immigration officers during an official visit to Australia; giving offence that was still stinging when Kemish took over the high commissioner’s office.
The England-born Kemish had gone to PNG at a very young age. His father Len worked for Elcom in the 1960s and early 1970s and the young Kemish completed his primary schooling in Moresby.
So the connection was there.
As a diplomat, prior to his PNG appointment, Kemish had already spent time in Indonesia, worked on secondment in New Zealand with special responsibility for Melanesia and spoke fluent Tok Pisin, an attribute not to be underestimated.
As evidence of his competency, Kemish had also been made a Member of the Order of Australia for managing the Australian government’s response in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings.
You can be sure a higher honour and more senior appointments await him after the acumen he has shown during his most recent time in PNG.
His lack of arrogance, ability to go the extra mile, willingness to engage with ordinary Papua New Guineans wherever they were (even opening a Twitter account in the last few months!) and coolness in crisis were all noticed and appreciated in PNG.
Within a couple of hours of the news spreading that Kemish was about to depart, the expressions of regret had already begun to pour in.
One of them was mine.
When we were working to get the Crocodile Prize national literary awards up and running at the end of 2010, Phil Fitzpatrick and I were in desperate need of a strong, credible and resourced supporter in PNG.
Step forward Ian Kemish of the Australian High Commission with a commitment of finance, materiel and personnel – although the doughty Ruth Moiam proved to be much more value than the mere term ‘personnel’ might suggest.
I know not what Kemish had to contemplate or argue in throwing his weight behind a couple of blokes with no corporate or institutional backing who were trying to flog what they saw as a good idea.
Certainly we’d been studiously ignored by AusAID and by DFAT in Canberra who just didn’t want to know. Still don’t.
I can only assume that Kemish sniffed the air, rubbed his hands, rolled his eyes and decided to back his judgement.
The result has been a successful Crocodile Prize (now into its third year), the PNG Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers (which transferred administrative responsibility to PNG) and an annual anthology of PNG writing (print run 3,000).
There are now hundreds of Papua New Guinean writers who are conveying their own experiences and affairs from a distinctly Melanesian perspective and gaining public recognition, publication and funding.
There are thousands of readers who have the opportunity to read about their own country and its issues and stories as brought to them by their countrymen and women.
Phil and I are proud of this achievement, every PNG Attitude reader who supported it (and there have been many) should feel proud and that pride can certainly be shared by Ian Kemish.
An Australian who understood Papua New Guinea.
Photo: Kemish, Fitzpatrick and Jackson at the 2011 Crocodile Prize awards