It involves the issuing of a service medal and is the culmination of much lobbying by a small band of ex-kiaps led by Chris Viner Smith.
The outcome has been an agreement to allow ex-kiaps to apply for the Police Overseas Services Medal, normally issued to Australians in civil service, like the police, who have served overseas. Police officers involved in RAMSI, the intervention on the Solomons, are eligible for instance.
The basis of the kiap’s claim is their role as commissioned officers in the pre-independence Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. This, of course, is simply a technical device to enable the issue of the medal. Kiap service involved considerably more than a policing role; some would argue that the police role was, in fact, very minor.
When the campaign began, and I’m not sure what kicked it off, there was a flutter of debate about the whole idea. Support and non-support for a medal was about evenly divided among those ex-kiaps who heard about it.
On the support side are those who argue that the experience of being a kiap was so profound as to be life changing. For many of them re-adjusting to life back in Australia, after a career that had been peremptorily terminated by politics, was extremely difficult.
They didn’t see the world the same way and the mundane aspects of Australian life didn’t have the same allure.
When you had stood unarmed between two warring highland clans, broken new ground making first contact with remote groups or turned back AK47 toting Indonesian paratroopers on the border pursuing refugees, the average Australian male’s excitement over a football match just didn’t cut it.
On top of that were the stilted conversations at social gatherings when your listeners turned away with expressions of boredom when you mentioned what you used to do in Papua New Guinea. Some ex-kiaps compared this feeling of being ignored to the mute reception that the diggers returning from Vietnam experienced.
On the other side, there are those who saw their service in Papua New Guinea as a great privilege; a life enhancing experience for which they are thankful and for which recognition in the form of a medal is not required or desired.
For many of these kiaps, their life changing experience in Papua New Guinea had a different outcome. It dictated the later course of their life.
Many went off to pursue careers in the non-business sector, eschewing the lure of the mighty dollar and working in community welfare, Aboriginal affairs, the arts, cultural and heritage, national parks and academia.
A lot drifted back to Papua New Guinea working for non-government organisations and in the resources sector, usually in a community affairs role. For those kiaps a medal is largely irrelevant; there was a job to do, they did it, they got paid, end of story.
And then there are those ex-kiaps who returned to Australia and just disappeared into the mire never to be heard of again. When you stumble across them by accident they seem to be more embarrassed about their experience than anything else and don’t want to talk about it, let alone apply for a medal.
There are probably other factors at play in these different attitudes to a medal.
The kiap’s role involved a sort of quasi-military aspect which appealed to many of them. The raising and lowering of the flag each day at the patrol post with the bugle playing, the saluting and parading of police, and the manifest authority they were given appealed to many kiaps.
This seemed especially so in the highlands, where khaki shorts and shirt, long socks and a slouch hat were de rigueur. This is not to be critical or facetious. In those places with very large and warlike populations a show of military might was a necessary administrative tool. However, that military element probably became stamped on their minds.
For others the spirit of the times, especially in the lead up to independence in the flower-powered 1960s and 70s influenced their attitudes.
Pacifism, anti-establishmentarianism and anti-authoritarianism were all the rage and the trend didn’t bypass colonial Papua New Guinea. These sorts of things coloured one’s attitudes more than was realised.
Dr Tony Radford sums up the differences nicely in his book, Singsings Sutures & Sorcerers, when he describes the kiaps as a “unique bunch, from ingenious, intrepid, fine countrymen and explorers, to little tin-pot gods who determined that their word was law, and indeed so it was”.
It is noticeable that a lot of those ex-kiaps who feel a service medal is appropriate have not been back to Papua New Guinea since leaving around the time of independence.
For them their memories are precious. What they hear about the country supposedly falling apart seems to feed into a desire never to return and chance those memories being shattered.
For them a medal will be a physical reminder of those ruggedly good times. For others who have since returned, the story simply just continues to unfold and there is no ending that needs celebrating.
There is, of course, the linked issue of Australia’s ongoing recognition of Papua New Guinea. Most of the time, for most people in Australia, this hovers just below the horizon and off the radar.
Recognition of the role of the kiaps just might be glamourous enough to make people wonder about Papua New Guinea as part of Australia’s history.
The various British colonial services, and you could argue that Australia was part of that tradition, handed out awards and medals to district officers in Africa and especially in India. So did the French. In Papua New Guinea, where awards, honorifics and indeed knighthoods are handed out willy-nilly these days, there would probably be sympathy with the kiap’s cause.
It is all very curious and vexed and there are subtleties and intricacies yet to be explored. I certainly can’t claim that my own biased view has any greater currency than those on the opposite side.
For many ex-kiaps the service medal is a real and important issue and it would be churlish and uncharitable to deny it to them.
It seems, however, that those who have applied for the Police Overseas Service Medal have currently hit a brick wall of forms, more forms, red tape and bureaucratic ineptitude in Canberra. After so long, it must be extremely frustrating.
Like many things in the purview of Canberra, a medal for a bunch of old kiaps probably doesn’t matter very much. One can only wish them good luck and a happy ending to their long quest.