He was heavily involved in student politics and had a potent ‘gift of the gab’. Sir John Kerr once described him as a ‘psychological magician’. One of his greatest gifts was that of making people feel important. He also had an insatiable taste for grog.
Alf managed to inveigle himself into the good graces of the Australian Commander in Chief, General Thomas Blamey and set up a research section in the Australian Army.
This eventually evolved into the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA), which trained teachers and kiaps for service in Papua New Guinea as well as patrol officers for the Northern Territory and South Australia.
One of Alf’s more bizarre plans was to take over the administration of Borneo from the British and then later trade North Borneo with the Dutch for their half of the island of New Guinea (West Papua), thus uniting the whole of the island under Australian control.
As the commander of armed forces in Borneo, General Blamey was in a strong position to support this idea. He was also not a man who showed any special deference to the British.
In April 1945 Blamey told the British Colonial Office that the civil affairs unit that they had sent to Australia enroute to Borneo was unsuitable and had been replaced by an Australian unit under Alf Conlon’s direction.
The British officers were confined to Ingleburn Barracks to fume and the rookie Australian unit was despatched to Borneo.
They were hopelessly understaffed and had been provided with no stores, equipment of transport. Worse still, they knew nothing about Borneo. The commanding officer begged Alf to release the forty British officers penned up in Ingleburn but he declined.
Blamey had the ear of Australia’s Prime Minister, John Curtin, but when he died in 1945 the acting Prime Minister, Frank Forde, who disliked Blamey intensely, canned the whole affair. From that point on it was all downhill for Alf and his plans for a united New Guinea.
He had a nervous breakdown and never regained his influence. His advice was never again sought by the army or the government.
When John Kerr resigned as principal of ASOPA in 1948 Alf briefly took his place but it was a disaster.
He finally went back to university and completed his medical degree in 1951 and set himself up as a psychiatrist. He died at the young age of 53.
The dream of a United New Guinea had become just another casualty of erratic post-war colonial politics.