MY political career, such as it was, consisted of one term as an elected member of the New Ireland provincial assembly in the late 1980s.
I think my experience is worth recording as a curious historical footnote.
In 1984 I had become a PNG citizen and by 1987 decided it was time for me to make my mark as a provincial politician.
I sought to replace my wife’s uncle, the sitting member for South Lavongai. That was my first political mistake. Traditionally, it was a matter of shame to compete against such a close tambu. My excuse was that poor old Sandi Tito was profoundly deaf.
He would sit in the chamber, straining to follow the debate and often the nearest member would lift his hand when votes were taken. Surely, I thought, I could participate more meaningfully.
“I’m amazed you’re standing for the Assembly, Arthur,” he said.
“Why is that Pedi?” I asked.
“Well you haven’t campaigned enough.”
By that time I’d visited all but one of the villages in my electorate and felt I didn’t need to make glib promises. My credentials in the area were pretty well known.
Pre-independence I'd served Lavongai Council as an adviser, had married a local SDA lady with four children, was a lay preacher for the United Church and advised the Catholic Church on matters related to the local grassroots cocoa cooperative and sawmill.
I’d also had a substantial career background in plantation management and banking.
I said to Pedi, "And you?"
Anyway, it all went well. I knew I had won my seat in the tallyroom at about midnight on polling day as the counting wound down. I hurried home to my place in Chinatown and I was having a cuppa when there was a knock on the door.
It was a middleman speaking for the PANGU/Melanesian Alliance members from West and North Lavongai. They wanted to speak with me in a tiny hut at the bottom of my block which we used to store stationery.
There I was admitted by Gerard Sigulogo the Kavieng MP, soon to be dismissed for corruption highlighted in a report by Justice Barnett.
The electric light was off and the small room was dimly lit by a Dietz kerosene lantern. In the gloom I noticed Pedi Anis, member for North Lavongai, Essau Passingan, member for North Lavongai and a national politician, then well-known but whose name I cannot now recall.
They wanted me to join a group of Lavongai members in opposing the sitting People’s Progress Party premier, Robert Seeto. I’d already had problems with Essau Passingan and felt he and Pedi Anis were cut from the same cloth.
Anyway, I made perhaps a career-changing decision to remain as an Independent but supporting the PPP as I had a lot of respect for Sir Julius Chan at that time.
Then the politicking began.
Next day I was taken to the airport and took a helicopter to Mussau where we picked another new member, Herman Sole.
We returned to Kavieng to refuel before collecting another member from Tabar before flying on to Sir Julius’s place in southern New Ireland.
When we alighted to allow refuelling, I was surprised to see an irate PANGU supporter, local businessman Roger Dickson, grab Herman Sole’s arm and try to pull him toward the airport terminal.
Kevin Patai, a PPP minder, intervened to prevent the kidnapping and Roger Dickson aimed an easily parried punch at him.
Bystanders prevented any further fighting and I thought, “Wow, local politics PNG style”. It was quite an introduction.
Our flight then progressed without further incident and we were soon at Namatanai to talk with Julius Chan. After meeting my new colleagues, including the respected Edward Togimar and introductory speeches we had a short planning meeting and that was that.
Togimar was an interesting character. Robert Seeto called him the ‘bon kwila’ [hard timber] of the PPP. I did not want to stay for the night and set off not long after dusk for an uneventful 160 km trip up the unsealed Bulaminsky Highway.
In another vehicle, premier Robert Seeto, member for Tabar Samson Gila and the rest of the group met a roadblock as they journeyed north.
They were not physically attacked but were made to stand for several hours at the side of their vehicle by irate PANGU/Melanesian Alliance supporters who were seeking Herman Sole.
The hijacking was apparently payback for an earlier roadblock that had detained Bougainville MP Father John Momis who had been on a visit to his childhood home in New Ireland.
Inauguration day for the newly elected members was sunny and bright and the expectation was that premier Robert Seeto would be elected for a third term.
Someone informed me that the meeting would convene at 2pm and I was doing some leisurely shopping in town when a former politician saw me and asked, “Why aren’t you at the meeting, Arthur?"
“Oh it’s not until this afternoon,” I replied.
“No, they’re meeting at eleven.”
Feeling stunned, I quickly returned home to dress in long trousers with the obligatory tie and hurried road towards the Assembly. Part way, I was picked up by a ute and taken to the premier’s official home, the former District Commissioner’s residence.
There I was told the bad news. Pedi’s group had persuaded the Assembly officials to change the timetable of the inaugural session without informing some members.
He had then arranged for a motion to elect him as premier with good old bon kwila Edward Togimar as his deputy.
The People’s Progress Party members and their fellow travellers like me had been outmanoeuvred.
After discussion about the legality of this and pondering whether we should seek an injunction,we decided instead to stage a sit-in at the official residence and settled down awaiting what we t ought would be a quick meeting of the Assembly the next day where we would rectify the shenanigans of Anis.
We bedded down where we could in the spacious house on the hill.
In the middle of the night we were awoken and in pitch darkness stumbled to the lounge dimly by a lantern. It turned out that the usurping premier had friends in the electricity commission who had cut off the power to the house.
Sitting there was Seeto and his supporting members and, in the seat next to him, none other than the mutinous Togimar.
Togimar quietly sobbed as he told us of his sorrow about the wiles of Anis and explained how we could count on him to be supporting PPP in the future.
It seemed surreal to me and moreso when we convened in the assembly next day to see our tearful compatriot walk in with the new mob and sit at the right hand of the new premier, Pedi Anis.
Togimar’s single vote would provide the majority that kept Anis in power for the whole of the allotted term.
In his opening speech, the Premier Anis told how his incoming administration would turn aside the bad governance of past years and would now rely on God’s plan for the province.
The initial emergency budget was laced with quite a few Biblical references but, as time went by, the religious allusions lessened until they disappeared altogether.
That night we found our water supply had joined the electricity in being cut off. Reluctantly we threw in the towel and went home, vowing to provide a strong opposition while half-heartedly contemplating legal means to reverse the whole sorry episode.
It never happened. Robert Seeto departed for his wife’s Taiwan where he remained for many years and the opposition numbers decreased.
The opposition leadership passed to maimai [bigman] Demas Kevavu who instigated two votes of no confidence in the premier (which I supported). One was suddenly withdrawn without explanation and notice of the second was given so far in advance that once again we were easily outmanoeuvred.
In later years, as I served New Ireland in other spheres, I realised that I had been a silly white boy surrounded by very canny black men. You could say I was totally out of my depth.
At about the time I had become a member, Colin Filer from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Papua New Guinea wrote a paper in which he said, “… the strange thing about New Ireland, in comparison with many other parts of the country, is that it is very hard to tell what anyone really thinks about anything.
"To put it crudely, New Ireland is a place where everyone claims to be acting on behalf of someone else, where no-one really trusts anyone else to act on their behalf, but no-one is prepared to say so publicly, for fear of being disrespectful.
"New Irelanders excel in the virtue of politeness, but the virtue of politeness can easily turn into the vice of dishonesty…..”
Postscript: Where are they now?
Arthur Williams - Wales.
Robert Seeto - Returned to New Ireland in 2008. Died 2012.
Demas Kevavu –Premier of New Ireland 1990-93. Spokesman for the Maimai Association.
Samson Gila – Premier of New Ireland 1993-95.
Gerard Sigulogo - Dismissed from parliament as a result of a logging scam. Successfully stood for Lavongai Council in 2008 but not allowed take office allegedly for corrupt practices.
Herman Sole - In 2015 was Chairman of Mussau Local Level Government.
Essau Passingan - While Chairman of Lavongai LLG bloodied my nose in public over my lease of a block of land in Kavieng. He was fined.
Roger Dickson – Left New Ireland in the late 1990s.
Kevin Patai - Deceased. Was involved with landowners trying to get benefits from Simberi gold mine on Tabar.
Edward Togimar - Warmly welcomed back into PPP nest.
Pedi Anis - My old mate and political sparring opponent. Sadly he has adopted loggers as his best friends. Had a hard time at SABL inquiry when it met in Kavieng investigating the three SABL projects that have denied land rights for 99 years to his own Lavongai people. He is on the Autonomy Committee and was recently honoured by Governor Sir Julius Chan for services to the province.
Sir Julius Chan - When I became a member he sent a message to me via Robert Seeto: “Tell Arthur not to worry about the loggers!” I was chuffed that one of the nation’s founding fathers, twice prime minister, four times deputy prime minister and still an MP would bother with my win. It was only later that I realised his short sentence was ambiguous and could have been a warning to get off the loggers’ backs.