BY DAVID WALL
With the present state of Sir Michael Somare’s health and his recent political manoeuvrings, he himself and people at large are forced to face his mortality and assess his undoubted influence on the fortunes of Papua New Guinea now and over more than the past 40 years.
This first photograph of Michael Somare was taken in 1973 at the Angoram Hotel; the one below was taken at the Wewak Yacht Club in 2009.
Radiating from the first snap is the face of a young, dynamic, enthusiastic, and likeable man.
In this second snap, the young man is gone but one can still see a man smiling, perhaps less enthusiastically, but still, I think, likeable. The old Somare charm is intact. I also see some sadness and disillusionment in the older man’s face.
There are those people who revere Somare as the father of the nation and others who say that, although he came into political life to do good, he certainly did well for himself and his family. Between these two extremes, maybe, lies the man.
Somare has always had that rather intangible quality of personal charm, an immense asset for a politician. So many people I’ve talked to over the years have not been impressed with his performance in power yet, after talking to him, often describe him as such a nice man.
Charm, of course, can be beguiling and, in the words of Evelyn Waugh’s character, Anthony Blanche, in Brideshead Revisited, “it spots and kills anything it touches.” An ‘English blight’ in Anthony’s terms, but perhaps more universally applicable. Of course, in its positive aspect, the charm of an idealist is an embellishment to the human condition.
I well remember meeting and speaking to Michael Somare in Angoram on the Sepik River in the early 1970s and being most impressed with his personality. And later in Konedobu, I saw the concern he had in approving the proposed Ok Tedi Mine in the then Western District.
Sir Michael was, and I’m sure still is, an extremely sensitive man. In 1972, I was on my way to the Philippines to marry my future wife and, as a help to me, he gave me a letter of introduction to the Australian Ambassador in Manila.
Subsequently, Deborah, my wife, returned with me to PNG and got a job as press secretary to Matthias Toliman and then with Tei Abal of the United Party, a political rival of Somare’s.
I felt that Somare considered that this in some way was an act of disloyalty to him on my part. Years after - in 2009 in Wewak - I mentioned this to him and, in his usual charming way, he brushed it off as of no consequence.
Some people consider that Somare always had a sense of his own importance as PNG’s prime minister, and online references maintain that in 1975 he wasn’t impressed with Australia’s gift of an official residence and asked for and got a much grander building.