Kiaps: Australia's spurned but not forgotten nation-builders
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Were kiaps dupes of a mean, calculating Australian government?

Newspaper advertisement for kiaps, circa 1966PHIL FITZPATRICK

NOW that the contribution of the kiaps to the development of Papua New Guinea has been reluctantly recognised with the award of the Police Overseas Service Medal, it is perhaps timely to take the debate a little further and engage in some objective analysis.

Not much of the latter has occurred to date and, where it has, it has tended to be superficial or adjunct to other themes.

It is one thing to assemble a catalogue of historical events and another to deduct its import, place it in context and try to learn from it.

The timing is right because there are still old kiaps around and, very importantly, Papua New Guineans who were subject to their rule.

All the raw data, including facts and figures, are sitting waiting, courtesy of writers and chroniclers like James Sinclair. All that is missing is the analysis of what it all meant.

Here, rightly or wrongly, are a few observations to illustrate what I think is a legitimate need.

The kiap system was largely inherited from the British and, to a lesser extent, the Germans. These colonial powers had a common objective for their far-flung empires – to extract as much profit as they could, both materially and geo-politically, with an absolutely minimal input.

If you think they established colonies out of the goodness of their hearts to benefit the local inhabitants you are naïve.

Pat 'Diwai' Dwyer and his Police Overseas Service MedalThat the people actually involved on the ground may have had, or developed, more altruistic motives tended to be irrelevant because of the constraints imposed from above.

It is a well-tried system and one that the neo-colonialists and globalisers still use.

For the colonial bosses, sending supposedly multi-talented officers with minimal resources to the colonies to facilitate exploitation was a cheap and effective method.

Whether Australia saw its task in this way is something that needs to be examined. My suspicion, based on its miserly approach, suggests it was so.

Were we ‘colonial officers’ therefore all dupes, albeit willing ones?

If this was the case, one must ask what the Australian government hoped to get out of Papua New Guinea. Was it geo-political advantage with PNG seen in terms of a buffer zone or were there other motives.

We fought the Japanese in PNG and any military strategist, especially American, will tell you it is always desirable to fight one’s wars on foreign soil.

And why was the Australian government so deeply annoyed by apparently humane administrators like Sir Hubert Murray?

Malcolm Mackellar waited for his Police Overseas Service Medal for many yearsIf the Australian government had purely altruistic motives surely it should have been sending in teams of experts rather than lone kiaps. A patrol post should have had an Australian police officer, a health worker, teachers, engineers and all the encumbrances that go with them, including adequate budgets, rather than, in many cases, a single lone young kiap with minimal resources.

It is to their everlasting credit that these young men coped so well but was it really fair on them? I think not.

Perhaps if the resources had been freely available, Papua New Guinea might have been in a much better position when Australia, under pressure from the comically idealistic United Nations, decided it was all too hard and bailed out.  This is a question that still begs an answer.

I’ve still got a copy of an advertisement (above) very similar to the one I responded to in 1966. The spin doctors who put it together knew exactly what they were doing. It appealed directly to the sense of adventure bubbling in many young men of my age stuck in boring jobs in banks and the public service.

Nowhere did the advertisement mention carrying the can for a mean and exploitive government. That we fell for the spin is now history.

Of course, the Australian government had some advantage over the British.  In British colonies their cadres of district officers were made up of what they would have called second rate material.

Don Kennedy is presented with his Police Overseas Service MedalIn egalitarian Australia the government could choose from a pool of people who naturally celebrated their resourcefulness and revelled in tough and harsh conditions.

They didn’t have to take the second rate, although this didn’t stop some critics levelling this charge anyway.

This is all grist for the mill of historical and political analysis. Whether anyone, including government, would be prepared to indulge in such analysis after all these years is another question.

Ideally it should be Papua New Guinea based, but I think we all know where that idea would lead.


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Robin Lillicrapp

What synergy may lie in connection with Queensland alleged aspirations toward ties to PNG and the era of "blackbirding" and growth of agricultural enterprise in Australia?

Phil Fitzpatrick

I think Queensland had its eye on Papua not so much because of fear of German expansionism but because the landed gentry of our fair state saw it as the next step in expanding their very profitable frontier.

The British probably baulked because they couldn't see any gain for them and it was going to cost them money.

However, the machinations of governments aside, Australia eventually assumed responsibility for TPNG and had an obligation to administer it properly. The UN pointed this out frequently and was largely ignored until too late.

My point is that Australia insisted on fulfilling its obligations on the smell of an oily rag and this is where the kiaps and other Australian public servants in TPNG were duped by being recruited under false pretences and in not being given the resources to do the job properly.

The 'facts' as you have presented them Chris are not in dispute but I think it behoves us to dig a bit deeper to uncover the motives at work.

Chris Overland

I certainly agree with Phil that it is time for someone, preferably a Papua New Guinean, to produce a "warts and all" history of the colonial experience.

There is a wealth of material available for this purpose, including many first hand accounts written by former politicians, administrators, kiaps, planters, missionaries and others.

However, I do take issue with Phil over why PNG came to be a territory (as distinct from a colony) of Australia.

In essence, it boiled down to the Queensland government's very pre-emptory and decidedly cheeky decision in 1893 to annex Papua for the British Empire, mainly to forestall any further expansion of German interests in New Guinea and the wider Pacific region.

To say that His Majesty's Colonial Secretary in London was not impressed is an understatement and the British government promptly repudiated the action.

However, in 1888, although not really wishing to "own" Papua but by now very uneasy about the expansionist policies of Imperial Germany, the British government agreed to annex Papua provided the soon to be formed Commonwealth government took responsibility for its governance.

It is both symbolically and legally significant that Papua was designated as a Territory of Australia governed by an Administrator, as distinct from being described as a colony with a Governor enjoying Vice Regal status.

The plain implication of this choice of nomenclature is that Papua was never regarded as a possession of Australia per se.

Rather, I think that the British government, under whose legal control it remained even up to independence in 1975, regarded it as being held in trust pending other developments.

Also, so far as I can see, there was little appetite within the new Commonwealth government to formally incorporate Papua (and, later, New Guinea) within the Commonwealth.

Post World War 1, Article 22 of the Treaty of Versailles assigned the former German New Guinea to Australia as a mandated territory.

Then Prime Minister Billy Hughes saw this as a strategic necessity for the defence of Australia, not as the addition of a colonial possession for economic exploitation.

Eventually, after World War 2, the two territories were formally combined into one. Importantly, this was done on the basis that TPNG was an international trust territory, not a possession of Australia.

As a direct consequence, all of Australia's efforts in TPNG were, one way or the other, directed towards its eventual independence.

This was no secret to kiaps: it was just seen as being a very, very long way in the future.

The arrival of Gough Whitlam merely brought forward the date.

Thus, if kiaps were dupes of a mean, calculating government, then we were clearly not paying attention.

Mathias Kin

Joe Sil, I agree with you on this one! Phil and others who came ashore in this land gave it their best shot and did really well under extremely trying circumstances. This is so despite some misgivings in the course of your duties.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Colonisers don't necessarily have the best intentions for the colonised but individuals working for the colonisers, paradoxically, on occasions have the best intentions for the innocent subjects.

You were an angel around the Gulf of Papua during those nostalgic days, Phil, and you are still today in PNG Attitude and Pukpuk publishing etc so put your head up.

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