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26 October 2018

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The issue with priests - or any ordained clerics of the Catholic church - going into politics stems from Vatican law and the principle that powers should be separate - separation of church and state.

Bishops will often be reluctant, tardy or reactionary and inconsistent in their application of canon law.

In PNG this is a good principle.

I saw Sir Michael and President John Momis rise on the political scene when I was a Grade10 student at Port Moresby Technical College in 1975. Many years later I witnessed Sir Michael's graceful retirement from active politics.

In 1991 I flew from Cleveland to New York to witness his election as President of the United Nations General Assembly, but he lost narrowly to an Arab. I mention all that in my recent book 'I Can See My Country Clearly Now.'

And I agree Chris that Sir Michael "will always be the first and, perhaps, most able of PNG's prime ministers."

John Momis was a Catholic priest as the story says. When he stood for election the precedent of a priest being elected to political office had already been set by Fr John Nilles in Simbu.

Mathias Kin has written about Fr. Nilles (https://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2014/11/papa-blong-simbu-fr-john-nillies-kawagl-svd-190593.html).

In 1976 prime minister Michael Somare appointed a priest, Fr Cherubim Dambui, as interim premier of East Sepik Province.

However, after other priests, including the late Ignatius Kilage and the late Louis Ambane, (former governor of Simbu), began to follow Nilles' footsteps into politics, the bishops got worried and declared that any priest who stood for political office would be suspended.

This did not stop some priests from standing for office and some such as Robert Lak and John Garia were successful in the highlands.

Other priests stood for election but most did not succeed. In the recent elections Fr Simon Dumarinu was declared elected in Bougainville but lost on an appeal recount.

I first met Michael Somare in 1969, when both he and I were much younger and slimmer than we are now.

As I recall, he was chairing a Parliamentary Select Committee seeking the views of the people on PNG becoming self governing and, eventually, independent.

I was a mere Assistant Patrol Officer at the time and thus a person of no consequence at all, so I imagine that our very fleeting conversation would have not even registered in his memory at the time, let alone later.

However, from that brief meeting I formed a strong impression of him as a very determined man, certain of PNG's destiny as an independent country and quite unwilling to accept anything less from an initially reluctant colonial power.

He handled himself adeptly in negotiations with the Australian authorities and clearly impressed them with the force of his arguments and passionate commitment to taking PNG into the future as a nation in its own right.

Thus, I guess if anyone has the right to be called the Father of the Nation then it is Michael Somare.

In the early days post independence he, John Momis and many others newly elected or appointed to positions of authority took care to proceed with caution as they learned how to govern their country. A lot of worthwhile things happened although, inevitably, mistakes were made.

For some years, I think that PNG followed a generally positive trajectory before, as has so often been the case in the post colonial era, the shonks, carpet baggers and rent seekers gradually insinuated themselves into PNG politics, business and the public service.

Sadly, I think that Sir Michael, as he had become by then, eventually succumbed to the sense of entitlement to special privileges and consideration that seems to overcome far too many politicians, in PNG, Australia and elsewhere besides.

It seems that political power and influence too often is a potent opiate, which is both addictive and destructive to those who become habituated to it.

By the end of his time in power Sir Michael had to be blasted out of his position in a constitutional crisis that both he and self interested others created as they struggled to hold or seize the reins of power.

It is too early to say how history will judge him but my suspicion is that he will probably come out of it pretty well.

His virtues outweighed his flaws and he will always be the first and, perhaps, most able of PNG's prime ministers.

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