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Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare – an appraisal

Michael Somare  1974
Michael Somare, as chief minister in 1974, a year before independence, hands out the new PNG flags to school children


Sir Michael Somare is on a protracted farewell tour of Papua New Guinea as the 82-year old inaugural prime minister who led PNG into independence moves into retirement. Chris Overland looks at his legacy....

ADELAIDE - 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 Papua New Guinea 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 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.

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

In the early days after independence he, John Momis and many others who were 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 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.

It seems that political power and influence is too often 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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