NOOSA - That first Independence Day in Papua New Guinea was organised in a heck of a hurry.
Less than three months before 16 September 1975, Chief Minister Michael Somare gave long-serving district commissioner David Marsh the task of organising events on the day itself and in the six days of celebration surrounding it - from 14-19 September.
Marsh, who died in 2015, did a fine job – VIPs, security, transport, accommodation and the proceedings themselves all had to be planned and brought to fruition. And not just in Port Moresby, of course, but throughout the country.
There were a number of high profile events, like the final lowering of the Australian flag at sunset on 15 September (“we are lowering this flag, not tearing it down,” said Sir John Guise, memorably).
And there were also exhibitions, church services, sports fixtures, band concerts, pageants, addresses, dinners, ceremonies, concerts, fireworks, medals, publications, tree plantings and radio broadcasts.
Even the West Indies cricket team played matches in Port Moresby and Lae.
Then, on the day itself, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, the commander of the PNG Defence Force raised the new Kumul flag on behalf of the people of Papua New Guinea.
Independence Day was a huge success. And its success had been achieved at speed. A bit like Independence itself.
Australia had been in PNG to build a nation. And we expatriates played our part in that grand enterprise. Unfortunately, when Australia pulled out, so did thousands of its citizens who had worked in PNG for many years. And they left as fast as Independence had come.
It was said then, and still is by many people, that Independence had “come too soon”.
But, to me, the issue was that too much experience and expertise deserted PNG in those few years immediately after Independence.
But that was in the 1970s, and nothing can change what happened then.
Today, what can we say about Papua New Guinea?
Well, as you know, PNG Attitude always has a lot to say – some of it very critical.
But, irrespective of what one may think about governance, corruption, health and other crucial issues, let me tell you six good reasons why everyone associated with Papua New Guinea should feel a sense of real pride in the country.
1 – PNG is a parliamentary democracy. Forget the skulduggery and tactical trickery that characterises the national parliament, the people go to the polls every five years to elect their government. They will do so again in 2022 as they have in the years since 1964. (Yes, 2019 is the 55th year of representative government in PNG.) Let's hope whoever is in government then cleans up the fraud that is beginning to infect the system.
2 – PNG is united. And what a challenge that was. A fragmented tribal society of more than 800 languages and as many cultures has managed to stick together as one nation for all this time. True, it hasn’t always been plain sailing, but how could it be in such circumstances. Unity alone is a considerable achievement and a positive reflection on Papua New Guinean maturity. This coming June’s referendum on Bougainville’s political future represents the first major challenge to a united PNG. The sour mood of the Bougainville people has not been helped by a PNG government that has not fully honoured the peace agreement signed following the civil war of late last century.
3 – PNG has retained a viable society. Although periodically threatened by commercial pressures and the waywardness of modern life, the bedrock of PNG society still remains the tribe, clan and extended family. It is said that 85% of the population relies on traditional forms of social organisation. It is true the wantok system can be a curse when applied to conventional organisation; but it is a real blessing in providing the baseline security that a nation and its people require.
4 - PNG has retained some strong institutions. It has a Defence Force that has weathered political storms in the recent past and which seems to understand the primacy of the government of the day. PNG still has an independent and strong judiciary, although there are flaws appearing in the woodwork. A few years ago I would have included the universities as a strength. I do not do that today.
But there are effective non-government organisations like Transparency International, Anglicare, CARE Australia, the Catholic Church, Lifeline PNG, Worldwide Fund for Nature, Bismarck Ramu Group, Rainforest Action Network and Act Now! These and other groups, while criticised by some politicians, are growing in robustness and in their fine contribution to the maintenance of a strong civil society.
5 - PNG has a free media, although the locus of this freedom has pivoted from mainstream to social media over the past 10 years. The PNG press had a strong tradition of independence until recently. This had been entrenched by those unfettered journalists who gave real backbone to the country’s media organisations in the 1960s and 1970s. This feisty press tradition has largely petered out in the main newspapers but has transitioned successfully to social media. Despite government threats to curb it, all signs are that social media will continue to flourish.
6 – PNG has a people who will prevail. Over the eons a thousand societies developed in relative isolation from the world and from each other. But that proved no fatal constraint because these societies also produced enviable toughness, acute intuition, cultural richness and a significant capacity to change. It is true that the process of transformation to modernity has been painful and there has been substantial dislocation, but you have to admire the way these societies have coped given the wide-scale failure of government services.
All of us who have affection for Papua New Guinea and its people, and there are many of us around the world, value our continuing mutual friendship and look forward to better days ahead when the relationship strengthens and true partnership emerges.