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How Australian ignorance created a disastrous ‘bigman’ system

PHIL FITZPATRICK

Phil Fitzpatrick at mic
Phil Fitzpatrick

TUMBY BAY - In 1958 a clash between the colonial Administration and Tolai dissidents in New Britain led to a review of the functions of the role of kiaps in Papua New Guinea.

The man tasked with the review, Professor David Derham, was an early version of the long line of consultants that Canberra has engaged to advise it on what to do in PNG.

Derham spent 37 days in the territory and did not seek the advice of kiaps in the field.

Nevertheless he seemed particularly offended by the kiap practice of informal mediation in local disputes and much preferred a formal system similar to the one used in Australia.

JK McCarthy, the director of the Department of Native Affairs, said in 1963, "The Derham Report, written by a man who had no practical experience of the country, and who undoubtedly was inspired by an equally ignorant person [the Minister for Territories], was accepted without question.

“As a result of it, the multiple powers once necessarily held by a DC [District Commissioner] are now, or will be, split between several officers - and this 'compartmenting' is fatal to good government.”

What McCarthy was talking about was the transfer of policing powers from the kiaps to a new department of police.

Instead of going to the local kiap to have legal issues resolved, many people now had to seek justice in the towns.

Under the expanded police role people were directed to local police stations, where the judicial system had been taken over by the police.

Junior police officers, some with not more than a primary education and a few months of service, began dispensing a brand of rough justice that they were totally incompetent by training or experience to prescribe and had no authority to perform.

As the police acquired this quasi-judicial status the crowds around the police stations grew larger. Members of the constabulary encouraged this attention and sought opportunities for graft.

As the level of police corruption grew, the next stage in the decline of rural administration was inevitable. The people grew tired of making long journeys to the police stations in pursuit of justice that was no better than what they could improvise themselves.

As a result powerful persons emerged in a new generation of ‘big men’. In place of traditional elders came younger opportunists. Some were former members of the Army, the public service and the police force.

The judicial system was subverted and ‘pay-back’ compensation was resumed. Personal issues took precedence over crime prevention. Criminal activity could be excused if one’s clan had enough money to buy off the wronged or offended.

Since there were no legal rules that all could respect, the strong subjugated the weak.

By 1970 law and order, particularly in the highlands, was rapidly breaking down. Tribal and group warfare was higher than before the outbreak of World War II.

By taking the advice of a well-meaning but totally inexperienced consultant, the Australian government had ensured the destruction of a perfectly functional administrative structure and created a nightmare where crooks and carpetbaggers posing as ‘bigmen’ could thrive.

And once those neo-‘bigmen’ realised the opportunities the administrative changes offered to them there was no turning back and Papua New Guinea’s fate was sealed.

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