Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Independence Day in 1975


Keith Jackson…feelings of real pride in PNG

THAT FIRST Independence Day in Papua New Guinea was organised in a heck of a hurry.
Less than three months before September 16, 1975, Chief Minister Michael Somare gave long-serving District Commissioner David Marsh the task of organising events on the day and during the six days of celebration from September 14-19.

Flag lowering in 1975

Marsh 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 Moresby, of course, but throughout the country.
There were a number of high-profile events, like the taking down of the Australian flag at sunset on September 15 (“we are lowering this flag, not tearing it down,” said Sir John Guise, memorably).
And there were also exhibits, church services, sports fixtures, bands, pageants, addresses, dinners, ceremonies, concerts, fireworks, medals, publications, tree plantings and radio broadcasts.

Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, author Keith Jackson and an Orange city councillor in 2009

Even the West Indies cricket team played 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 with speed.
A bit like Independence itself.
Australia had been in PNG to build a nation.
 We expatriates played our parts in that grand enterprise.
Unfortunately, when Australia pulled out, so did thousands of its citizens who had worked in PNG for many years.

The author at camp on the slopes of Mt Wilhelm in 1964

And they left quickly.
It was said then, and still is by a lot of people, that Independence had “come too soon”.
But, to me, the main issue was that too much experience and expertise deserted PNG in those few years immediately after Independence.
But that was in the 70s, and nothing can change what happened then.
Today, 35 years on, what can we say about Papua New Guinea?
Well, my website PNG Attitude always has a lot to say – and some of it is very critical.
But, irrespective of what one may think about governance, health and other 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.

The author at camp on the slopes of Mt Wilhelm in 1964

Keith Jackson at a pooling booth in the first election in 1964
1.      PNG is a parliamentary democracy. Forget the skullduggery and tactical trickery that sometimes characterises National Parliament. PNG’s people go to the polls every five years to elect their government. They will do so again in 2012 as they have in the 48 years since 1964. (Yes, 2014 will be the 50th anniversary of representative government in PNG.)
2.      PNG is united. And what a challenge this was. A fragmented tribal society of more than 800 languages and as many cultures has managed to remain together as one nation for 35 years. 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 PNG’s political leadership.
3.       PNG has retained a viable society. Although periodically threatened by commercial pressures and the waywardness of modern life, the bedrock of PNG society remains the tribe, clan and extended family. The wantok system can be a curse when applied to conventional organisation; but is a real blessing when it comes to providing the baseline security that a nation and its people require.
4.      PNG has retained some strong institutions. It has a Defence Force that understands the primacy of the government of the day. It has an independent and strong judiciary. It has universities that produce thinkers and doers. And it has non-government organisations that, while frequently criticised by some politicians, are growing in robustness and contributing greatly to the maintenance of a strong civil society.
5.      PNG has a free press. While not numerous in terms of autonomous outlets, the PNG press has a tradition of independence that was first entrenched by those forcefully-unfettered journalists who gave real backbone to the country’s media organisations in the 1960s and 1970s. This feisty press tradition has more recently managed to migrate successfully to the internet, especially through blogs. It will continue to flourish.
6.      PNG has a people who will prevail. Over many hundreds of years 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 an enviable toughness, an acute intuition, a richness of culture and a great capacity to change. No more needs to be said.
All Australians who have affection for Papua New Guinea and its people, and there are very many of us, congratulate our close neighbour on this auspicious day and want to communicate to you the continuing warmth of our friendship.

Keith Jackson publishes the PNG Attitude blog. He is Chairman of Jackson Wells Pty Ltd, a Sydney-based public relations firm, and an Adjunct Professor in Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland.

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