Papua New Guinea — timing of independence

It is sometimes said that Australia granted independence too soon and should have deferred it until Papua New Guinea was ready.

This is quite wrong — and is so at various levels. First, it assumes that independence could be delayed until all the various strands necessary for Papua New Guinea to be ‘ready’ — political, economic, administrative and social  could be set and determined by Australia. What this overlooks is that the ‘political’ strand in the evolution of the colonial state necessarily has a life of its own. Being ‘ready’ means there are political leaders sufficiently experienced by involvement in government to be able to assume leadership. But that very process naturally leads those indigenous leaders to make increasing demands for further involvement in the leadership of the country and hence for it to be granted self-government and independence.

There would be a number of consequences if Australia had sought to stifle those demands. First, it would have meant rejecting the will expressed the very institutions Australia had itself established for Papua New Guinea’s self-government. The House of Assembly was set up in 1964 to enable to engage in government and by self-government in 1973, indigenous Ministers were effectively adsministering most of the Departments of State. The House of Assembly thus represented the will of the people and a United Nations Mission to cover the 1972 elections endorsed this and found those elections to be free and fair. The dates for self-government and independence were subsequently decided by the House of Assembly constituted by those elections . To have rejected the House of Assembly resolutions on the ground the country was not ‘ready’ would have amounted to a rejection of the will of the people. More ominous consequences were likely. It is now forgotten that there was a quite serious rebellion on the Gazelle Peninsula seeking separate independence. It was sufficiently serious for the Australian Government to undertake the rare action of ‘calling out’ the armed forces. Without question any unilateral deferral would have enhanced Mataungan demands on the Gazelle. There was also Bougainville.

In short, unlilateral deferral, in defiance of the House of Assembly, could have both resulted in disorders and have threatened national unity. In addition, we have proceeded in these comments upon the assumption that it was in Australia’s ‘gift’ to decide the date of independence. It was not. Papua New Guinea was administered as a ‘union’ on trust for the United Nations. The Trusteeship Agreement required its termination when the inhabitants wanted independence. I went to New York in 1972 and in discussions with the UN Under Secretary General secured UN agreement to the House of Assembly as representing the wishes of the people and that a date resolved upon by it would be determinative of ‘the wishes of the inhabitants’.

But the overriding error in the Hasluckian view of delay until the country was ‘ready’ is the assumption that the political strand in Papua New Guinea could evolve without conferring real power on indigenous politicians or by denying that power when exercised.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 6:06 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi John,

    It is very difficult to find today (online) such posts as yours above. I have a very keen interest in the pre-Independence era of PNG, and the issues that existed during this time.

    Being of the younger generation, it is next to impossible to find persons who were instrumental in the early stages of our Nation-building sharing their personal thoughts of the matter.

    I would very much like to encourage you to please keep on writing on matters such as the above as they offer a unique perspective into how things were.

    Kind Regards,

  2. […] New Guinea – timing of independence Thank you Tavurur  for your comment on my earlier post on the timing of PNG self-government and independence. Here is a little more […]

  3. I couldn’t agree more whole-heartedly with this post. I worked as a fairly junior official in the Colonial Office (a British government department in London, not to be confused with the Colonial Service whose members worked for overseas colonial governments in the field) at the height of Britain’s decolonisation programme (from 1957 to 1964) when we were constantly confronted by the argument that we were hustling our territories, especially those in Africa, into independence before they were ‘ready’ for it. In fact, as this excellent post argues, the political leaders in a colonial territory who campaign for independence create a momentum which the colonial power can resist only at an unacceptable cost that may include bloodshed and disorder in the territory concerned and such ill feeling between the territory’s leaders and the colonial power that the prospects for a harmonious transfer of sovereignty, in which the latter can use its influence in favour of democracy, entrenchment of human rights and protection of minorities, may be fatally damaged.

    Delaying independence until the colonial power deems the territory ‘ready’ for it also entails a claim that a distant and culturally different government knows better than the people of the territory itself when it’s appropriate for them to assume responsibility for their own affairs, a claim that has been fundamentally unsustainable since early in the 20th century. The sad fact that so many former colonies have made more or less of a mess of their independence should not be allowed to disguise these basic truths about the timing of its grant.


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