Papua 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 detail on the issue.

Whitlam, the Labor leader, visited Papua New Guinea in early 1971. On the 3rd of January, he delivered a speech in Port Moresby (entitled Labor’s Plan for New Guinea: Statement by the Leader of the Australian Labor Party) in which he made clear his position that the movement to self-government had been too slow and that he favoured early independence. He foreshadowed the possibility of a unilateral action by Australia. His ground was that colonialism was morally untenable and that Australia could not be forced against its will to remain a colonial power. It was an extreme reaction to the Hasluckian approach of deferring self-government and independence until PNG was ‘ready’.

His threat along these lines was rendered redundant  because:

  1. Peacock became the Australian Minister in the McMahon and Gorton  governments and he favoured accelerating the movement to self-government.
  2. The increasing concern felt in Australia for the preservation of national unity. From 1970 the Mataungan Association’s rebellion in the Gazelle, separatism on Bougainville following the 1967 Copper Agreement and, to a lesser extent, the formation of Papua Besena, all led to a deep concern, if not fear, in Australia that PNG was in danger of breaking up. This concern was not confined to the Labor Party. National Unity, it was felt, could only be preserved by the earliest creation of the new nation. 
  3. the success of the Pangu Party in the 1972 elections. 

The coalition government, which Pangu put together, was committed to early self-government. This was the immediately critical consideration and it constrained conservative opinion in Australia. Conservative Australian Governments had not wished for early self-government or independence but were able to espouse a policy of deferring that question to the House of Assembly because they believed that the pre-1972  Assemblies would not vote in favour of it. United Party and Highland opinion favouring delay was preponderant.

But the 1972 election changed all that, and the same policy of deferring to the House, which had hitherto favoured delay now favoured movement to early self-government. But this policy also constrained Whitlam. For him to have insisted upon early self-government without a resolution of the House of Assembly after Pangu had power, was unthinkable. It could only have brought him into conflict with the PNG Government and with Michael Somare, with whom he had established a friendship on his visit to Papua New Guinea.

There was, it was true, some pressure from Morrison designed to hasten matters, which included abolition of the Department of Territories and Morrison expressed continuing irritation – to use a somewhat too mild description – with the delay insisted upon by the Constitutional Planning Committee in the completion of a Constitution [the Committee  resisted any transfer of power in areas still under its consideration]. But these are minor qualifications. Both Governments and the UN Trusteeship Council  accepted that a resolution of the House of Assembly would be determinative of timing, in the case of both self government and independence.

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Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 4:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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