The passing overnight of the founding Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea Grand Chief the Right Honourable Sir Michael Somare will cause genuine sadness in Papua New Guinea but also in Australia where he continued to be held in real esteem even though it is over 45 years since he successfully guided PNG to independence from Australia.
While I never worked for him in his office as Prime Minister I did form a good association with him over the years since I first went to PNG in 1978. It did not start that way as I was Chief Advisor to the Leader of the Opposition, the late Sir Iambakey Okuk, from mid-1978!
But when he was in his second term as Prime Minister (1982-1985) he asked me to undertake an important task for his government a decision that reflected the widely held view that he did not carry grudges and had a unique capacity to bring his onetime political opponents into his team. Sir Iambakey had been a key Minister in his pre-independence administration, and his first administration as founding Prime Minister.
In 1983-83 crime had escalated as a problem in Port Moresby. Sir Michael decided a full state of emergency – including a strict night time curfew – was necessary to try and reduce it.
He asked my then business partner, the late John Haugie, who was very close to him, to bring me to his residence for a meeting. He told me about the emergency and asked me if I would handle public and media relations for the Police Commissioner, David Tasion, who he was appointing Emergency Controller, with wide powers.
His one message was that I had to get as much good publicity as possible to secure and maintain public support for the emergency, and the restrictions its imposed. By any measure it was a success, cutting crime in Port Moresby by around 70 per cent. To a significant degree that was due to the confidence he had in the police commissioner and the support he ensured the whole government had for the difficult role the commissioner had.
His support was absolutely unwavering and the commissioner and I would regularly brief him on the implementation of the emergency. By any measure his confidence, given regardless of some political unpopularity the emergency caused, served Port Moresby and Papua New Guinea well.
In my long association with Papua New Guinea, I regard my own role as a highlight. I have always been grateful for his confidence and support.
My second fond memory of the Grand Chief was when he addressed the Cairns regional sittings of the Queensland Parliament in October 2008. The invitation was initiated by the Speaker, Mike Reynolds, who had formed a good association with PNG when he was Mayor of Townsville. It was supported by the Premier Anna Bligh and the Trade Minister John Mickel.
His address, recorded in state hansard affirmed PNGs close relationship with Australia, Queensland and Cairns. In the interests of transparency he made a generous reference to my own work in Papua New Guinea!
During the Parliament a major reception was held for business and community leaders which we both attended. At the start he asked me to accompany him because so many people wanted to speak with him and he hoped I could "manage" the process.
Doing so was an interesting challenge as a significant number of guests were residents of Papua New Guinea before Independence and they remembered him with real affection. He had a remarkable memory, easily recalling the roles most had played in PNG many years previously.
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