Dame Carol Kidu, the widow of Papua New Guinea’s first citizen Chief Justice, was elected to Parliament in 1997, soon after Sir Buri Kidu’s death. She became Minister for Community Development and has worked tirelessly to increase opportunities for women to enter political life. The conversation began with memories of her upbringing in Brisbane.


Dame Carol Kidu: I was brought up in a working-class Australian family with a very strong social conscience. Many people saw me as a missionary type perhaps, but no, I didn’t come from a Christian-based family but a family based on social justice. The ethos that I was brought up in was about social justice. I went to things like, in the times of the White Australia policy, Dad and I went to some of the Aboriginal meetings and things in Australia. I was brought up in a family that taught me that there was no differences. So that’s the background. It perhaps made my mind ready for what was ahead of me.

Ian Johnstone: It’s funny isn’t it, looking back you realise what was formative. If I may, you’re also used to swimming against the stream a bit wouldn’t you – Queensland wouldn’t have the reputation of liberal, broad-minded...

CK: Maybe, but not consciously so. After I met Buri at the holiday fitness camp, yes it did become consciously so, when I fell madly in love, I didn’t know what it was, my first boyfriend. I was only 16, sweet 16 never kissed. I started to realise when neighbours started to criticise my parents very much. I know in retrospect that my mother and father got hate letters in our mailbox which they never showed me. I only wish they’d have kept them so in retrospect they’d be part of my memoirs, you know, but they stuck by me.

IJ: That’s fascinating. Never a question from them?

CK: They were worried, undoubtedly, what our future would be, but once they met Buri, they knew that he was a fine person, and how could they go back on what they had taught me all my life? Undoubtedly they were very worried, I was young and in love, so nothing really occurred to me but they must have been quite concerned about the possibilities. Of course this was the time of the White Australia policy.

IJ: Of course.

CK: I remember being moved on by police once when I was sitting with Buri in a park, when he came down for some specialist ear treatment in the city of Brisbane, from Toowoomba, I remember one old man spitting at me in the streets in Brisbane when I was walking along with Buri and called me a filthy woman, so I became aware of it then, but I actually felt pity for that old man, that he could be so bitter!

IJ: A very testing courtship, for both of you.

CK: Then when I first went to Papua New Guinea I had some very unpleasant experiences. I went as a university student with my sister, to have a look at the place, and we were billeted with a colonial Australian family, undoubtedly very fine people, but they had a very clear picture of where people fitted in life. When they realised, when Buri came to visit me, after that it became very cold, they basically didn’t speak to me after. I stayed there, I was billeted there; the daughter used to try and talk to me, she obviously had more liberal ideas. When I was dropped at the airport, the father of the household said to me, ‘The best advice that I can give you, young lady, is to get that monkey off your back, he’ll bring you no good.’

IJ: Wow.

CK: Yeah and they wouldn’t allow him to come. They said natives go through the back door. They wouldn’t allow him to visit me.

IJ: It’s a fascinating story!

CK: When we were friends, he never broached the issue of marriage, and so I started to broach it and he would avoid it, so I’d broach it more. He said, ‘Look, there’ve been some marriages at home’ – it had been of expatriate men, Australian men to Papua New Guinean women, and what happened basically, people become Australian you know, they go that way. Ours was the second, and the first one fell apart, ours was only the second cross-cultural marriage in that direction, where the man was Papua New Guinean and the woman was from outside, so he didn’t know what would happen. Eventually I talked about marriage and he said, ‘You’ve got to understand Carol, if we get married don’t ever ask me to choose.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Don’t ever ask me to choose between you and my people, because I tell you now I would have to tell you my people, I’ve been educated for my people.’ So you know, we married on that understanding, and I always knew that.

IJ: It did something else Carol, it made it certain that you were going to make your career, your future in Papua New Guinea.

CK: He made it very clear, and he was very honest.

Because I went back and married into the society, lived the village life with the women, went gardening, collecting firewood, went shell-fishing, did all the activities that women did, as well as going to school teaching.

IJ: So you leapt fully into the life of a Motu woman.

CK: Well yeah, it didn’t worry me because I’d studied a bit of anthropology at university, I’d always been interested in other people and other cultures, but the reality of it was hard. I won’t pretend it was easy, it was hard going. I think the thing that has made me be able to survive politics is the fact that I had gone through a long induction as a Motu wife. I would never pretend to even fully understand Motu society, it’s so complex. Societies at home, and I can’t pretend to understand the multiplicities of tribes, but I think I possibly understand them a little bit better than some of the experts.

IJ: Well said! You do what you did, which is presumably washing clothes in the river –

CK: We don’t have a river, but washing clothes in a dish with water that you had to carry from a communal tap. All those things, carrying firewood and making the fire – I’m useless at making a fire so I’d let the other ladies make the fire. Cooking the huge pots of flour and rice and tapioca yeah.

IJ: There’s a whole heap of skills that we have to learn, we’ve lost them, were we to learn that life. Now I was intrigued, I also looked at a thing you’d done, you call the power of partnerships. You began that presentation with a tribute to your mother in law. Tell me about her.

CK: She was a wonderful mentor, two years formal education, but a great woman and a great leader within the family. She was the boss in the household. This is the thing, in traditional society at home, Motu society particularly, but I think in all societies, women are powerful in the private sphere, very powerful, but that power was not translated into the public sphere. The men took the power in the public sphere, and this is where we’ve got to make that quantum leap, to give women the space in the public sphere. She always supported me, even when she knew I wasn’t coping, if I’d been in tears or things, she’d sit with me and she’d say to the relatives in the household, ‘Poor one, she’s thinking about her mother and father.’ She’d know in reality, in her heart, that I was just not coping with it all. Many times I wasn’t coping and I’d cry, it was really hard, and sometimes Buri would say, ‘Look Carol you knew the arrangement, if you can’t take it, if it’s too hard …' I’m so glad I stuck it through!

IJ: Gosh yes! A determined woman like yourself, you don’t go through that length of a love affair and not… She must have been worried, what had her son done? What was this decision?

CK: She never demonstrated that, but other female relatives did. There were female relatives who did not support the idea of my becoming Buri’s wife. I found that out in retrospect later, because the question was, how can she live our life, how can she do this and that, how can she help in the gardens, what use will she be? Because their concept of a white woman was someone who had servants, that’s all they knew, and they couldn’t comprehend how I could become part of them, so that worried them, and they also undoubtedly worried that I would take their son away from them, and pull him away. People saw me as a submissive wife. Probably because publicly, within the village, I’d play the role of a Motu woman, which didn’t mean I was beaten or anything like that, in fact Motuans were not violent with their women, there were many protective customs, but women did all the work. Women worked while men sat and talked. I played that role well. When we were home in our house, because I didn’t live in the village forever, as a public servant Buri would be allocated public housing, at home Buri washed up, he cooked if he knew I was tired – he’d lived in my world for many years as well. So we got a balance going. If I had not done that, I would have brought shame to him and his mother.

IJ: I understand. Now somebody remarked to me that the outward symbol of this, am I right, you’ve got the moko as we would call it, the tattoos? Is that a ritual, how did that happen?

CK: Not a ritual, that was killed by the missionaries, the tattooing of the Motu women. I guess it was just my curiosity and I wanted to have it done by traditional techniques, and it hadn’t been done for years, the tattooing custom, in our village, but my mother in law was a traditional tattooist as a young woman, she used to tattoo women. So I asked her to do a tattoo so I could document it and write an article on it, so I had the first tattoo done. Then later after Buri died, well later I had another one done by my daughters. I’ve always been very proud of it.

IJ: Of course. What about the men, the other men in your village and around you? How did they look on this white woman who had come to live?

CK: Well as long as I able to cook big pots of stew and things I was fine! I was sure they all wondered how this was going to pan out, because there was a white woman about that time who was living on and off with a Pari man, but she didn’t actually embrace, she was always a white woman in the village. I was always a white woman in the village in my mind, but not in their mind because I embraced the culture completely and learnt their -. Always I guess, all my life, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m a part of, but apart from, as well. I can never pretend. When people want to use it, they say, ‘Well she’s not really one of us’, not our family, but other people.

IJ: But the generation has started. In two generations time, you are a part of it. Also there’s a lesson there, if you want to lead, you must live with.

CK: Absolutely.

IJ: Without that apprenticeship, you would have been an outsider, or ignored.

CK: There are people who do get into leadership without really knowing it, male expatriates know it thoroughly, but some of them know it from an expatriate viewpoint. But they get in, because they’re men. I think for a woman it is a little bit different. I based my whole campaign always on the basis of society relationships. I was a teacher, I was involved with YWCA, and getting the preschool going through the YWCA, so I was doing things, but never from a political perspective. I was never part of the council of women or the political lobby by women, no. I was involved with organisations. Before Buri died I established the professional women’s club of Port Moresby, and established the girls’ scholarship scheme, and things of that nature. I was I guess facilitating organisations, but I never saw myself as a leader, and I see myself now as a politician, as a facilitator and a catalyst for change, I don’t actually see myself as a leader. I know it’s strange, but if you know what I’m getting at?

IJ: I do know, and the minute you see yourself as the leader you are in dangerous country, that’s quite right. Also I suppose what you had was a perception of what could be done.

CK: It was Buri’s death that put me into politics. I had the sympathy vote. Buri had his contract as Chief Justice not renewed in 1993, they brought in a new, that’s a cabinet decision in Papua New Guinea, so a new Chief Justice was appointed so Buri was no longer Chief Justice. He was starting to plan his life after politics, people were putting pressure on him, you must stand; his life after judiciary I mean. People were coming to the house and dancing and things, Barramundi dancers came, the Kiwa people, not just people of our own tribal group, but particularly people of the Papuan region, the southern coast, asking him to stand for politics.

He’d say, he often said to me ‘I don’t know if I really want to do this.’ He was getting things in place to go into private legal practice. I actually said to him, ‘Look I don’t think you have much choice, there’s so much pressure from the people for you to stand.’ Then he suddenly died in 1994, and the next election was June 1997. Really it’s his death that pushed me in that direction. Once he died I thought, ‘The buggers.’ We were blaming the politics of the day for his death. Without his sympathy vote, I don’t think – and of course I was so well known amongst the Motuans that I was a Motu woman. I then concentrated on going into the settlements of the people that had moved from the rural areas and villages. I worked very hard, but without the sympathy vote, no.

IJ: That’s very practical politician, telling me that. Is it too long a bow to say that for you, moving into and energetically following a political career was doing something that your husband couldn’t do, therefore it was an act of love?

CK: Love and anger and all sorts of things at what had happened to him. Anger at injustices that we were seeing around us. It was an act of love but I thought if Buri can’t do it, the bastards, I’ll do it. When I campaigned, I said ‘I cannot be Buri’, I campaigned with his name very much, but I used to say ‘I cannot be Buri but maybe I can contribute in some way.’

IJ: Is there something that we’re on to here about passion, it’s no good just saying, ‘I’ll become a politician because it’s a good way of making a living and I can do useful work.’

CK: I got poor in politics I can assure you, very poor! It was passion, passion and anger. Passion to try to change things, that’s a positive passion I guess, but the negative passion of anger which can drive you as well. It was a combination and they were both passion.

IJ: It’s probably also fair to say, is it, that had he lived –

CK: I would never have been in politics.

IJ: Well…

CK: No.

IJ: All right. Sure?

CK: I don’t think so. He would have gone down that road, and he would have hated it I think. With Buri alive in the circumstances of PNG, I would never have dreamt of standing for politics, that’s his role in that society.

IJ: Did you, looking back at that time, shortly after his death, 1997 you stood, consequences for your own kids?

CK: Awful.

IJ: But still had to do it?

CK: Yes, they backed me, but the consequences for them – it’s not a good life for family and children. In PNG where the expectations of a politician are huge and if you don’t have a good financial base you can’t fulfil those expectations, and its assumed that the children of politicians are wealthy and privileged, and people will demand money of them. Whereas I still live at the beach on customary land with extended family, we carry water every day, we don’t have running water. So my life, through politics, my personal life didn’t change.

IJ: You were the sole woman, was that right?

CK: No, in 1997, it was myself and Dame Abaijah.

IJ: Josephine Abaijah, yes.

CK: Yes. We were on opposite sides of the floor the whole way through, which was difficult, because she was part of the late Sir William’s party. I did ask her one time, could we form what you’d call a women’s caucus, just two of us, but I understand that I put her in a compromising situation, asking that, because I don’t think her party leader would have entertained the idea. I kept seeing the value of us working together but that was difficult because we were on opposite sides of the floor.

IJ: There's another lesson there, isn’t there, that some of the expectations that you might bring into a harsh political life, just don’t fit. Women work together very well as long as there’s no political divide as it were, but then as we know from the experience of all kind of women leaders, you get caught up in it. What did you expect would happen once you’d got a seat?

CK: I didn’t have a clue! I’d never been involved with it. It was harder than learning to be a Motuan in some ways, that was a long – you know get the frog in the water and boil the water up, gradually it gets hotter and you gradually adjust. With this, I was thrown into the boiling water I’d say. I found it was very challenging.

IJ: I’ve heard you say, I think you said this, that you were really rather pleased when as an MP, some of your other MPs, not your friends, were rude to you.

CK: When it first happened yes, at first when I was Buri’s widow, there was a certain hands-off type approach, this type of thing. The first time that one of them – I was in the opposition to start with – the first time that one of the government ministers threw a rude comment at me, it wasn’t really rude but he threw a comment at me and I thought, ‘Yes! Now it’s time I started being seen not as the widow of Sir Buri Kidu.’ That was something that had to be done, I had to establish myself in my own right, and I was aware of that.

IJ: Presumably you and Dame Josephine and the few women who have been there, are regarded as having been in the wrong place, by the men.

CK: To some degree I think yes, still. Although as you possibly know, on Tuesday the so-called Women’s Bill got its first passage, but it was the result of male power-play. Many of the people, most of the people who voted for it, in the new government, had been vehemently against it before, but it was a convenient, what they call critical legislation, to recall parliament, it was all a whole lot of politics involved. So yeah in general, men don’t see it as a place for women, but it’s very convenient now, and it could play out to the benefit of women.

IJ: I think it’s critical that we tell listeners and readers, what it is you’re trying to do, can you just spell it out for us?

CK: I realised very clearly, that for Papua New Guinean women, it’s just so hard. Example in my first campaign, I gave a very good speech in pure Motu, which is hard and I don’t know, I think Buri was helping me, if there’s such a thing, from the other side, and afterwards I heard these old men from the village, same tribal village as us, he said, ‘It’s okay, because she’s a European she understands these things, but we’ll never vote for our own women.’ That’s never left my mind, they could excuse voting for me as a woman because I’m a foreigner and I understand these things, but they said, no, for their women they would never vote for them.

IJ: Now your aim is actually to get, is it 22 extra seats ? - which will be for women only.

CK: Even the preferential voting did not help women. So I decided we’ve got to really throw ourselves at this, we got involved, enlisted all the women to work this, the UN backed us up and Oz aid money, and Sir Michael Somare, this is why I feel very sad that he’s not been given any credit, Sir Michael Somare said from the very beginning, ‘Carol, you must get more women into politics.’ Huge amount of work went into it, but it was really difficult getting it up and running on the floor. It was just a blessing for women, that the present power politics in the male politics, and their legislation was sitting waiting, so it could be announced as a critical piece of legislation to recall parliament unexpectedly.

IJ: Gotcha. So it helped to force it up there.

CK: Because they’d done that they had to vote for it and hopefully they’ve got a true genuine mind change and they’ll take it to the end. They organised a brilliant women’s, they got the women to organise a brilliant women’s rally, because the present prime minister, the president of his party is a woman and they organised a rally, they put a lot of money into bussing women in and buying lovely uniforms for women, it was brilliant populist politicians that really brought this to a huge new level. So they will find it very difficult to back off from it.

IJ: You’re on the way, no doubt about it. Is it true that it’s Bougainville that’s given you a bit of inspirational push here? They’ve done something?

CK: Well Bougainville when they came out of their ten-year civil war they then introduced in their new constitution reserved seats for women.

IJ: I know many Melanesian countries will identify absolutely with you, because of the same problems, in the Solomons, and to a certain extent Vanuatu, but the Polynesians are a little more advanced, and I expect that things like the matai system – you get authority, which gets us used to the idea of women.

CK: That’s right. And the women who’ve been in politics are basically from the matais. That gives an advantage. For the Solomon Islands, the prime minister of the Solomon’s – again they got zero women in – he has made a statement that they will have reserved seats by 2013, next election. If this goes through in PNG it will be a huge impetus for other countries to follow suit.

IJ: You’re very brave. Is there anywhere else in the world that’s done it? Has Norway or…

CK: Oh yes, Rwanda, Uganda, many places, but its happened when they’ve come out of civil war, or genocides or things, and had to write a new constitution. Because the women were often so prominent in those wars, in the fights, that they demanded their right to have a voice in the new constitution.

IJ: Dame Carol! Is there a hint there that we really have to suffer severely before –

CK: I hope not! But that has been the tendency in some of the developing countries. And Bougainville was the same, let’s face it. They came out of the war, the women had been the peacemakers, and the women were given a voice, they fought for it. I think maybe PNG are going to break that, because the men’s male politics has catapulted it forwards.

IJ: If you’re going to go into public life, how do you prepare, and what have you got to be prepared to face and overcome?

CK: They have to be extremely strong, they have to have extremely supportive husbands and families. In general the women that have succeeded in the political sphere, or who have dominated in the attempt to succeed, have been viewed by society, not just by men, as the women who are perhaps divorcees...that’s used against them too, but a good wife shouldn’t really be in this field, so they’ve got to really be on that as well. Of course when I stood I went through all the cultural hoops, I asked family permission, I asked an elder first that I thought would be sympathetic, then we asked the immediate family, then we asked the clan, after we asked the immediate family we went to Buri’s grave and the elders spoke to Buri and said ‘this is what’s going to happen, please help her and support her.’ Then we went to the clan and so on. Any woman who’s going to go must go through those cultural hurdles. I guess the negativism of so many of my male colleagues inspired me to keep going. Plus the efforts of the technical working group, the reference groups, all those people just persistently keeping it going, that persistence of keeping it going had never happened before. So I couldn’t drop it, no matter what.

IJ: I know you couldn’t. What are you going to do now the, just keep working at that? You’re no longer in a ministerial role are you?

CK: No, they’ve said, it’s a bittersweet end to it all because it’s been a long hard road and the incumbent deputy prime minister yelled out at me, ‘you’ll never be given credit for this law, we’re the ones who’ve passed it.’ I thought it was quite unnecessary, I yelled back at the floor – that’s why I think they’ll be glad to see the end of me, because I’ve become quite comfortable on the floor – I yelled back and said, ‘I beg your pardon, I never claimed this law, it doesn’t belong to you, it doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the women of Papua New Guinea.’