Chief Sir Michael Somare - Prime Minister

Sir Michael Somare, who was born in 1936, was one of the longest serving political leaders in the Commonwealth, having been Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea for some 17 years (1975-80, 1982-85, 2002-11). Seen as the father of PNG independence, he led two political parties, PANGU and later the National Alliance Party. When interviewed by Ian Johnstone in 1995, he said that even in the 1960s, he’d been sure independence was bound to come.


Ian Johnstone: I wondered if we could jump back into your memory and find out when first you had a sense as a citizen of Papua New Guinea, a colonial state, that the country had to be independent, at some time or other. Was there a time at school, or whenever, when you got that sense?

Sir Michael Somare: Yes, there was. There was a time that I was brought in with a group of teachers. And some of them were working at broadcasting, radio, administration, broadcasting stations, to be interpreters in the reconstituted legislative council in 1960 and 61, in Port Moresby.

I was doing the radio commentaries, and doing the simultaneous translation for the members of the reconstituted Legislative Council, MLCs. That prompted me to start thinking about, you know, politics. That was my early introduction to political education.

But even in '60 I was called with the other young Papua New Guinean teachers and people who were in the Australian Civil Service, to go out and explain to people, political education particularly on the electoral college system before the Legislative Council was reconstituted. When Sir Paul Hasluck who was then the Minister, decided that universal suffrage should be extended to indigenous people in the country and I was one person who was also involved because I understood a bit of English and they decided that I should do the translation.

IJ: Was it obvious, Sir, that Independence was the end result of all that?

MS: Well, as I was looking, independence really came about in my mind I think in 1962, some of us, all civil servants, were asked to go back and, probably trying to, not indoctrination, but giving us some kind of secondary education.

And myself, and quite a number of Papua New Guineans, Sir Paulius Matane is one of them, we were asked to go back, so that we can be qualified for the Australian third division of the public service. We were given a four years course in one year, in Segeri in 1962, to sit the Queensland junior certificate public examination. And, we were confined to do that, four years work in one year. There were about 35 of us successful in that course. We did some secondary correspondence studies before, so that enabled us, so were qualified for the third division.

And that then, at the visit of Sir Paul Hasluck and Menzies opening up Sirinumu Dam, Bob Menzies the then Australian Prime Minister, and visitors, Australian politicians, visiting Segeri - that prompted me to start thinking about, you know… I even told them that when I go out from Segeri, I'll probably become your first prime minister. They laughed at me. Some of these people laughed at me, my own colleagues!

IJ: Did you have a sense of having being picked, being ear-marked by the colonial system for future leadership?

MS: Yes, I think that's what Sir Paul Hasluck did. With Les Johnson who was then the Director of Education. I think in the education system as well, I think that was the aim. Sir Paul Hasluck’s policy on universal education for Papua New Guinea is one of those things that made the Australian administration start thinking about picking a group of people and Sir Paulius was one of the group of people, with myself and others, who were selected to go and do this training because their aim was to get us, when we finished, to come back to go into the public service system. Sir Paulius Matane was chairman of the Public Service through the system. Of course I decided to step out, go into politics.

IJ: Could I just establish, could you give me a feeling of how the people, the citizens of Papua New Guinea felt in the early '60s. Was there pressure from within?

MS: There was no feeling of imposition. But, what other alternatives? Who were the other people around to give us alternatives? There were no other alternatives. The Australian system was the only alternative we had at that time offered to us. So we were made to follow the system.

IJ: Can we pick up again on the point you brought up. There you were, pushing, succeeding, doing very well in this system, school teacher, broadcaster. How did the shift into politics happen? Was that gradual, the move from public servant to political figure?

MS: Well, I think I, I exposed myself. I had been reading. I decided that, I felt something that I could do, in politics. Particularly being an observer to Legislative Council. And I thought there is much, and the teaching profession is something that I wanted to do. But then I thought, well maybe a greater thing I could do is go into politics. And that really put me into that area, you see.

IJ: What was it like when you were actively engaged in politics, but you were part, you were also, still a public servant. Was that awkward?

MS: Yes it was awkward. It was. We were being watched by the Australian Special Branch. Even going to school, going back to do matriculation at the Administrative Staff College. A number of us civil servants were brought back, Sir Paulius and others were brought into the teaching service to be given specialised training for Inspectorate of Schools, secondary inspectors, and primary inspectors of schools. I opted out of that area of education, I decided to go into much more flexible, where I can boss myself, you see, and become a politician, that's what I thought. So I opted out.

And of course I met people like the late Albert Maori Kiki, people like Oala Raroa, Gavera Rea, John Kaputin, and all these people, and I thought, well you know, it's a new club altogether, completely new club. And we formed kind of gatherings in the evenings, after lectures. And talk about, what I need, what we need to do for Papua New Guinea, as Papua New Guineans. And eventually, you know, organise ourselves. Talking about how we can best organise ourselves, to be the masters of our own destiny. So that's how we got that.

IJ: Was this what somebody has described to me… was it the Bully Beef Club?

MS: Yes, yes, we had the famous Bully Beef Club in the Administrative Staff College, under the principal, Mr Chanowan. He didn't like the idea, but I think in his own heart he was favouring this type of gathering by Papua New Guineans, for the first time, who can stand up in a forum, and talk, express their feelings. And in those open discussions and seminars quite a number of us were brought in. Trade Union leaders like Oala Raroa, Albert Maori Kiki having exposed themselves in Australia and Fiji, they were coming out and start talking about some kind of freedom for Papua New Guinea.

IJ: We're talking mid-60s here are we, Sir? Round about then?

MS: Yes.

IJ: Was there a date? Did you say right, independence within ten years, five years? I don't know.

MS: In 1968, when I was elected to the House Assembly – I'd decided to leave the Public Service in '67 and I went and ran for East Sepik electorate, which I hold up to now - I was talking about, you know, being cut out as Prime Minister; when asked the question, would you be the first Prime Minister? I said, well, I don't know. You have to organise yourself before you start talking about dates. And I was asked to go and talk at a Sir Hubert Murray Memorial lecture in Sydney in 1968. And I said, well, I may not be cut out to be Prime Minister.

I could see things would be happening. And I said, yes, we should set the date. And at that seminar I said we should set the date for independence. Of course, I became very unpopular. I came back here and Maori Kiki, who was the General Secretary to Pangu Party, started kicking me and saying you shouldn't have said these things when you got to Australia, and I said "I had to say it" So...

IJ: That began to set the agenda…

MS: That’s right.

IJ: When did Pangu start? Did you found it yourself?

MS: 1967. The real idea of starting a political party goes back to '65. But '66 was the time that we started organising. People, the likes of Obed Boas, were talking about a grassroots organisation, you need to have organisation if you want to start talking about independence. And the Pangu Party started, formally announced and launched on 13th of June, 1967. And when we went up to policy, we said, you know we are going to run a few candidates for the House of Assembly elections. We ran them and we only had nine seats, we won nine seats.

IJ: Was independence one of the aims of Pangu?

MS: Oh yeah, I had been talking about self-governing and independence. I appeared before the United Nations Trusteeship Council Mission who came to Angoram in April 1968, and I said, yes, if I was elected to Parliament, certainly I would be pushing for independence for Papua New Guinea.

The majority of the people in the villages, with the influence of the churches, were not prepared for early independence; most of them were speaking against independence - even some of our elected leaders were speaking against independence; people who came into the 1964 House of Assembly, the majority of them from the Highlands anyway. And some from the Papuan coast, New Guinea coast, New Guinea islands were saying we were pushing for it too early. But I said that maybe earlier is better than leaving it too late.

PNG Independence Day Parade 1996

IJ: You never know, do you? They say people are ready. They're never ready, or they're always ready.

MS: You will never be ready until you start doing something. Like anything else that you do. You can not say I won't be able to write, unless you learn to write. It's exactly the same thing with a country.

IJ: Did you, in that group, and Pangu, and, you know, your group of associates, did you consider anything other than complete independence? For instance, an association with Australia? A self-government, rather like the Cook Islands with New Zealand? Or any other form?

MS: There were quite a number of people who suggested we should be the seventh state (of Australia). There was a political party called Christian Democratic Party. They wanted Papua New Guinea to be the seventh state. But I've never believed in the seventh state. I said, no, if we're going to be independent, we'll have a great association, we can have association with the countries that we want.

I think my experience was a good one, because I happened to travel, in 1970, to African countries, and also we had people like the late Tom Mboya and others who were visiting our colleges and telling us about independence. And I read about independence in those countries and I felt it would be far better that we would be independent and on our own.

I suggested we should go and look at Africa and some of the Pacific countries; so we had two groups who travelled. Some of us went to Africa, I went to Africa. Paulus and his group, and Oala Raroa travelled the Pacific, and looked at the concepts in the Pacific, what was happening, particularly the American Trust Territories and what New Zealand was doing with Western Samoa. Australia's plan, British plan for Fiji, and things like that. We travelled around.

I went to Kenya. I went to Uganda. That was the time when they had Idi Amin in 1971. The little corporal started firing at the Foreign Affairs building while we were still in there. They stopped us from going to Nigeria because there was a military coup by then. But I was in Kenya, Uganda, and I went to Tanzania. And I was more interested in the Tanzanian system. There was the village concept – and that somewhat relates to the provincial government system that we have.

And then we went to Sri Lanka. And at the time in Sri Lanka they had the bicameral system, and they were abolishing that – the abolishing of the Upper House came in 1971 when we were there. The vote was actually taken when we were in the Chamber. So, when we came back, that framed my mind, that we should not have two Houses. When John Guise went out he wanted two Houses and I said no, we have a single unitary system of government so it's easy to control, you have one person. And the legislation is much easier for legislative processes than two houses. I was never for two houses. We only have one chief in the traditional village - he says it and everybody runs…

IJ: So they echoed that in the Chamber of Representatives.

MS: Yes, they echoed that in the Constitution. So, that really helped. We went around, like other places did, like Fiji did, we had exactly the same. But, then, when we were going forward we did not want to adopt one system, we said, we will develop our own Constitution.

IJ: I imagine one thing one could return from Africa with, Sir, is a bit of fear? My God, what are we getting ourselves into? I mean, you were kept out of Nigeria, there's a coup, Amin is running rampant in Uganda…

MS: Oh yes, yes. We were fortunate in Melanesia. We were very small groupings. We never had huge ethnic groups. We have, but it's all separated. Whereas in Africa, the leaders who emerged from their own tribes - like South Africa for example - you have the chief who comes from the bigger tribe has the control over things. The first Kenya Prime Minister – Kenyatta – comes from a very, very big tribe. And of course that big tribe dominates over the others. And in our country we did not have that. We have smaller tribes.

But what the Australian government did was unify us by bringing us together in one central place, one focal point, to say we are Papua New Guineans. And that's why I got to know the likes of Paulius, apart from working, brought up, and born in his area but we got to know the likes of people like Vincent Ari, people from different parts of Papua New Guinea. When we were brought together we felt we belonged to this country.

IJ: How were the Australians in all this? Did they say, by all means, you know, if you want a unitary system that's what you'll have, if you want. Or did they have an agenda, and a preferred pattern that they perhaps wanted?

MS: No, they never had a preferred agenda. But, I think, as I said, a lot of credit to the Australians. I hope one day, the Australian government will have given credit to people like Les Johnson.

IJ: He was your last Administrator, is that right?

MS: Yes. I hope one day, Australians, through their honours system will recognise someone like Les Johnson, who spoke for Australians, but he had Papua New Guineans at heart. He decided that this is what you do. You know, normal administration, he would be an administrator. But from time to time, over a cup of tea, he would say, this is how we should do it. He travelled with us. He was in Kenya, he was in Tanzania, because he was Chairman of the Constitutional Development Committee. And he really prompted people like myself, and others, to say, you have to decide what you want for your country. Australia never had a prepared programme, no.

IJ: Was he unusual? Let me not get this wrong, but I had the sense that there were a number of expatriates, civil servants, and business people, who were perhaps very comfortable, thank you, in a colonial system and may not have been as supportive.

MS: Oh yeah, quite a number of people were not supportive. I mean, they were coming out saying Papua New Guineans, you cannot; of course they used the simplicity of people like "Oh how can Papua New Guineans, you can't even fly your aeroplanes; Papua New Guineans, you can't even do this, how come that you are now talking about independence?"

Well, people who had some kind of education were able to help their own people, and we were doing that. We had this propaganda machine through radio, and I travelled a lot. When I was a Member of House, and the works committee, I also went around exerting influence "Hey independence is OK for you fellas, come on" I had a lot of public servants who, through the education setup, they were working for the colonial service, but indirectly passing the message on, maybe good news was coming, you see. So, it all helped.

We were all united, we were all united for one cause. That's independence for Papua New Guinea. Now we are all divided, Chan, myself, and everybody, we are divided but before, we had one cause. I said this is what we wanted for PNG and everybody followed.

IJ: How did you feel as you looked across the Pacific from here? Vanuatu, very slow indeed. Were you able to take a more positive part, once you were independent, in encouraging...

MS: Yes we were. With Mara and myself, the Pacific leaders, we were spokesmen for those people who were not independent at the time, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati and these places. We were saying, these countries of the Pacific will be independent one day and we need, we need to expedite and accelerate the process.

IJ: Have you ever regretted the fact that Papua New Guinea that is such a funny country? I mean you're the only Pacific one with a land boundary, and you're also such a wide range aren't you, reaching all the way across into North Solomons, from Highlands and so on. Has that made it an awkward country?

MS: Well, it was an awkward country. But I think, you know, if we had the infrastructure we could have united the country. Like, we were divided, of course it's not our making, it was the making of other people who divided our land, the British, the Germans, the Dutch they divided our country. And of course now we…

IJ: …you've got to put it together...

MS: We try to put it together, we have put ours together. You know, Indonesia of course came before us, and they had the other part of the country.

IJ: Did you ever think even that Papua and New Guinea, might, should separate?

MS: No. When I formed the Pangu party I told them I wanted to unite Papua New Guinea. And I think Papua and New Guinea were the colonial names imposed on us. I would rather have a name for the nationality, the name that we should have for this country as one. You know there's a lot of words in your mouth when you say "Papua New Guineans"

IJ: Did you have enough people to run the country? I suppose that's the question.

MS: We didn't have enough people. But I think the talent in Papua New Guinea was there, and Papua New Guineans didn't have the opportunity because our universities started very late, in 1967. Australia over a long period, only had (produced) three graduates; John Natera, Joseph Awai, Kipling Wiari, and later in the time, they had Henry de Robert and Bernard Narakobi and in this long period you only have about ten people who graduated from Australian universities.

IJ: Can you identify the biggest single problem of the first three or four years of independence? Was it getting control of the economy, was it turning the minds of the people around? Was it the public service?

MS: It was both public service and the economy. I think in politics we were getting the message across. People have a much better grasp of information in our country and I think with our radio system, with the messages we carry mouth to mouth, messages, it did go very well, because we had the field officers who were able to go out and explain to people the concept of government, what we were doing, the policies that we were trying to implement, to push through for them to be implemented and we were able to do this. The message was gradually getting to the people.

IJ: You certainly created a participatory democracy, I mean you've only got to travel around this country and you know everyone's involved. Did you feel, do you feel now, that you did something because you wanted to do it, or because somebody had to do it? I suppose what I'm asking is, would you rather have been Michael Somare the school teacher/broadcaster still?

MS: No, I felt I had to do something. Because I think my aspirations came about when I travelled around, when I'm exposed, when I watched what's going on, I thought I'd better do something. And, well, I don't regret now that I have done what I could. And I'm hoping that the next generation of Papua New Guineans will be able to carry on and make it a better place for all of us because I will have great grand-children, and I would have my great grand-children's children, and I hope we can make Papua New Guinea a better place to live.

Robert Muldoon (second right) arrives in Port Moresby, 1983. Michael Somare (far right) introduces him to political leaders.
Robert Muldoon (second right) arrives in Port Moresby, 1983. Michael Somare (far right) introduces him to political leaders.