By Rowan Callick

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business, May 2008) – Sir Michael Somare is still the Chief 40 years after first being elected to Papua New Guinea’s parliament by the people of his East Sepik province on March 16, 1968, principally for a single reason: he is the country’s prototype nationalist.

He is one of only a few leaders in the world to remain in power from that tumultuous period in the 1950s-80s during which the "winds of change" - in British Prime Minister Sir Harold Macmillan’s phrase - swept away most of the colonial empires acquired so painstakingly over the previous 200 years.

He has been prime minister three times, from independence in 1975 to 1980 (after being chief minister during the preparatory three years of self-government from 1973-75), from 1982-85, and now since 2002.

He was born in Rabaul in 1936, where his father was working as a policeman, but grew up in his father’s home village of Kurau in the Murik Lakes area of Sepik. His first schoolling there was within the Japanese system and he has retained an affection for Japan.

He eventually left home to attend Sogeri High School on the plateau above Port Moresby, the school that was the first national institution for the country’s most talented children and has been the crucible for many of the country’s best leaders.

After that he taught at both primary and secondary schools before shifting roles to become a broadcaster, for which he returned to Wewak in his East Sepik province. In 1965, he came to Port Moresby for training at the Administrative College at Waigani.

The timing was crucial. He was not the only independently minded, spirited young man to have emerged with promise at the start of his career, to have been sent to the Administration College for some polishing-up, as the Australian colonial managers started to localise the administration.

The institution proved a key, unintentional catalyst for PNG’s drive towards becoming a nation forged from the colony that was Papua, passed on at the start of the 20th century from Britain and the United Nations trust territory that was New Guinea, for which the League of Nations had seized responsibility from the Germans after World War 1, and had then asked Australia to govern on its behalf.

Tony Voutas and Sir Barry Holloway were bright young Australians working in PNG who identified with those early radical yearnings for independence and had become early parliamentarians.

Voutas, who has been working with his wife Shelley Warner in a variety of development, aid and business roles based in Beijing for more than 20 years, says there were no political parties during the first House of Assembly in PNG from 1964-68, except in the last six months.

They were viewed with distrust, he says, "as something that would cause havoc in the country." But the Australian administration, the establishment, "largely embodied conservative values." That left room for a genuinely Papua New Guinean party that advocated change. And it soon became clear what sort of change Somare and his fellow mature students at the Administration College had in mind.

This, says Voutas, "provided an environment for an explosion of free thought, with Somare and his colleagues catching the spirit of nationalist movements driven by Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania."

The crowd who coalesced around Somare as the natural leader tended to gather at the home of trade unionist Albert Maori Kiki, and sometimes at the community centre in Hohola, to eat tinned corned beef and talk politics late into the night. This became known informally as the Bully Beef Club.

Voutas says: "Sir Michael was fiery, spoke well and was an ideas person. He was still a public servant, so there was a limit to how visible he could be."

The Papua New Guinea Union (Pangu) Party was officially formed on June 13, 1967, with the support of nine members of the House of Assembly: Nicholas Brokham, Barry Holloway, Wegra Kenu, Siwi Kurondo, Paul Lapun, Pita Lus, James Meangarum, Paliau Moloat and Voutas. The other founding members of the party were: Cecil Abel, Pen Anakapu, Gerai Asiba, Ilimo Batton, Cromwell Burau, Elliot Elijah, Sinaka Goava, Albert Maori Kiki, Basil Koe, Joseph Nombri, Oala Oala-Rarua, Ebia Olewale, Gavera Rea, Somare, Reuben Taureka, Epel Tito, Vin Tobaining, Thomas Tobunbun and Kamona Walo.

Somare, said Voutas, faced his first big test when the Australian administration offered Pangu several positions of parliamentary secretaries with the intention of training ministers of the future. They would receive higher pay and status.

But the party had pursued a platform of being a watchdog on the government and of chasing independence. "This could be seen as the certainty of taking some degree of power and privilege now, as opposed to the uncertainty of taking control of the government later. Somare had no hesitation in choosing to remain independent of the Australian official members. He showed himself as a man of principle.

"During those intensive days as the second House of Assembly gathered for its initial meeting, he demonstrated to all other party members his firmness in making decisions and, above all else, his charisma. For the next four years, his experience as leader of the highly vocal, yet small, opposition party can be likened to how steel is strengthened by placing it in an ultra high temperature furnace. By the time of the third House in 1972, he had acquired the foundation talents necessary to take on the enormous task of PNG’s first national leader."

Political longevity: And it is those very foundational talents that PNG’s voters have sought to re-enlist as they have voted for politicians and parties aligned with Somare at the country’s last two elections in 2002 and 2007. This, even though most of the voters then were too young to have recalled directly those early glory years.

All would have known, however, from family talk about the PNG of those early years in the mid-1970s: a time of comparative peace and calm, of faith in progress, of extensive civil society, of rapid and effective localisation, of the widespread delivery of government services even into remote regions, of a government in which corruption was rare.

The key to Somare’s political longevity and to his present high standing at home and in the wider Pacific region, is what has happened since. The answer, is not enough. The post-independence period has substantially been one of disappointment.

For most islands countries, they have little choice but to move on and assess which political newcomer appears least likely to let them down again. For PNG, Somare, still feisty at 72, has remained ready, willing and eager for office.

So voters have in large measure sought to recapture some of that earlier sense of hope associated with the first Somare years when he presided over a sound cabinet and an equally talented young team of top public servants, two of whom Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Sir Mekere MorautaŃwere to become prime ministers themselves.

Today, the sons of several of those earlier leaders are in parliament Byron Chan, son of the then Finance Minister Sir Julius Chan, who also went on to become Prime Minister; Sam Abal, son of then opposition leader Sir Tei Abal; Patrick Tammur, son of Tolai leader, Oscar Tammur; and Somare’s own son, Arthur, who can be a fiery orator like his father.

Jeff Wall, now based in Brisbane but who lived in Goroka and Port Moresby in the early years of independent PNG, has built a reputation as a particularly astute analyst of politics in both PNG and Australia, an adviser of top politicians in both countries including the late Sir Iambakey Okuk and Namaliu, and a leading drafter of convincing speeches.

He says: "The political record of Somare is without equal not only in PNG but in the South Pacific. His 40 years of unbroken parliamentary service is unlikely to be equalled, let alone exceeded in the future. He has been in PNG’s Parliament continuously for twice as long as any other member. "But the measure of years tells only a part of the story. He has been a remarkable political survivor, who has been written off by opponents and observers alike more than once in the past, yet today he is at the very zenith of his political power.

"In the robust, unpredictable, though highly democratic, political environment that PNG is and has always been, surviving 40 years as an MP, and being elected Prime Minister for a period of almost 16 years, is a remarkable record."

Wall says: "Having observed the Chief for the last 30 years, I sense the basis of his success has been a very stable home environment in which he has had wonderful support from Lady Veronica and the strength provided by his Catholic faith.

"I am sure history will regard his greatest contribution to Papua New Guinea as the national unity he, more than anyone else, helped to deliver at independence and has striven to maintain ever since."

The range of issues that Somare and his government face today, demonstrate how much catching up still has to be done in PNG. Many of them remain matters that have remained on the agenda, unresolved, through the existence of independent PNG.

This must at times depress Somare but it also appears to motivate him.

Such issues include disappointment over the state of the country’s telecommunications, which continue to lag modern expectations; criticism of the lack of attention to local concerns by mine developers only this time, Chinese not Australians; the continuing struggle to commercialise the country’s vast gas reserves; the desire for a national TV service; concern about run-down plantations; disagreement over the pace and extent of logging of rainforests; poor urban housing an issue revived by the Trade Union Congress recently; debate is being reignited about the language of instruction in primary schools; and Bougainville’s autonomous government -- which 30 years ago triggered nationwide decentralisation, a process still less than coherent -- continuing to need, paradoxically, especially close attention.

While Somare government has stabilised the economy and built a steady recovery on the basis of rising commodity prices, investment levels and thus job creation remain disappointing.

Somare, who has been assiduous in maintaining and building on international contacts, is a co-founder of a plan to reduce global climate change by Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) which involves giving developing countries cash incentives to stop the harvesting of their rainforests.

Key to success: There’s always something new happening with Somare. He ascribes his continued success to the virtues of patience and of "real understanding of my people".

His advice to younger MPs: "Be prepared to sit with your people; cry with them, or be happy with them."

He says that swimming, playing golf and spending time with his grandchildren had helped keep him fit: "I’ve still got so much energy in me."

During the celebrations surrounding the 40th anniversary, he told Australian Associated Press: “I know what PNG politics tastes likeŃ40 years of it, eating the same food, doing the same thing over and over, it becomes monotonous, so you need a change.”

He added: "The time has come..."

But while everyone who knows PNG politics takes the Chief extremely seriously, no one is ready to believe he really intends to step aside voluntarily at least any time short of the 50th anniversary.

Rowan Callick has been reporting on PNG politics since 1976.

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