Tuesday, 16 March 2021
Somare, Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas
I rise in support of this condolence motion and join in expressing Labor's deep sadness at the passing of Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare. Today we honour his extraordinary lifetime of service and celebrate his profound impact upon the nation of Papua New Guinea, as its first and longest-serving Prime Minister. As the Grand Chief and father of the nation, Sir Michael was a man who was deeply committed to his people and to the cause of national independence. He served a remarkable 17 years as Prime Minister over four terms and was knighted in 1990.
But Sir Michael was much more than the office he held and the honours he was awarded. He was a symbol of self-determination and autonomy. He was a towering political figure, with a commitment to advancing Papua New Guinea's national interests. He was a tireless advocate for Pacific regionalism and dialogue. Born in the coastal town of Rabaul in 1936, Sir Michael was raised in his father's ancestral home of Karau Village in the East Sepik province, a region he later went on to represent in parliament. He first began his service to the nation when he became a teacher in 1957. He later worked as an interpreter and a radio journalist. The beginnings of his political career came when he left the public service and attended the administrative college in Port Moresby alongside other young and energetic nationalists. Here he became a member of the Bully Beef Club, which later became Pangu Pati, Papua New Guinea's first locally initiated political party. In 1968, Sir Michael contested the elections for the second house of assembly as leader of the Pangu Pati and pledged to champion the demand for national self-governance and independence. He was re-elected in 1972 to become the first and only chief minister of Papua New Guinea while it was still an Australian administered territory, leading a coalition government. As remarked by Gough Whitlam, who visited Papua New Guinea as opposition leader in 1970 and 1971, this was a nation that was already rich in leadership and had a transformed political climate under the then young Sir Michael's leadership.
With the election of the Whitlam government in Australia in 1972, the pace towards independence increased. Sir Michael was instrumental during this time in negotiating between Australia's wishes for a quick transition and resistance from people in the highland provinces and Bougainville. He held a pivotal role in preparation for the adoption of the constitution. As a member of the Select Committee on Constitutional Development, he travelled the country to talk to people in communities who were apprehensive about self-governance and to ensure that the beliefs and wishes of Papua New Guineans would be reflected in the nation's constitution. His leadership throughout this period was hallmarked by his unwavering commitment to the principles of sana, meaning consensus, peacemaking and inclusion, in his traditional language. His former advisor, the outgoing Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, has said nothing pleased Sir Michael more than exchanging ideas and stories. If the sun set on a conversation in a rural village, she remembered, he'd come back again or spend the night to finish the discussion and make sure everyone was heard.
At the memorial service last week, Dame Meg described Sir Michael as a 'master politician in a truly Melanesian fashion'. She said:
His astuteness in assessing a situation, understanding the implications of words and actions, comprehending anxiety and its consequences and using his skills as a listener, teacher, and a leader, brought people together.
Sir Michael was ultimately successful in his vision for a unified, independent Papua New Guinea. He formally led his country to self-governance in December 1973 and ultimately secured a peaceful transition to independence on 16 September 1975 when he became the first Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. On his 80th birthday, he reflected that his 'lifelong dream for this remarkable country was fulfilled at independence when we started with peace'. The unification of such a diverse and complex nation with over 1,000 different tribal groups and more than 800 Indigenous languages was, indeed, a colossal achievement.
Sir Michael went on to serve as Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea for 17 years, on three separate occasions, a period spanning Australian prime ministerships from Whitlam to Gillard. His leadership was a testament to his unwavering commitment to democracy and his support for the Westminster political system. Despite challenges, this democracy remains steadfast today. As the Australian National University's Dr Ronald May recently wrote, Papua New Guinea 'remains one of a fairly small number of post-colonial states that have maintained an unbroken record of democracy'.
Sir Michael will be remembered as a well-respected friend to Australia and for his commitments to regional solidarity and cooperation in the Pacific. Under his leadership, Australia enjoyed a longstanding and productive relationship with our closest neighbour. As a strong advocate for the Pacific Island Forum, Sir Michael also recognised the need for integration and dialogue to advance the development of Pacific nations. He set the path for a new model of leadership, continuing to affirm the importance of his people's traditional ways of life while seeking to progress PNG as a modern nation. There is no doubt that Sir Michael's legacy as a founding father of an independent Papua New Guinea will live on into the future. I extend our deep condolences to his wife, Lady Veronica, his children and the whole of the Somare family. I also extend our nation's condolences to the citizens of Papua New Guinea at this time. May he rest in peace.