Tuesday, 16 March 2021
Somare, Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas
It's no small thing to be called the father of a nation, but that was the title bestowed on Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare. It's no small thing to help create a new nation and lead it into a new world. These were but two of the many achievements of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare. It's an honour for me to rise today to contribute to this condolence motion and join my friend in acknowledging an extraordinary leader. It is not only a privilege to be honouring the life of this leader and the contributions of this great man; I am also the co-chair of the Australia-Papua New Guinea Parliamentary Friendship Group. The reason I am working in that area is that Papua New Guinea is such an important friend of Australia's. That relationship is in no small part thanks to the efforts of the late great chief.
Sir Michael led Papua New Guinea to independence from Australia. Amid the pre-independence debate about what an independent Papua New Guinea would look like, Sir Michael was clear about the vision he had for the new nation and brought all of his considerable skill and talent to bring that vision to fruition. We can learn much about Sir Michael the statesman from the stories of those who met him and those who worked with him. Bill Sanders, who worked as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea before independence, told me about when he met Sir Michael, who was then but a young politician. At the meetings Bill attended, Sir Michael took the time to explain to each person about the progress which had been achieved at that point on the road to independence. Bill said, 'I do recall the respect that we all had for the quietly spoken politician, who was still finding his way.'
Quietly explaining things and bringing people together to a common position was Sir Michael's leadership style. It is true to say he was a leader who sought to build consensus and reduce conflict. When a new nation is born, there is no guarantee of success or failure for the future of that country. We all know of numerous examples of failed and troubled states—new nations plunged into chaos, or autocracy, after much initial promise. At the time of independence, many thought Papua New Guinea would face a similar fate. How could one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse nations in the world cohere and survive?
The factor that makes the difference, however, is political leadership. When leaders place institutions above themselves, success for those institutions follows. Sir Michael was just such a leader. At various points over his long public career, such as when he first lost the position of Prime Minister of the country that he had helped create, Sir Michael could have attempted to hold onto power through extra-parliamentary means—and there are plenty of examples of where that has occurred in other countries—but he was committed to the rule of law and democracy as much as he loved the country he had helped create.
It can be difficult to recognise and evaluate a historical reputation so soon after the death of such a significant figure. There may be debates about the finer points of legacies, and contrasting views will of course be put—and that is a good thing—but I am confident that the fullness of time will demonstrate the full role of the Grand Chief. History will judge Sir Michael favourably and place him among the greats. Papua New Guinea has lost a great father. The region has lost a great father. Australia has lost a great friend. But let's not dwell on this loss. Let's instead reflect upon what Sir Michael leaves behind. His legacy lives on. Papua New Guinea is a free country with a free people who, having seized their own destiny and having joined the nations of the world, look towards a future of progress and prosperity. That is the legacy Sir Michael leaves behind. More importantly, Sir Michael leaves behind a family that he cherished dearly. I too pass on my personal condolences to his widow, Lady Veronica, and to his children, Bertha, Sana, Arthur, Michael Junior and Dulciana.
Finally, today Papua New Guinea faces a crisis from the ravages of COVID-19. Australia shares an important history with Papua New Guinea and our destinies are inseparable. In the shadow of the death of the Grand Chief, let us here in this place resolve to do everything we can to support our sisters and brothers in Papua New Guinea overcome this terrible virus. Rest in peace, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare.