Tuesday, 16 March 2021
Somare, Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas
I rise this afternoon privileged to acknowledge the extraordinary life of Papua New Guinea Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, who sadly passed away last month. My community and those that call Cairns and Far North Queensland home have very strong and deep ties with Papua New Guinea. In fact, we have the largest population of Papua New Guineans outside of Papua New Guinea, and we are very proud of these wonderful citizens. In fact, the most northern island of the Torres Strait, Saibai Island in my vast electorate of Leichhardt, is literally four kilometres from mainland Papua New Guinea. You can stand on the foreshore of Saibai and you can see the smoke rising from the villages in Sigabadaru and in the wet season you can see the deer swimming from the mainland of Papua New Guinea onto Saibai Island and retreating back to Papua New Guinea when the surface water dries up. That's how close and interwoven our two nations are.
Sir Michael Somare was a towering figure in the history of Papua New Guinea. He was a driving force in the development of Papua New Guinea's national constitution and was the nation's first and longest-serving Prime Minister. He was Papua New Guinea's longest-serving member of parliament and represented his East Sepik constituency for 49 years. I suspect that's almost a record here in Australia as well. He also served as foreign affairs minister, Leader of the Opposition, and local governor of the East Sepik province. To his fellow countrymen, Sir Michael was affectionately known as the Chief and as father of the nation. He was one of only two people in Papua New Guinea to be given the official title of Grand Chief. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.
Sir Michael was a person that deserved and commanded the respect of his community, its people and the nation—and rightfully so. Sir Michael holds an unparalleled place in the history of Papua New Guinea. He was the driving force behind—and led Papua New Guinea into—independence from Australia in 1975. His five decades of public service will be a long-lasting legacy for the nation, and especially its people, that he loved so much and cared so deeply about. Sir Michael once said:
PNG is a melting pot of tribes, clans and families that were never meant to be the same. But despite all this, I have found that it is not a difficult nation to unite.
Wise and profound words; words that we all can learn from.
I had the privilege of meeting Sir Michael in 1975, when I was in the Air Force and based in Papua New Guinea. I was in Papua New Guinea at the time of independence. That was the first time I met him. I met him a number of times over the years. Sir Michael was a true statesman in every sense of the word.
Finally, on behalf of my community, I would like to pass on my deepest condolences to Sir Michael's wife, Lady Veronica Somare, to their five children, to their grandchildren and of course to the wider Somare family. Rest in peace, Sir Michael.
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.
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.
I understand it is the wish of the honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places, and I ask all present to do so.
Honourable members having stood in their places—
I thank the Federation Chamber.