‘Memories of Somare: PNG’s separation from Australia and the challenges for government’

Mar 01, 2021
Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, former prime minister of Papua New Guinea and a giant of Pacific politics, has died from pancreatic cancer. He was 84. Source: Getty Images

There wouldn’t be many who can look back over a life of six decades or more and not cringe at some incident that did or might have taken us to the brink of (national) disgrace. Mine occurred in September 1981 and I was reminded of it last week when I read the tributes flowing to the deceased former prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Michael Somare.

No, Mr Somare was not present on that occasion — our meeting, if that’s what you’d call it, occurred a couple of years later. But his presence loomed large over the events of that night, which I thoughtfully recorded for posterity in a large feature article I wrote for my then employer, The Australian Financial Review.

Readers will recall that upon the demise of the Whitlam Government in 1975, the Labor Party’s fortunes were on the skids until it gained an unexpected fillip in the 1980 federal poll, coming very close to toppling the then Coalition Government of Malcolm Fraser. Readers will also remember that this was the time of the first stirrings of Thatcherism, so our editor, Paddy McGuinness, was infatuated with the ideas then coming to public notice from Labor’s minerals and energy spokesman, a young up-and-comer named Paul Keating.

I was duly dispatched by Paddy to Melbourne to be the AFR’s correspondent in the media pool covering the 1981 Federal Conference of the Labor Party where he expected all the issues then titillating him, mainly Thatcherite neo-liberal economics, would get a favourable airing.

Paddy might have worked for Opposition Leader Bill Hayden at one time in his own career, but he didn’t really understand the Labor Party because the 1981 ALP conference was more theatre than serious contemplation — with a growling Bob Hawke prowling the back rooms to belt the ear of anyone present about why he should replace Hayden as the Labor Leader.

There were other incidents of a testosterone-fuelled nature that I should draw a veil across because this is a family website. In short, the conference was light on substance but very heavy on the superficial, as anyone who really understood the Labor Party should have expected. Actually, I found it a very boring experience, aware that my editor would by this stage be seething with frustrated annoyance. Until…

Until the last night of the conference (rather like the Last Night of the Proms, when everyone lets their hair down). On the agenda was something called The Great ALP Anecdotal Dinner in which a succession of speakers told stories about different Labor luminaries, stories that had never been heard in public before.

Most were disgraceful, a few were utterly reprehensible, and a smidgeon were downright libellous. They should have insisted that we (of the Fourth Estate) leave our tape recorders, notebooks and pens at the door and be frisked for wires by security before being allowed in, because that’s when I came alive and scribbled like I’ve never scribbled before.

The next day, as the AFR hit the streets, reports began to filter into ABC news bulletins about the Australian High Commissioner in Delhi being carpeted by the Indian Foreign Office to receive a formal protest about Hawke’s contribution to the Great Anecdotal Dinner, which amounted to rather lewd references to the then Indian prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi. There were also a few ribald mentions of Gough Whitlam, but as the former prime minister and I had never really got on, I didn’t care too much about that. Where did Michael Somare fit into all that, you might ask?

Some reading this may vaguely remember former Federal minister Charlie Jones. Charlie wasn’t one of the slick, two-dimensional figures who ‘grace’ our stage today, where the finest political skill is to dodge bullets as though a gun hadn’t been fired. Charlie told it ‘like it is’, as it used to be said. Charlie’s talk wasn’t always nice, and sometimes it was plain ugly.

Now, the relevant anecdote informed us that Charlie was then the minister for Civil Aviation in the Whitlam Government charged with negotiating the continuing right of Australian aircraft to land in and traverse PNG after the approaching independence of our former territory. Michael Somare was obviously anxious that his new nation be independent and be seen as independent, while Charlie was having none of that feely-touchy twaddle.

“You can argue with me till you’re black in the face,” he allegedly shouted at the PNG leader during one heated exchange about landing rights. (At the end of the evening, we were all required to cast votes as to who was the winner among all the contributions. My vote went to Charlie Jones’s lawyer as the clear winner, by a country mile.)

Meanwhile, a sub-plot was developing elsewhere. We were all seated, pollies, journos and hangers-on, in circular tables scattered throughout the hotel ballroom. Next to me was a very smooth, personable young official from the Soviet embassy in Canberra. This young chap, Valery Ivanov, offered me the pleasures of his company before I returned to Sydney, promising a wonderful night out on Melbourne town, with no expenses spared. Not the sort of offer you’d knock back out of hand.

Why didn’t I accept, when he was obviously shaping up to be a most engaging and generous host for a night I would most certainly not report on, I cannot recall. But it must have been Ros Kelly sitting opposite. Some may remember her being pilloried in the dying days of the Keating Government, over the ‘whiteboard affair’ and community sports grants — rather like a Sports Rorts Mark One.

She was watching the growing relationship between the smooth Valery Ivanov and a gauche moi rather intently, because she then began to imitate a camera recording the intimacy of our exchanges. Ros must have known something because two years later, smooth-as-silk Valery was unmasked as the KGB station chief in Australia and was booted out of the country for trying to suborn a prominent ALP identity in another big night out.

That was in 1983, the year when I nearly met Michael Somare. Thanks, probably, to Charlie Jones’s negotiating ‘skill’, I was invited to travel on an inaugural Ansett flight from Sydney to Port Moresby where we were assured of a meeting and interview with the PNG prime minister. I can still visualise Mr Somare slumped in a canvas deck chair beside a torch-lit swimming pool, surrounded by security wallopers. Perhaps, he thought the whole event too reminiscent of landing rights and Charlie Jones, or maybe he simply reckoned Aussies were a pack of untrustworthy shysters, but not one of us got a look-in — to justify the cost to our papers of sending us up there.
I know I should have at least apologised to him for the Anecdotal Dinner story, but by that stage in the evening, I was too busy looking for the Beroccas. Some things never change.

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