graceful bowing out of our country’s first Prime Minister and one of its founding fathers after 49 years in politics somewhat signifies the end of an era in Papua New Guinea.
For some it leaves a sense of uncertainty, in terms of politics and the future of this sovereign nation.
There was a fashion in the older ranks of politicians, during their time at the helm; one of honour and servitude, one that has become almost obsolete in today’s political arena.
From the stories of independence we grew up with, we now observe trends of lopsided development perpetuated by corruption in every possible sector of our society.
As the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, we wonder where the vigour and passion, to equally develop every Papua New Guinean which fuelled our move toward independence has gone.
The Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare was in his 20’s when he began making his name in radio in Wewak, East Sepik Province.
“I was a disc jockey and I made sure I always put my name out there. I also would go and do recordings in the villages and people would know after they listened to it that the recording was done by Michael Thomas Somare”.
When transferred to Port Moresby and being appointed to interpret (into English) for Sir Pita Lus in the House of Asembly, who he described as the rascal and the radical in an interview, his political aspirations were born.
He later met Albert Maori Kiki in Hohola, Port Moresby where they began regular meetings about a united and independent PNG, while Somare trained in journalism at the Administrative College.
Further inspiration came from people like Tom Mboya, then foreign minister of Kenya who visited the Admin College with the equal rights ideologies of movements circulating around the world at the time.
Somare, Kiki and a hot-headed group of other young men, patriotic and proud to the core, then formed PANGU Party in 1966.
It was also, on the part of those leaders, a vote of confidence in a young and vulnerable people; belief that somehow our strengths from cultural roots and strong tribal attitudes would see us through.
The few colonial inequalities that pushed them to make this move were issues such as plantation labour exploitation, racial prejudices, dual pay scales which put expatriates pay at double and triple that of locals and an overall feeling of colonial neglect.
After Admin College Somare returned to Wewak in 1966 to utilise radio; broadcasting in Pidgin to the people of East Sepik and sharing his nationalist and pro-independence agenda.
“They (Australian administration) kicked me out of Wewak. They said I was not very good for the public service; said I was playing too many games”.
“A very powerful order came from Konedobu; you are required in Port Moresby by tomorrow”.
His first daughter Bertha had been born at the time.
Sir Pita Lus visited Somare one Saturday in 1967 at his home, back in Hohola (the types of houses he called dog boxes), urging him to run for elections back in ESP for self-government the next year.
“I didn’t realise that over the 2 years I was on radio there, I had already indoctrinated the people with the name Michael Thomas Somare. Yu askim long Slim Dusty, you’ll get Michael Thomas Somare to play the record for you”.
1968 saw Somare, the staunch nationalist, as Chief Minister.
Somare says about the PANGU Party in relation to then Australian Ministers; “we were a group at that time, a radical group in Papua New Guinea – we’ll tell you what we think”.
It’s no wonder these early game changers were called the 10 angry young men; Somare recalls discrimination in the early days:
“Julius Chan was a bit reluctant because others were reluctant to accept mixed races into parliament. But I stood up for them and said, we can’t judge people based on their ethnicity.
Mixed race people were cast with the whites. Mixed race people would be allowed into the bar at Konedobu, full locals were rejected.
Albert (Maori Kiki) was clerk in the district office, he was rejected. Ruben Taureka, even though he was a medical officer was also rejected.
Discrimination was big. As a school teacher in New Ireland, I thought I would have access to Kavieng Club – I still do not set foot in there today; not New Islanders’ fault but it’s just because of the principles I believed in at the time.
In Madang, they rejected me and Pita Lus – we were already famous members of parliament at the time”.
Interviewed by Jonathan Ritchie and Ian Kemish Sep 13 2014 (this will go as source at bottom of page)
It may seem that the people who later became leaders of that time, had different things to fight for, which drove them to be so passionate for their cause; however, many of these discrepancies still exist today in disguise or have been, perhaps unintentionally institutionalised.
To be a Michael Somare, or one of the 10 Angry Young Men then may have meant taking on a great colonial power, but in essence it meant fighting for the equal development of all Papua New Guineans – that cause still exists today, in the face of a new power, encouraged by our own colour, corruption.
Finally in April of this year, before the start of the elections for the 9th National Parliament, we let an icon of a fond pastime go and it seemed the whole country shared similar sentiments; a large void has opened up in not only the political landscape of this country, but also its emotional attachment to that landscape.
“Who would’ve thought in 1968 that my journey into the world of politics would be this long and this far?
“I’ve been in politics too long, as some people say, but I’m thankful to my people back in Sepik, not once did they drop me”.
Somare spoke fondly of PANGU Party at an event for daughter Dulciana Somare-Brash, now looking to stand for the seat her father has held for the past 49 years, in the party her father founded all those years ago:
“When we talk about uniting the country, this is the way to go. Instead of coming as individuals and trying to push our own agendas in parliament. If PANGU didn’t think about getting together, we wouldn’t be here today”.
“We are a nation of 800 tribes and languages, a great nation; all we need is leadership to guide us”.
“Those who are organising the parties, I’ve done it, mi wokim long bus pastaim, na mi kisim kantri kam, olsem na mi stap yet long palamen na mi lukim planti kain kain ting ting sa’e kamap. Mi no laik yupla i ting ting Karangi, yupla i gat wanpla kantri tasol”.
The outgoing Grand Chief had advice for the voters too:
“You people are going to elections now and it’s important for us the public to vote for parties with good policies, not just fragmented groups that come together and say, let’s make a group.
We have to read their policies and what they are all about”.
A Father, through his Daughters Eyes
Do you remember having political aspirations as a youngster? Is it something you saw yourself doing in the future, having grown up with such strong political influence?
In 1973 when I was born, my father was already chief minister and he’s held down one job all my life, so I grew up not knowing anything different. So all I’ve seen is a very prolific and successful politician.
We were all shafted off to boarding school quite early so I guess our parents believed that a solid education would set us up to make decisions on our own and I’m always really proud to say that we were never pressured by our parents to go in any particular direction.
They led by example, and stayed together in potentially what might have been very difficult circumstances for them; we didn’t really get that impression growing up.
It’s all we saw, it’s all we knew and I guess you could say we’re all quite political; my father’s success I believe has had a great deal to do with that.
When I say his success; he stayed relevant over such a long period of time over different generations, over so many waves of our political landscape in PNG. He was always at the forefront of politics.
Do you feel as though you’re carrying on the torch now as your father retires and you enter politics?
In his term from 2002 to 2007 Dulciana went back to University as a mature aged student.
I went back to Uni and studied through that period – both political science and a law degree and I was interested in being a legislative draftsperson actually, to design and write laws.
I still want to do that which is why I’m moving in this direction.
During the political impasse, which we don’t talk about very often, I will take to my grave that I believe my father was treated very unfairly, not just as the leader of this country at the time but as a human.
And I will forever be disappointed in our country, and what he contributed to the country and the way he was treated, because a few people felt like it was their turn.
In terms of carrying on his torch, I’ve been inspired by, I guess that poor treatment of my father. I feel like making a contribution to restoring the many things that have been destroyed in PNG including institutions, our emotional psyche as Papua New Guineans, but also, most destructed was our economy.
I don’t think in such a short period of time – 4 years – when these people stormed parliament and court houses and government house that anyone anticipated that we would witness the level of destruction that has now left us on our knees.
And so inspired by that I’ve moved in a direction where as a legislator I believe that I can make a decent contribution.
My father has been a remarkable example to me, in that he starts with peace and not with conflict.
He has been a good father, a loving friend and a very poor enemy to people, because he trusts a lot of people and I’m proud to be a Somare on those grounds.
He doesn’t have in his DNA, the capability to be destructive and to hurt people.
And I think he’s taken that to public life. I’d like to say that my interest in politics is to continue the legacy of my father based on the fact that he brought such decent attributes to what is a horribly treacherous landscape.
Those attributes really came through in the way he handled that situation; he came back and again, put on his best behaviour and wasn’t vindictive.
When the court cases were unfolding and he had the grounds to react to the awful series of incidents, he didn’t.
What are the factors that contributed to these attributes of your father’s?
I’m eternally grateful that my parents are incredible traditionalists but they’re also very spiritual Christians who put their faith first and that’s guided our family in ways that I can only be thankful for.
As a man, my father has the capacity to be so invisible that he allows other people to be. I’ve enjoyed watching that and I believe PNG has benefitted from that because we did face some difficult times when he was at the helm and I think if he was an egotist, we would not have done so well.
We could’ve done better as well, I’m not saying that he was the absolute best leader in this country; I am saying he has been the most consistent.
You’ve seen all this and going into politics yourself now, aren’t you daunted by the bad side of politics?
I think I’m more nervous about not been able to fulfil the expectations of the people that you go to ask to lead.
All the treachery and dealing with the fluid nature of politics in PNG, I’m not intimidated by that. This is gonna sound vain but, I really learned from the master and I’m excited by that.
I want to go in the open category you know. People tend to suggest that as a woman I should go for the base vote but while I may pursue that, to me, equality really isn’t equality unless we’re all in the same open race.
What are some of the reactions you are getting being a woman from a very patrilineal society and also being a Somare?
I think this has been the greatest period of growth for me, in my circles, as a mum, a daughter, a wife, a sister.
I’ve had to really be confronted by things that, people don’t wanna hear, and that’s, you’re not good enough, you’re not ready, you’re a woman, don’t you have kids, what’s your husband gonna say?
And I haven’t even begun to be questioned like a man would be on what my five year plan is, on what I propose to do, what I think about reform, what I understand about deficits and budgets, and that’s disappointing.
But I think social media provides an excellent opportunity for everyone to have a platform – it’s a 24 hour news cycle and it gives me an opportunity to showcase what I know and gives audiences an opportunity to understand the intensity of my drive.
I’m not driven by a capitalist agenda. I don’t care to cut deals – I’m interested in development, I’m interested in making sure that some of the benefits that I saw my father try to create in this country shared better.
Because a lot of people are occupying public office, saying one thing with a lot of window dressings and doing quite the opposite.
I find that obscene and sinful actually for people to keep a straight face in the face of our people’s needs.
I’ve been privileged in my life, and I’d like to be able to move into an area where I can use my strong connections and familial ties and networks to be able to bring right back to an electorate that supported my father for 50 years.
My greatest fear is not being able to fulfil the expectation of lots of people that really need support and understanding and the patience of leaders.
I think in PNG we’ve got it (the definition of a leader) all wrong; when you put your hand up to be a legislator, you’re asking to be a public servant, so I’d like to be able to shift the paradigm (back) if I can.
Is that fear of not being able to give back or live up to expectations going to be a real driving force for you?
Yes. The benchmark is set. When we look at the emotional link that the people of East Sepik have with my father, the rest of us are mere mortals.
Someone told me “wok blong lapun papa blo yu Somare em long rausim ai wara blo kantri, nau yu wok blong yu em long kam na rausim ai wara blo provins”.
And I get really emotional about it because it’s such a huge transferring of love and affection – that’s the way I see it, I don’t know whether it will translate to votes but it’s something that I am so fond of.
Many Sepiks I’ve spoken to are not fearful of just transferring that and I hope and I work really long hours to deliver on those expectations.
But yes it will be a tough battle because they won’t be as forgiving with me.
So how do you hope to fulfil those expectations?
There are societal, cultural matters that I know and respect very well so it’s a matter for me to define the role in an institution that is an adopted one.
To make it clear that my leadership will be based on institutional matters and processes, in rules based systems so that we can deliver on the promises of 41 years where there has been political instability in the absence of sound policy, capacity and thinking around ideals and values.
So I’m interested in being a leader in the system of government that we adopted in independence and I understand that system very well.
Can you tell us about your father through a daughter’s eyes?
Well that gets me very emotional, especially because he is leaving, officially, wow!
As a father he’s such a cool guy!
We’ve had a very public life, but we were never pressured to ‘do great things’.
He did everything – he didn’t have the education and the privileges that he gave us and my mother didn’t go to school but together as a team, they are remarkable people!
And they brought that to public life in PNG; their form of stability.
Dad is a really decent Christian, he doesn’t beat chest and he doesn’t pontificate and he doesn’t give sermons about the seriousness of his faith, he lives it.
He is very forgiving; he has a spirit of generosity that we see in what I’ve received materially and emotionally in my life.
He said recently to me, “you’re a really good mum”. He doesn’t talk too much about that stuff. And coming from him I take that as the biggest compliment in the world.
Now they’re old and one day they won’t be here anymore but he has really entrenched or embedded his high levels of decency and his great love and generosity for this country that even when he’s gone he’ll be here in so many ways. And that is what I will live with for the rest of my life.
There’s criticism, that there are a lot of things he could have done better, but the good things stand out remarkably.
Particularly after the impasse and what happened so publicly that is our personal history and not just the history of PNG, he came back so gracefully and didn’t make a big fuss, when in actual fact, he has always wielded so much power, he’s been the most powerful person in our history and he never shows that and I’m very proud of him for that.