31. Return to reality: The reform in the 50s of the PIR (Pacific Islands Regiment)

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots

The summaries of Sean Dorney’s excellent Blamey Oration and of the SMH report on the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, which were in the last Una Voce, refer to a period outside my time-frame since they start in the 1970s. They must, however, be of concern to all who remember that Papua New Guinea was a Trusteeship Territory of Australia so I would make three observations. 
Firstly, it was only natural – and perfectly proper – for Australian Army personnel who were sent to TPNG in the 1970s to train the members of the PIR, to seek the best pay and conditions for the men they trained. It was for others, in Australia, to convince Cabinet that it had a duty to assert itself and say, ‘Preferential Treatment can only lead to envy which would be destabilising. It would therefore be against the Trusteeship Agreement so it cannot be permitted.’ After all, the Port Moresby riots which almost destroyed the PIR in the 50s were reported as being due to the PIR men’s jealousy and frustration that their pay was less than that of the Police!

Secondly, it was not just the PIR who were, within the limits imposed by the standards of education, well trained in those days. Far too little credit is given to those who trained medical orderlies, interpreters, boats crew and the police themselves, so I will quote from my Telefomin Reports to remedy this.

Thirdly, it was not just the personnel sent up from Australia who did such sterling work in rebuilding the PIR. A great debt is owed to the Franciscan Missionary, Father Ray Quirke, the Rabaul planter and MLC, Don Barrett, and the unknown person who appointed the two to their highly unusual task. To explain what I mean I will have to breach my two rules of keeping myself out of the picture and of not dealing with events after, say, the Section Ten Inquiry which changed things so radically. My reason is that, although the incident I am about to relate occurred in the 70s, it showed how wonderfully the recovery process had succeeded long before the retraining of the 70s began.

Court had finished and a PIR man came into my Chambers, unattended and unannounced and, for reasons which will become clear, I feel that I should not say whether he was a private, an NCO or an officer. But he was clearly – and by any standard – a Leader of Men. After giving me a classy salute he said: ‘Although my father has never been a homosexual he has, in recent years, always dressed as a woman and gone to work in the fields as if he was a woman. He has just died there, dressed as a woman.’

Because all my seniors had either died or left, I was the Territory’s senior lawyer and, despite my reputation for exploding if anyone tried it, some people had the idea that they could come to me when they wished strings to be pulled and pressure exerted. And, at face value, the words my visitor used could be read as an attempt to get me to put pressure on some poor unfortunate coroner to ‘keep the family scandal out of the newspapers’. But this was clearly not so and I found myself explaining that coroners were independent. But he interrupted saying: ‘No, Sir. You misunderstand! Everyone in the village accepted what he did, just as the people accepted the man at Chimbu that you used to talk about. It was something peculiar to him, at that period of his life, and no shame attached. My reason for coming and telling you is that you are family and you are entitled to know before the news breaks – if it breaks at all.’

That floored me and I said: ‘Family? I don’t understand!’

He said: ‘You are family because you stood “sponsor” for me when the Bishop confirmed me. You probably won’t remember me because you did it for so many but when Father Ray and Major Don Barrett came to help us get back our self-respect, after the riots, you used to come and talk to us. I always remember your talking to us about the good side of village life and about the man at Chimbu. And the lesson of Romeo and Juliet.’

It was one of the nicest things anyone has said and it ties in with two other very pleasant memories. The first is that, after the Telefomin investigations of 1954, a group of Wewakians shanghaied John Grainger and me (John was the OIC Police), and put us on a plane with instructions to spend a week at the army camp at Vanimo to relax and recuperate. Father Ray Quirke was in charge of the Catholic Mission nearby and he took us up to his place. The other is that, when the Administrator chartered a special DC3 to take just himself and me to Rabaul to deal with the Navuneram Shootings in 1958, Don Barrett was one of three wonderful hosts who took me into their homes and looked after me so that I could have freedom to operate – the others being Col Liddle of Vunadidir Training Institute (who joined the Field Staff on 22 October 1947) and Rev. Wesley Lutton of the Methodist Mission.

In between those two dates, ’54 and ’58, the PIR riots devastated Koki and Moresby and, by a stroke of genius, someone chose Father Ray and Don Barrett as the people to be brought in to raise morale in the PIR which was at an incredible low. It was (apart from the efforts of the army personnel themselves) the fact that two men who loved PNG were chosen which produced the turn-around; but, since they thought that access to ‘sympathetic outsiders’ might be a good thing, they asked others to drop by whenever they could. And since, even in those early days, there were remarkably few Australians in Port Moresby who could speak pidgin, I am proud to be one of those who was especially asked.

I am particularly proud that, as educational institutes were created a few years later, I was asked to speak there too; at the Papuan Medical College, the Teachers Training College, the Gorris home at 6 Mile which later became the Admin College, and the Bankers Training School opposite where the Travelodge is. At all of them it was the same basic worry gnawing at the students, and although it sounds rather pretentious today, I talked about how ‘tribalism’ was not unique to PNG, as evidenced by the fact that an early law of King Ine, who ruled in England from AD 668 to 726, said that if you saw a stranger and he did not show that he had no weapon in his hand, it was your duty to kill him! And yet, during King Ine’s own lifetime, the Venerable Bede said that, because of the success of the lawyers in bringing in the Rule of Law, the country had become so peaceful that a widow could walk from one coast to the other without an escort! And how, with more than 700 languages, PNG would find it easier to bring that happy state about if everyone worked together but that, even when that happened, she had to face the fact that Romeo could not marry Juliet because they belonged to warring ‘houses’ within a peaceful city. The explanation of the reference to ‘the man at Chimbu’ was that I used to tell them how ‘Government’ was the name of a longlong man at Chimbu who used to put on a Tultul’s hat and dance around with an enormous spear, pretending to menace people coming to the Government Offices. I explained that whereas he would have been locked up in Western cultures, he was given a good life in the village – and a delicious name – because village life protected people.


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