62. Coroners in TPNG – Part one – Complaints to the Minister

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots

I have been reading Paul Hasluck’s A Time for Building (Melbourne University Press, 1976) and, for reasons which I will give in a later Snapshot, I am concerned that he says, on page 185: ‘Another subject that attracted my attention in this period was the casualness about the holding of inquests into the death of any native’. He relies, firstly, on statements made to him by various Kiaps in ‘outlying districts’ in the early 50s – and I hope that those Kiaps have put the record straight. He then gives an instance where several natives were killed in an explosion causing him to send a ‘sharp minute’ dated 20 January 1955 (see page 185).

I can speak about the ‘explosive’ case because the Assistant Administrator, Rupert Wentworth Wilson (who was appointed in 1954 from Canberra), wrote scathingly about the Coroner, Syd Elliott-Smith (in whose home I stayed for much of the four or five months of the Telefomin Investigations) and Syd wrote to me for advice. Parenthetically, I was touched by the very pleasing comment at page 32 of the last issue of Una Voce that I was ‘the Kiaps’ counsel and champion’. I replied by quoting the following from an English case ‘re Prince (1884) 12 QBD 247 at 248’: ‘It would be intolerable if he (the coroner) had power to intrude without adequate cause upon the privacy of a family in distress’.

The facts of the Sepik case were that a group of teenagers in the middle of the area being cleared by ‘The Bomb Boys’ caught some fish and decided to eat them. Scouting around for something to hold up the container in which the fish were to be cooked they found a bomb and built a fire around it. The bomb exploded, killing two of them. The incident was fully investigated and there was no disputing the facts. A deputation of relatives of the boys called on Elliott-Smith and explained that they were suffering ‘great shame’ because ‘everybody’ knew that you do not touch anything metal for fear it might explode, and building a fire around what was clearly a bomb was pure madness! They pleaded with him not to increase their ‘shame’ by holding a public inquiry.

Since he had only been in the area a short time Elliott-Smith then had inquiries made as to whether ‘everyone’ did, in fact, know what the relatives said they knew, and he satisfied himself that what they said was true. So he decided that the holding of a public inquest would only impose additional ‘shame’ on the relatives. In other words, so far from showing ‘casualness’, as the Minister claims, the case is a classic example of great care and attention.


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