The kiaps in a time of change: Donald Denoon

Historian Donald Denoon outlines the unique relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea, and the changing role of the kiaps.

When civilian administration resumed in Papua and New Guinea after World War II, and officers in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit of the Army (ANGAU) were demobilised, the Australian Government had an almost clean sheet on which to form a government. Papua had been an Australian Territory since 1904, and New Guinea a Mandated Territory since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, but few ANGAU officers survived the war, and fewer returned to the region. Very little infrastructure remained and many people had been displaced by the fighting.

The Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949 brought the two Territories under a joint administration centred in Port Moresby that was in regular telegraph contact with the Minister and Department of External Territories in Canberra. The Australian Government could fund and oversee an expanded regime with a wider range of services. The kiaps played a vital role: out on patrol, each kiap was the de facto government. The 1950s was the golden age of the kiaps, the pioneering “outside men”.

Australia’s relationship with Papua and New Guinea was unique. Until the 1960s, the Territory’s destiny was unclear: it might evolve into the seventh Australian state, or an independent nation, or achieve some intermediate condition. What was clear to policy-makers was that Australia would govern, unchallenged, for many decades.

From 1951 to 1963 Minister for External Territories, Paul Hasluck, visited often and exercised tight control. He was especially cool towards British and other colonial precedents, and to advice from the United Nations. The Administration was therefore shaped by the Territory’s perceived problems: and by Australia’s capacity to address them.

The challenges of administration

Australian administrators in Papua New Guinea faced distinct issues. Wet, mountainous New Guinea was nothing like Australia. The populations had even less in common: Australians enjoyed high incomes and social services delivered by stable governments, especially in the cities, whereas Melanesians subsisted without government services, in rural communities with limited horizons. Local circumstances were also changed: plantations were slow to revive in the fertile New Guinea Islands, and aeroplanes brought the densely populated Highlands under some control.

Education was important, but a shortage of teachers in Australia meant that the Administration could do little more than subsidise the missions to continue their mix of elementary schooling and evangelisation. The Administration provided little schooling of any kind, and hardly any industrial education until this became urgent in the 1960s. Kiaps facilitated the expansion of primary education to villages beyond the main towns.

Health care provided another challenge. With the recruitment of refugee doctors who were denied the right to practise in Australia, the Administration expanded the services provided by stretcher-bearers and other para-professional ex-servicemen as medical assistants (liklik dokta). Drawn into the Territory’s Public Health Department, the European doctors and the local medical assistants built rural hospitals, used penicillin and sulfa drugs for the benefit of many, and mounted quasi-military campaigns against tropical diseases, often escorted by kiaps. The campaigns proved over-ambitious, but the Public Health Department provided an unprecedented quantity and quality of care.

Melanesians generally were astonished by the resources that had been mobilised for the war, and the wealth that outsiders took for granted. Many leaders resolved to emulate these achievements and rallied their communities for economic development.

A few invoked spiritual forces to help. Missions and kiaps often saw these “cargo cults” as misguided and potentially subversive. To meet this crisis, agricultural extension officers (didimen) were appointed to advise those involved and to channel their energies into orderly Rural Progress Associations. Cooperatives officers were recruited as well, to foster producers’ cooperatives for the same mix of economic and political motives.

A changing role for the kiaps

As more services were introduced to the people of Papua New Guinea through the 1960s, delivered by specialist agencies and professional officers, the kiaps’ responsibilities shrank. Hasluck was increasingly successful in prising Commonwealth resources for Territory purposes. By 1967 it was evident that the Territory would not become an Australian state, yet Commonwealth funds enabled its Administration to adopt more and more “Australian” features. One of these was a Public Service Commission which derailed the Administrator’s freedom to appoint and promote public servants. More usefully, the court system was boosted with professional prosecutors and public solicitors who travelled on circuit with judges to hear cases in rural centres. At the same time the gradual removal of previous police powers from the kiaps emphasised the independence of the judicial system.

With direct elections, most members of the Legislative Council were rural Big Men. Their roles were limited by esoteric Westminster parliamentary procedures, but most were content with an administration which offered increasing services funded almost entirely by the Australian Government. The innovations that affected kiaps most directly were the local government councils and village courts. Most other developments affected only the tiny towns (Port Moresby, Lae and Rabaul), bypassing the vast rural majority. By contrast, village councils and courts foreshadowed an era of local self-government, in which there was no role for the kiaps. The introduction of tertiary education also implied that the period of the kiaps was fading. Paradoxically, the Administration began to recruit indigenous kiaps precisely when the career itself was becoming obsolete.

Self-government came abruptly in 1973, and independence two years later: but the kiaps’ roles and their authority had already been dispersed. Explaining the people to the Administration and vice versa had been one of their roles. The kiaps’ tasks now fell to politicians. For all their virtues and abilities, kiaps had no role in a democratic Papua New Guinea.

Emeritus Professor Donald Denoon has published widely on Australia’s relations with Pacific countries. He delivered the 2009 RG Neale Lecture presented by the National Archives of Australia and the Department of Foreign Affairs. This article was first published in Memento, issue 39, and is reprinted with permission from the National Archives of Australia:


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