Welcome to this week’s editorial,
Back in the late 1950’s my father came up with the idea of providing the township of Madang, on the northern coast of New Guinea, with a night service. He purchased a truck, organised construction of smart, stylish, timber dunnies that could be hired and emptied and set the town buzzing with everyone wanting a modern toilet instead of a rat filled drop pit.
I mention this as I recall the gem of wisdom he passed on to me in later years “Lei, it doesn’t matter who they are, where they live or what they do for a living. At the end of the day their poo smells like everyone else's”.
Back in those days the Territory of Papua New Guinea was a mix of Australian Administration contractors and what were called Territorians, the ones who were independent of the Government. These were the opportunists, the dreamers, the larrikins, the ratbags, the ones who enjoyed being outside of the rules. They were often poorly educated but they were sharp as tacks, they had little time for authority and red tape, and they were the ones closest to the locals with both respect and understanding.
The Australian Admin came in with the idea that they would make themselves “Big Men” and that they would bring laws that had to be complied with without question. This might have seemed reasonable to an outsider with little understanding that there were over 800 tribes, over 700 languages and every tribe had its own leaders, elders and unique rules. The fact was that every village already ad its “Big Men” who were most often the strongest and most successful warriors, defenders and killers in the village charged with protecting that tribe from attacks by another tribe.
As you might expect the tribal leaders weren’t all that impressed with these new “Big Men” coming in with their laws and punishments. But the Big Men had guns and they also had seductive exchange items like axes, tobacco, rice and trinkets. Before you knew it the “Big Men” were in charge and the leaders were replaced with representatives of the Government whose supreme ruler was The Queen. Every local school had a photo of the Queen, along with the medical outposts, the government outposts, the banks, the airport and even in the pubs.
In one generation the country gave itself up to a Queen that lived “god knows where”, who did nothing for the people by way of gifts, money or aid and was now the figurehead of a far off Antipodean island that saw its children sing “God Save the Queen” before marching each morning into class.
In time the Queen was declared Queen of Papua New Guinea. But was it out of respect? The country never had Kings or Queens. Even Chief Michael Somare was castigated for taking on a honorific title. The Melanesian way expects big men to be modest.
PNG immediately announced Charles the Third as King after the news of the Queen’s passing. It was simply a matter of ascension. No questions asked. Done and dusted. In traditional PNG there would have been days and days of speech making and jostling of elders and leaders to be agreed to the position of tribal leader. It would have come down to strength, bravery, diplomacy, experience, a record of wins and the support in numbers of warriors to stand behind. Surprisingly it would have been democratic.
PNG does have its Westminster System that we imposed to bring law, order and consequence but they also have their old ways. Only recently “old way” laws were reinstated outlining the rules of tribal fighting to reminding warriors that they can’t destroy homes, rape, pillage or hurt women, disabled or children. Everyone signed the agreement. Killing of warriors is still basically OK so long as it is within the rules of battle.
Once, we as Australian subjects, agreed that the Royal family were our “Big Men”. They went to war, which meant we went to war. Their enemy was our enemy. Their flag was our flag and their rules became our rules. Now, without question we will sing “God save the King” with the same ease we adapted to singing “We are One”, but those are just words. By rights we should mean it. Charles might now be the “Big Man” but what does that mean to us? Does his Kingship come with axes, tobacco, rice, money? If we go to war will he be at the front wielding his club and bushknife?
Once the Royals had a mystique. They had blue blood, wealth, power, secrets, the support of the church, and they had decrees and laws that ensured they remained in control. But now, in a far different world, we see the remaining Royals in a different light, a possibly less deserving light, and I recall what my father told me as a boy, about the smells of night pans. Maybe the time of royal fairy tales is over. Maybe they are just like us. At the very least we need to know why Australia might hold on to the Royal family into the future, and that will require an open, honest, national conversation.
In the meantime let’s remember, honour and celebrate Queen Elizabeth II for the queen that she was.
Kukukuku warrior 1960's