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Early years of Michael Somare’s Stewardship of Papua New Guinea

Illinome Tarua worked with Late Sir Michael as his legal consultant in the years leading up to PNG’s Independence on 16 September 1975. He shares a tribute to Late Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare.

Working for Michael Thomas Somare was exhilarating and inspiring. His charisma and energy motivated us to strive for excellence in our service to him as Chief Minister and Prime Minister in the exciting times from 1972 to 1979. Those around him were loyal, enthusiastic, dedicated men and women. Some were young and some were highly experienced. The young ones included Paul Bengo, Rabbie Namaliu, Moi Avei, Nahau Rooney, Meg Taylor, Brian Ely, Ilinome Tarua, and Christian Goode. The first five advised and assisted Mr Somare on political matters and the last three gave legal and constitutional advice. Most of us were recent graduates from the University of Papua New Guinea except for Christine Goode and Meg Taylor. The experienced ones were Paul Ryan, Philip Bouraga, Paul Cowdy, Tos Barnett, Mark Lynch, Len Mitchell, and others. These were men who had been working either in the PNG public or private sector for some years.

Prime Minister Michael Somare and his advisers meeting in a village on Kairuru island, East Sepik Province. From left to right: Barry Holloway, Paterson Lowa, Philip Bouraga, Mark Lynch, Kubulan Los, Beldon Sevua, Michael Somare, Paul Bengo, and Ilinome Tarua.

After the PNG general elections in February 1972, Mr. Somare formed a Coalition Government on 17 April 1972. He was then appointed Deputy Chairman of the Administrator’s Executive Council (AEC) and Chief Minister-designate that month. Soon after that, the Administrator (Mr. Lesley Johnson) of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea stepped back from his role as Chairman of the AEC and Mr. Somare assumed the role of Chairman of the Cabinet and Chief Minister. Non-elected members were then replaced by an all-elected membership of the Cabinet. The Coalition Government under Somare’s leadership moved forward on the question of self-determination for the country and the House of Assembly decided that PNG will achieve self-government on 1 December 1973. The next aim for Mr. Somare was to have the House of Assembly agree to a date for independence. In June 1972 the House of Assembly set up a Constitutional Planning Committee to make proposals for a Constitution for an independent Papua New Guinea.

Since the movement towards self-determination and independence was progressing at a fast pace it was decided to form a legal team in the Chief Minister’s Office to advise and assist the Chief Minister and his Government on legal and constitutional matters. An academic lawyer, Mr Tos Barnett, was appointed to head the team which became known as the Political Development Division (PDD). In the second half of 1972 Mr Barnett asked me to work with him in advising Mr Somare and his Ministers. I had graduated as a lawyer from UPNG on 3 March 1972 and had been working as a barrister and solicitor in the Department of Law. I joined the Chief Minister’s Office in August 1972.

The biggest assignment in the PDD from 1972 to 1973 was advising and assisting Mr Somare in the transfer of functions and powers from the Territory Administration personnel and agencies to Mr Somare and his Ministers. This meant we had first to identify the existing powers and functions and, after consultations with Mr. Somare and/or his Cabinet, have these distributed to the appropriate Ministers. In this exercise it was my role to have the legal documents prepared, signed by the Administrator and advertised in the Administration Gazette. During this period I was also involved in negotiations with Australian and Indonesian officials on the borders of our respective countries. We had our discussions in Port Moresby, Jayapura (West Papua) and Canberra. Once we, the officials, reached agreements, these were submitted to the respective Governments for endorsement. The Chief Minister had many meetings, and others and I provided speaking notes or written speeches for the Chief to use. On Saturday 1 December 1973, Mr Lesley Johnson and Mr Michael Somare signed the legal constitutional documents making Papua New Guinea a self-governing country. On this important date all powers and functions of government were transferred to the PNG Government. By agreement, only three powers were retained by Australia to exercise on behalf of PNG until independence. These were the foreign affairs power, the defence power and the power to appointment the PNG Supreme Court judges.

Mr. Michael Somare and Mr. Lesley Johnson (right) signing papers for
PNG self-government, with Ilinome Tarua officiating, 1 December 1973.

The other important task for the PDD between 1972 and the achievement of independence was the preparation of the PNG Constitution and its approval by the Constituent Assembly of PNG. In June 1972 a Constitutional Planning Committee was established by the House of Assembly to prepare proposals for a PNG Constitution. We kept in touch with the CPC whilst they considered all the elements to go into the Constitution. Mr. Michael Somare and Mr. John Guise were members of the CPC but due to their heavy workload, they just did not have the time to attend the CPC’S meetings in Port Moresby. I was assigned to represent Mr. Somare in these meetings. This did not work out so I resumed my normal duties at headquarters. A draftsman, Joseph Lynch, had been appointed to draft the Constitution from 1973 to 1974 and he started doing drafts to see what a Constitution for PNG might look like. I worked closely with him so that I would be able to advise the Chief Minister and his Ministers on how the drafting was progressing. In April 1975, the CPC submitted its report to the House of Assembly and the House adopted the report together with proposals submitted by Mr. Michael Somare and Mr. John Guise. In May the House of Assembly converted itself into the Constituent Assembly and considered the draft Constitution. The Constituent Assembly met for 27 days over a period from 23 May 1975 to 26 August 1975. I had the carriage of seeing this whole process undertaken. The Chief Minister had regular early morning meetings with members in the House of Assembly and briefed them on the provisions of the draft Constitution that was under consideration on that particular day. I was present to assist in the briefing. During that period I worked closely with the draftsman, the Prime Minister, and the Clerk of the Constituent Assembly until the draft Constitution was approved on 26 August 1975.

After the Constitution was passed in August, the way forward in achieving early independence was uncertain as the Opposition Party, the United Party, was not supportive. It preferred a later date. Michael Somare was determined to achieve independence as early as possible and he used his personal influence to lobby amongst MPs for his stance. On Wednesday, 18 June 1975, he had enough support in the House of Assembly to pass his motion that Papua New Guinea become independent on 16 September 1975.

In 1976 the Government appointed me as Secretary of the National Executive Council and I served in that position for three years. Michael Somare was Chairman of the NEC or Cabinet. I worked closely with him to ensure the Cabinet decision-making process worked smoothly. He was approachable and despite his busy schedule was always generous with his time while I was in this role.

Mr Somare was a mentor to many young Papua New Guineans, including myself, and it was an honour and a privilege to work with him during the formative years of our country’s progress to independence.

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