Adjournment Speech - Somare, Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas

Adjournment Speech - Somare, Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas

I rise to say a few words on the passing of Sir Michael Somare. He was a towering figure in the history of Papua New Guinea, a driving force for the development of PNG's national constitution, that nation's first Prime Minister and its longest serving Prime Minister, holding office for a total of 17 years, over four separate terms. He was Papua New Guinea's longest serving member of parliament, faithfully representing the East Sepik constituency for a remarkable 49 years. To his fellow country men and women, he was simply the Grand Chief. It was a title that reflected his immense standing and the deep respect in which he was held.

To Australia, Sir Michael was a longstanding and respected friend—indeed family, because Papua New Guinea, our closest neighbour, is family to Australia. The ties are deep, forged and remembered at Kokoda, Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Lae, Rabaul and Bomana by the many kiaps, those young Australians who patrolled and worked with local village communities, walking across their vast and rugged interior because it was once a territory of Australia. Indeed, we defended it with their help during the Second World War.

Sir Michael's successes in building consensus and relationships across the region meant that he developed strong ties with successive Australian governments and leaders, from Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser through to Bob Hawke and John Howard. But his connection to the leadership of our country goes back to the Gorton government. As a young man, Michael Somare championed an independent Papua New Guinea, and he did so working with Australia, working together, something that would characterise his time. It is to the great credit of so many Australian and Papua New Guinean leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s that they came to a shared recognition that sovereignty must rest with the people of PNG. So it was right that, many years later, Sir Michael, John Gorton and Gough Whitlam came together to receive honorary doctorates for their work in delivering independence, because, on the day when Papua New Guinea became independent, the Australian flag was respectfully lowered. Unlike in so many other places, it wasn't torn down.

One of those who witnessed that significant moment was a future Governor-General of Australia, Michael Jeffery. In 1975, he was a young soldier. He said later of his time in East Sepik, 'I well remember the Australian flag being lowered for the last time and the beautiful Papua New Guinea flag being raised in its stead.' He recalled the positive spirit that surrounded independence, which was in large part a great credit to Sir Michael Somare. He wasn't a man who tore down. He understood that free nations are built on democratic institutions and what he called 'sana', a word from his own language signifying peace, consensus and inclusion. Indeed, I hope those will be remembered as being the hallmarks of his public life and legacy. Thanks to his vision and commitment to sana, PNG's path to independence was a smooth one. It's a nation still growing, of course, but the foundations of this new nation were laid in peace.

Sir Michael remained a defender, proudly, of his country's independence, but he always appreciated Australia's unfailing commitment to his homeland and to PNG's success. He carried the Olympic torch when it passed through PNG on its way to Sydney in the year 2000, and we can only hope it will pass through PNG again if the Olympics in Brisbane, in the year 2032, are to come to fruition. He was also, like so many Papua New Guineans, a great rugby league fan. Unlike so many Papua New Guineans, when it came to State of Origin he was a devoted fan of the Blues, but I'm sure that's something that we can grant him a little grace on on behalf of Queenslanders. He was a great man of faith. He was a man of conviction and commitment. He'll be deeply missed by many friends in Australia.

One of those friends who knew him well is now a judge of Australia's Federal Circuit Court. He recalls meeting Sir Michael many times over the years. 'He had a gravelly voice,' said Judge Egan, 'an engaging manner, was always courteous and polite, and he genuinely took an interest in what people had to say.' He recalls meeting Sir Michael at a Christmas party in 1976 in Port Moresby, overlooking the harbour. Judge Egan's brother had been appointed Papua New Guinea's first post-independence Director of Public Prosecutions shortly after the declaration of independence, and the now judge was staying with him during the holiday period he had from his time studying at the University of Queensland. Present at the party were a number of Sir Michael's contemporaries from the University of Papua New Guinea, of whom two were important members of what became known as the 'gang of four', who, from the beginning of autonomous government, were the departmental heads responsible for administration in Papua New Guinea. There Sir Michael openly discussed, even among the company of Australians, the challenges that were faced by PNG. He spoke of the need to bring together, in a cohesive one, people from the often hostile ethnically diverse groups that were widely scattered throughout the country. What impressed about him was his absolute determination, in all he did, to do everything in his power to make sure that PNG, with all of its untapped natural resources, would benefit from what he said was 'sensible and sustainable development'. It was a term much before its time that is now well used throughout Australia and in places such as this quite often.

Thirty-five years later, in August 2011, Sir Michael's last term as Prime Minister came to an abrupt end when, by a majority vote in parliament, Sir Michael's appointment as Prime Minister was terminated on the erroneous ground of incapacity. Sir Michael had had complications following heart surgery in Singapore and, during his convalescence, was replaced in haste by Peter O'Neill. Though that appointment was later ruled by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court to be invalid and unconstitutional, Sir Michael was prevented from returning to his prime ministerial duties for the balance of his term, even though he had recovered and returned to Port Moresby.

'It was following the termination of Sir Michael's prime ministership that I was briefed'—these are Justice Egan's words now—'as overseas counsel to represent Sir Michael in the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea in proceedings that were colloquially referred to then, and indeed now, as "the two prime ministers case".' It's fascinating for the lawyers in the room. It commenced with a view to overturning what was understood at that time to have been the usurpation of his prime ministership. Judge Egan had been admitted as overseas counsel in PNG and often appeared in that jurisdiction. He spent a week there marshalling evidence and settling affidavits from medical and other specialists designed to satisfy the court that, though Sir Michael had been temporarily incapacitated, he was not—relevantly—labouring under any disentitling incapacity, as that word was understood under the PNG constitution.

Judge Egan recalls him as a person who could speak to anybody, someone who greeted people with happiness and someone who felt deeply that his removal as Prime Minister was a wrong which needed to be righted, lest it be seen as creating a worrying precedent that would jeopardise the robust democracy into which he had invested so much. It was then that Judge Egan was surprised to hear Sir Michael suggest that they should go for a walk so he could show him the impressive hotel garden. Sir Michael rose to his feet and the judge offered to take his arm to help him. But, with an unmistakable steely glance, Sir Michael thanked the judge for the offer but said it was important he get to his feet by himself, and he insisted he walk unaided. He then insisted on telling all the judges that he was able to do so. That's precisely what he did, and he won his case. His determination to win was not for himself but for his people, and that was a characteristic he exhibited throughout his life.

The whole of PNG is in a period of mourning, but it was very important to see the flags lowered to half-mast here in honour of the soul and the rest of that soul. Vale, the Grand Chief.