FOLLOWING a trip abroad in June 1960, the Prime Minister of Australia stated that he favored independence for New Guinea "sooner rather than later." Although he subsequently explained that a precise timetable could not be laid down, his statement aroused widespread interest for several reasons: it represented a change of mind from his earlier view that Australia was in New Guinea to stay; it seemed to be inconsistent with the statement of his own Minister for Territories a few days earlier that the question of independence was 30 years away; and finally, it could be interpreted as an initial response to the request of the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations that Australia set target dates for the development of New Guinea towards self-government. Australian newspapers began to publish leading articles about the Territory, which has seldom received much public interest or comprehension, and to dispatch special correspondents there. The leaders of the Opposition departed on a tour of inspection, which led to the supposition that a bipartisan approach to the New Guinea problem was contemplated. While the Minister for Territories began to issue a stream of policy statements, the Legislative Council of Papua-New Guinea was reorganized in October to include, for the first time, a number of elected Papuans equal to the number of elected Europeans. An emergency program to recruit primary school-teachers was launched. And in New Guinea, European settlers expressed varying degrees of alarm and despondency, using such words as "walk out," "abandonment" and "betrayal."

While increased public interest has its value, it is no substitute for accurate information interpreted against a background of colonial experience in the South Pacific and elsewhere. It is not enough to utter vague warnings that another Congo, another Cyprus, another Kenya is in the making. It must also be recognized that New Guinea is not solely an Australian problem, but is equally a question of international politics.

It is important to be clear about what the New Guinea "question" involves--both for the purposes of Australian policy and for its implications in international politics. Some of the confusion is a matter of nomenclature and of the different status of the separate units which compose the island of New Guinea. Australia holds Papua, the southeastern section of the island, as a colony in her own right; it was originally the Crown Colony of British New Guinea, transferred to Australia by the British Government in 1901. Papua is separated by a largely artificial boundary from the northeast portion of the island which constitutes the Trust Territory of New Guinea. This is the former German colony of Kaiser Wilhelmsland, captured by Australian forces in 1914, retained (somewhat contumaciously) as a Class C mandate under the League of Nations, and placed by Australia under a Trusteeship Agreement at the end of the Second World War. The western part of the island, separated from the Australian portions simply by a line of longitude, is of course Dutch. It was formerly part of the Netherlands East Indian empire and is now claimed by Indonesia primarily on the legal ground that, having been part of that empire, it was included in the Dutch surrender to the Indonesians. The island is thus composed of three territories, two of which use the name of the whole, and each having a quite different status in international law.

Since the end of World War II, Papua and New Guinea have, with U.N. approval, been administered by Australia as a single unit. Nevertheless, their separate status remains--symbolized by the destination of the Annual Reports, of which one is presented to the U.N. General Assembly, the other to the Australian Parliament. The validity of the Papua-New Guinea union has recently, but unsuccessfully, been challenged by some European settlers resisting a proposed income tax, and a dissenting judgment in the High Court of Australia once argued that each of the territories was held under a different section of the Federal Constitution and must therefore have a different political future from the other. The prevailing legal view is that Australia has plenary power to administer the territories together and to offer them a common political future. But the difference in status may plainly be a source of political conflict in any decisions about the future of Papua-New Guinea, especially because, as a Trust Territory, New Guinea is involved in the international dispute of "colonialism" versus "anti-colonialism."


The present Australian Government has declared itself in favor of independence or self-government for New Guinea not because it is convinced that independence would be a good thing, but because of the political complications which would arise if it did not. Australia does not want to be the last colonial power, with all that would imply for her relations with other nations, especially in Southeast Asia. Nor does she want to invite the international complications which might arise if frustrated nationalism inside Papua-New Guinea turned to violence.

Against this reasoning the Opposition party and various interested groups offer two sets of arguments--one strategic, the other economic. It is asserted that, for Australia's safety, Papua-New Guinea must always be under Australian control. This belief has a long history. It played a part in the original acquisition of the territory, and it seemed strikingly vindicated when the Japanese attack was turned back there in 1942; it draws additional strength from the emotional involvement of Australians who fought in New Guinea and from the memory of those who died there; and it is reinforced by the present dangers which seem to threaten from the north.

The economic arguments, in sum, are that Papua-New Guinea has been built up by the efforts of Australians who have risked their money and sometimes their lives to do so; Australia has therefore an obligation to protect and preserve the interests of these pioneers, settlers and entrepreneurs, not to sacrifice their interests by granting independence. The strength of these arguments, and the power of the interested groups behind them, should not be underestimated, but on the issue of independence itself they are unlikely to prevail.

To both sets of arguments there are obvious answers. Whatever strategic value New Guinea once had has been much reduced by changes in the nature of war and weaponry. Even in the last war, it can plausibly be maintained, what defeated the Japanese attack was not the unquestioned gallantry of Australian and American troops but the petering out of the enemy's momentum. Economically, it may be said that the interests of a small group of Europeans (less than 2 percent of the population) cannot be upheld as paramount in a colony which, to use a familiar phrase in colonial literature, is one of exploitation, not settlement; most European enterprise is carried on by a transient group, not by permanent settlers. Neither line of argument, therefore, is likely to change the Government's decision. When opponents have failed in their initial purpose, pressures are certain to concentrate on the question of timing and the conditions under which independence may be granted.


No more difficult problem exists than the timing of the transfer of power to new nations, because there are no simple criteria by which readiness for independence can be measured. The problem is aggravated, of course, when it becomes a matter of domestic and international political dispute. The Australian Minister for Territories and his critics are agreed that economic development must have priority, and that political development is dependent upon it; but the point at which the former becomes sufficient for the latter is one of the major issues in the controversy.

Readiness for independence can obviously be challenged on the ground that Papua-New Guinea is not economically viable, although the actual resources of the territory may be considerable. At present, the Trust Territory has a total volume of trade of about $55,000,000, with a slight excess of exports over imports for the first time since 1954/5, while Papua, with a total trade of $25,000,000 has, over the same period, consistently produced an unfavorable balance of up to half the total. These conditions are largely due to an undiversified economy. The main export crop is copra, although timber and cocoa in the Trust Territory and rubber in Papua have assumed significance. This dependence on a very small range of agricultural produce exposes the economy to severe effects from any price fluctuation.

The cost of government is largely borne by Australia, for the revenue from export and import duties amounts to barely a third of expenditure, the rest being provided from an interest-free, non-repayable grant of about $27,000,000. Economically, therefore, Papua-New Guinea is dependent upon Australia, from which it receives by far the greatest proportion of its imports and to which it sends the largest single part of its exports. The great bulk of trade derives from the enterprise of Australians who have developed the plantations producing export crops and provided the capital investment, while the Australian Government has paid for social and welfare services. The principal contribution of the indigenous inhabitants has been in supplying unskilled labor. From these facts there is a plausible argument to be made that, since any substantial change in this economic pattern will be very slow, and since the economy by its very nature may not be viable, independence must recede to a distant and unpredictable date.

A second criterion by which readiness for independence can be challenged is the level of education and the absence of an adequately educated leadership among the indigenous people. The number of those who can read and write is simply not known, but the size of the present school population does not suggest any widespread literacy. The Trust Territory has a population officially calculated at about 1.3 million, of whom 10,500 are elementary pupils in government schools; at higher stages of learning there are perhaps 800 pupils. In a Papuan population of rather less than 500,000 the corresponding figures are 5,250 and 600. The major part of educational activity, however, is not undertaken by the government but by the missions, whose syllabus is at least as much religious as vocational, and whose schools the government will subsidize and register only at an approved standard. Of the 111,000 mission-school pupils in the Trust Territory, more than 80,000 attend unrecognized schools, and in Papua, out of 40,000 such pupils, more than three-quarters attend sub-standard schools. What proportion of these relatively small numbers subsequently slip from standards of literacy is a matter of guesswork, but it is quite clear that education of a reasonable standard reaches only a very small fraction of the population; and at the secondary level the numbers are minute. The largest single group of relatively educated people is the teachers who number about 5,500, of whom perhaps a thousand are in government or registered schools, followed by 1,500 medical and dental assistants, of whom some dozens have attended the Central Medical School (a training college, not a school for graduating doctors) in Suva, Fiji. A few indigenous people are being educated in Australia, but none has yet graduated from a university.

An "educated" class of a few thousand is not much of a leaven in a population of nearly two million, especially when their standard of education is generally well below university entrance standards in Australia. The absence of a literate population and the paucity of trained leadership, then, will be used to maintain that Papua-New Guinea is not ready for independence. In addition, of course, critics will point out that several hundred languages are spoken in the territory and that the indigenous society is composed largely of small, self-contained social groups which have no organized pattern of rank and authority, and are often hostile to one another. These conditions, it may be argued, mean that independence or self-government can be foreseen only in a very remote future.

This case is very difficult to answer on its own terms and premises--the more so because the Minister for Territories has insisted upon "uniform development." He has generally refused to accept the conception of an indigenous elite or to encourage rapid development in those areas which have been in contact with Europeans for 70 years or more. Of necessity, this has meant slow over-all development which, if it were to continue at its present pace, would make independence a distant goal. The Prime Minister's change of mind in regard to timing requires a different policy. And an answer to the social and economic arguments against self-government must be provided by starting from different assumptions. For the implications of his "sooner rather than later" statement are that political development is quite as important as economic; certainly the one cannot wait upon the other, if only because economic development in such a society as Papua-New Guinea does not have the effects expected of it. Because the indigenous society is composed of a series of small self-contained units, economic measures taken in some few of them do not necessarily have an impact throughout the whole of society.

Economic development encounters another barrier arising from the separation of the European section of society. In a plural society of the New Guinea type, economic development can be effective only if there is a common social will expressing the interests of the whole society. This can be created most readily when there is a sense of common nationality, which is essentially a result of political development. Thus, although economic development is undeniably important, it does not precede the political, but is rather a condition of it. Even if this proposition is denied, there is another reason for believing that political development is quite as important as economic. The independence issue has been publicly raised, and it has already released political aspirations among the more educated Papuans. The first Workers' Association has been formed in Port Moresby under the leadership of an assistant medical practitioner trained in Suva, and various indigenous leaders have publicly expressed views about political development. This demonstrates that an educated elite need not exist before such aspirations are asserted. In Papua-New Guinea, as in other colonies, any degree of education can produce a self-styled elite which will assert political aspirations as firmly and as forcibly as one which is deemed educated by Western standards.

The urgent need is to make sure that the politically active element in the population has scope for its ambitions, and is capable of understanding both what New Guinea requires and what the outer world requires. This means that much greater resources must be devoted to education to enable relatively large numbers of indigenous people to attain university standards as quickly as possible. It means the abandonment of the policy of "uniform development" in favor of one which will produce an educated leadership capable of recognizing the fact that economically Papua-New Guinea is dependent upon Australia, and capable, too, of stimulating the growth of some sort of common purpose and identity among the people. Such an elite policy, extended to economic development as well as education, is essential if independence is to be attained within a generation. The goal is possible.

Important as these internal factors are in progress towards self-government, it is the external forces which give it urgency. Australia has assumed the obligation to work towards self-government or independence for both Papua and New Guinea, and there is no lack of critical eyes fixed upon her performance. It is often pointed out that Australia has been in Papua-New Guinea for as long, or almost as long, as Britain has been in some of her colonies now achieving independence. Yet Australia appears to have made comparatively little progress, due largely to the small resources devoted to these territories. Before the last war, the Mandated Territory received no grant, and Papua existed on a subsidy which ranged from $55,000 to $148,000 a year; even now, it may be said, a grant of about $27,000,000 is still a minute fraction of the Australian budget, and less than 10 percent of the appropriation for defense. Rapid development requires greater resources and perhaps a better allocation of them.

No doubt some of this criticism is unfair, because Papua-New Guinea presents particularly difficult problems of colonial rule and because Australia is itself an underdeveloped country with a capital shortage. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the colonial record, Australia has international obligations whose non-fulfillment or inadequate fulfillment can be very embarrassing, not only in her relations with Asian countries but with her partners in the various regional organizations to which she belongs.


More serious domestic and international complications are likely to arise in the third stage of the New Guinea question, when, having settled the general objective and the timing, the precise political future of Papua-New Guinea must be decided. The matter is already in dispute because to some extent the outcome will be shaped by Australian policy and practice in the years immediately ahead. Ultimately, of course, the indigenous people will have to decide for themselves what course they will follow, but almost certainly Papua-New Guinea will become a single unit; it is difficult to see, except as a legal quibble or bargaining counter, how separate states could seriously be considered. Beyond this, there are three main alternatives: a state within the Australian Commonwealth; a federation with other Melanesian territories; or an independent state perhaps within the British Commonwealth. Each of these solutions would be consistent with Australia's obligations; each has its advocate in Australia.

The first of these alternatives has been pressed on the grounds that an independent state would be a weak "coconut" republic, a danger to itself and its neighbors and alarming to Australians who are sensitive to invasion from the north. Papua-New Guinea's economic dependence upon Australia is used to bolster the strategic argument. Incorporation of territory within the federation as a seventh state has obvious attractions, but advocates of this plan have failed to come to grips with the implications of such a course. Unless there were to be second-class citizens of a kind Australia's international obligations rule out, a large black and brown population would be at liberty to move and to settle where it pleased within Australia. Most Australians would accept this only if the economic and social standards of those people were equivalent to their own. Anything less would raise acute difficulties in, for example, employment conditions and wages. And even this would not prevent the creation of a color problem. To raise their standards adequately would be an immense task which, if it were accomplished, would itself remove one of the main objections to independence, upon which the argument rests. The strategic justification for incorporation would remain, but the change in the nature of war makes it a very tenuous basis for the policy.

To avoid the dangers of a weak, independent state, Melanesian federation has been advocated, apparently in the conviction that union makes for strength. "Melanesian" in its anthropological sense is not a very useful criterion because some islands, like the New Hebrides or New Caledonia, are under different political control from others, such as the Solomons or Fiji, and they are in any case far apart. (Fiji is more than 2,000 miles east of Port Moresby.) The most recent exposition of the case for federation has therefore taken geographical considerations as the determinant and proposes a federation of Dutch New Guinea, Papua, the Trust Territory and the Solomons--that is, a federation of the whole island of New Guinea plus the major offshore islands which physically and ethnically form a clearly recognizable group. It is difficult, however, to see that such a federation would avoid the weakness which, it is alleged, would attach to an independent Papua-New Guinea. The economies of the different parts would not be strengthened by combining them; indeed they are rival rather than complementary and together would simply make up a larger (but not appreciably larger) economy based on the same few products.

Instead of creating strength, federation would increase the problems of political development, creating rivalry between the units in terms of their contribution to the whole and in terms of their past history and traditions. The Solomons by themselves could without difficulty be included in a Papua-New Guinea state (the Trust Territory already includes one island of the group), but their addition would be insignificant; the most important addition would be Dutch New Guinea, and it is precisely at this point that differences of tradition and interest would arise to weaken a federation. Even an agreed policy between the Dutch and the Australians could only partially remove them.

No doubt the real argument for federation is political: it would seem to be a possible solution of the difficult problem arising from Indonesia's claim to western New Guinea, for it would presumably satisfy both the demands of Melanesian nationalists and anti-colonial critics in the United Nations. Since such a federation would necessarily have the closest economic ties with Australia, its security would be more promising than that of an independent state which had an artificial border with a territory disputed between two other nations.

Such a political argument is misconceived, however, because the Indonesian claim is not racial but legal, and a Melanesian federation which included what the Indonesians regard as legally part of their country would at once embroil Australia in the dispute. A federation, which could be established only with Dutch and Australian consent, would very probably be regarded in Indonesia as a colonialist conspiracy against them. Indeed, the suggestion has already been attacked in the United Nations--although so, too, has the union of Papua with New Guinea. A federation, unless it had the prior agreement of the Indonesians--an unlikely event--would invite international complications instead of assuaging them. Even with such coöperation, federation would not promote economic viability, and it would create new problems.

There remains the third alternative of an independent state, perhaps within the British Commonwealth. Granted the economic weakness of a Papua-New Guinea state, it may be pointed out that many such weak states exist under some form of protection and assistance from larger powers. Western Samoa, a New Zealand Trust Territory having neither the population nor the resources of Papua-New Guinea (though it does possess greater social unity), will become independent this year and will join the British Commonwealth. It will enter into a treaty relationship with New Zealand which will provide for defense, the conduct of its external relations and financial aid for some social services and capital works. The future of Papua-New Guinea will probably have to be worked out along similar lines. This solution appears to avoid the grave difficulties of the other proposals, although it will not be devoid of its own. But these are difficulties which will attend any scheme of independence.

The objections to independence in this form are that it will not protect Australian interests, that a treaty relationship can be broken in favor of adherence to some neutral or Communist bloc, that independence may not be in the best interests of the indigenous people. These objections could be met in only one of two ways: permanent dominance by Australia, a solution which the Government has renounced, or incorporation in the Australian Commonwealth, which is wholly impractical. Hence the risks involved will have to be taken. Australia can choose from among limited alternatives, and with all the weight of evidence favoring the third, the aim of policy must be to hasten development in Papua-New Guinea of an educated leadership which will share its vision of the goal.

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  • F. J. WEST, Senior Research Fellow in Pacific History, the Australian National University.
  • More By F. J. West