Remembering Papua New Guinea’s Grand Chief-NBC tribute interview with Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor

Radio journalist Lyanne Togiba of Papua New Guinea’s National Broadcasting Corporation, NBC speaks with Dame Meg Taylor as part of  the public broadcasters memorial interviews marking the passing of Papua New Guinea’s Grand Chief, founding father, and first Prime Minister, the late Sir Michael Somare.

MARCH 2, 2021

Basically, if we can start at the beginning and your role in the early days of PNG coming out of colonialism and into independence where was the late Grand Chief in all of this and how did you end up working in the role?

SG Dame Meg Taylor If I may Lyanne first of all, I would just like to extend my deepest sympathies publicly to Lady Veronica Somare and of course to Betha, Sana, Arthur, Michael and Dulciana, all the family for the loss and our nation’s loss. I first met Sir Michael Somare when I was at university at UPNG in 1970, with Rabbie Namaliu and Leo Hannet and several others, he had a PANGU party branch at UPNG and that’s it in terms of the the interactions that I had with Chief. And then I joined the board of the National Museum, and art gallery, and he was also a member and I was a young, a very young person to be on that board. But we worked together. And that’s how I knew him. But the history of my father knowing his father goes back a long way to Rabaul days. And also with my sister Daisy and Michael Somare in the 60s in Port Moresby, in 1973, through the transition of self-government… I saw the advertisement in the newspaper that they were looking for a private secretary and a principal private secretary for the Office of the Chief Minister. And after conversations with my family, I put an application in. And at that time, I was studying in Melbourne University where I’d got a scholarship to go and finish my law degree. And that’s when I got the word that I had been selected to be his Private secretary. And Rabbie Namaliu was then appointed as principal private secretary so both of us joined the Chief’s office.

What was the attitude towards women then? Was it much different from today?

SG Dame Meg Taylor I think it was very different in a very positive fashion, because I think Sir Michael, Chief, as we called him, as part of the (PANGU) Eight point plan, was very supportive of the participation of women in political life, and in economic life, and made it very clear that appointing women to be on his office staff, but also,  as the country went into independence, to hold positions in government was very, very important. So I worked very closely with other women, like Nahau Rooney and then in terms  of the public service itself, you know, you did have women in the middle ranks, but you also had women in senior ranks, women like, particularly Dame Rose Kekedo who is now deceased, but left a remarkable imprint, and then her sister, Jean, and others, those of us who were younger, but coming through the ranks, and attitude towards women, that we had an equal opportunity at this time of self-government and independence that we would be recognized for our knowledge for our skills, and for our participation in building this country together.

Can you describe what it was like being a young woman working in such a historical moment for PNG, at the time of the transition towards independence?

SG Dame Meg Taylor I don’t think at the time you sit down and you think, Oh, this is such a historical moment. What was so pervasive in and around Michael Somare is that he had such charisma. He was a humble human being, but a man with vision for our future, that he drew those who wanted to be part of this to him and to be supportive of what he wanted, because he was leading the path for our independence. I think as independence arrived, Yes, I could feel the historical moment of our country, becoming an independent nation. But during those years going through self government, it was the hard work that he was putting into the Constitution, the constitutional debates in the House of Assembly.

What did you see of his rising star as the country went into independence? How was he able to make it all happen and unite a country that was so diverse and full of tribes– to bring them on under one flag and one constitution? What was that like?

SG Dame Meg Taylor When you think back on it, it was an amazing feat, that Sir Michael could lead a very fractured country. We’re a country of 1000 tribes, and over 1000 languages and to build this meant that he had to convince people and convince them that it was important that we look at self-government, that we move towards our independence. That we make decisions for ourselves, so that we rule ourselves. Somare was relentless in that, not in a bullying way, very much in a very humble and persuasive fashion. He   had charisma. And I think he knew that people would listen to him when he visited. So he would do these district tours throughout the country. I travelled with him to do the Morobe province, or Morobe district at that time. And ….we went all around Morobe province where he met with communities until the sun went down. Myself and others in his staff that travelled with him, we could see that people would gather when he would come to talk — and that he would listen to them. Now, when we went into self-government and then into independence, it’s not as if everybody was in agreement about this. People were in disagreement. I come from the Highlands, I knew that Highland provinces were not supportive. But there were a lot of people in the Highlands also that were supportive of this. But you’ve got to remember that Sir Michael had built around him when he was at …the Bully Beef club, from those Members from across the different parts of the country. When they had the House of Assembly, you know, he had PANGU Party and the coalitions that he would build from his relationships with other people. He had the voice and strong voice of the Papuan Leaders like Mauro Kiki, John Guise, who was a steadying force in all this, but Somare was the post, like the main house post. He was resolute in what he was going to achieve. And he was able to persuade the country and take the country with him that this was the right way or the right journey for us. And that’s where we are today.

What were the key moments you witnessed, which really resonated for you in terms of his leadership, strength, he was a founding father but also took PNG into the Forum, alongside his old friend, Ratu Kamisese Mara. Do those binding relationships still exist among our leaders, and Forum leaders today? What’s missing or what’s needed?

SG Dame Meg Taylor I mean, everyone has personal memories, but we have state memories of how he as humble as he was,  how he navigated the relationships with Australia, particularly with  the Liberal Party, and then again with the Labour Party and the friendship that he forged with Goff Whitlam, that eventually saw us come through with independence, the constitutional debates and how he was able to ensure that the situation and the aspirations of places like Bougainville were also listened to. With regards to the Forum in 1974. Chief Somare at that time was very keen that we become a member of the Pacific Island forum but we were not independent at that time, and it was then Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as Prime Minister of Fiji, visited Papua New Guinea, travelled to many of our districts and to Bougainville, and built that personal relationship with Sir Michael and Lady Veronica Somare, and that relationship has withstood all these years, and his daughter and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s daughters here, particularly Adi Koila Mara Nailatikau has very fond relationships and memories with the Somare family. The relationship between Fiji and Papua New Guinea is very important to us that we as Melanesian countries belong to the Melanesian Spearhead Group. And that going forward in the Forum, that once PNG became a member of the Forum that we have played our role in leading this organization with the Secretary Generalship of Gabriel Gris, and with Noel Levi, and now myself, as I end my term –that we’ve contributed to  the development of issues in the Pacific Islands and that we,– are so very much, at least in these times, very absorbed in the work that we do for our own country. But I think the voice of Papua New Guinea and most recently, moments when we’ve had this difficulty now with the situation with Micronesia and reform, that our Prime Minister James Marape has come forward and played an important role that the Micronesians feel very confident that Papa New Guinea will hear what they have to say, and ensure that their interests are also protected as we go forward in trying to find resolutions to the issues around the appointment of the Secretary General going forward. So Papua New Guinea plays a very important role, as other countries do, but you asked specifically about Fiji, and I think with Fiji, that relationship goes back to pre-independence for us. And I think there is a certain sadness that Fiji has no longer got a High Commission in Papua New Guinea, but I hope that in times when the situation improves for all of us, through COVID that they will have their flag flying in our country.

Dame Meg of all the lessons learned along the way, which two stand out for you the most.

SG Dame Meg Taylor   I think that what I really learned from Sir Michael, first of all, was that leadership is based on the character of the individual. And the character of the individual for Somare was, he was a very humble person who always had time for every citizen of this country. He would always make time to speak to people, from towns from villages. He could mix with her Majesty  the Queen, Prime Ministers and Presidents, but was always that man from Murik Lakes from East Sepik, but I think most of all, he was from Papua New Guinea. And I think if there was one lesson that I would want us all to dwell on and think about going forward for the next 50 years, Somare always put the country first– that we all as citizens under the one flag, and our constitution, and that we come from all different parts of this country, in the richness of our cultures and our languages– that we have to stick together as one country and wan solwara. And I think if I was to take anything away from my time with him is that the unity of Papua New Guinea was paramount. And the unity of the Pacific is paramount.

Thank you Dame Meg. You know, you can’t be a decisive leader without making some mistakes along the way. What were Somare’s key failings that you’ve observed, and how did he come back from them to lead the long political life that he enjoyed?

SG Dame Meg Taylor Well, I have to be really honest. In these past couple of days, I think I’ve focused very much on the vision and what the positives were. Yes, every leader makes mistakes, makes decisions that particularly in terms of the politics of a situation or the economic decisions that were made during his tenure. The question is, did everybody agree? No, they didn’t. Everybody didn’t agree. But relinquishing power, I think was extremely hard, what I watched on television as Somare faced the vote of no confidences, etc. But he was a politician. And he understood the consequences of being a politician. And he wasn’t afraid of that. Through his own humility, but also his astuteness as a leader is that he knew that there would be decisions he made that not everybody agreed with. But right now, I would want the country to look at the positives and remember that unity, as one nation, was the one important tenet of his tenure in all his prime minister ships that we should not forget.

Thank you. So a final one, for me. As an inner official to the first government, what were some of the funniest moments or the most serious, the most historical that you’ve seen, while working with the late Grand Chief, Sir Michael?

SG Dame Meg Taylor Well, it was a long time ago. It’s not like yesterday that I, but I think, particularly around the debates on the constitution were very important. And I think the way, the courtesy that he and Sir John Guise, particularly on the eve of independence, ensured that the Australian flag was lowered in a very ceremonial fashion, with great dignity. And then the next morning, on Independence Hill, our flag was raised. They’re the historical moments that you remember, because of the joy of them, but there were tough, tough decisions in terms of issues, particularly in the negotiations, of the parliamentary debates, I should say, or the House of Assembly debates on the constitution and how important that was for us. And the gives and the takes and to bring as many of all the members of parliament right behind him so that we were able to then move to Independence. I’m sorry– I’m not being as specific. But I think there’s that I’d have to go back into my notes to look at moments, exactly.

That’s fine. Any last time reflections that you’d like to share with us?

SG Dame Meg Taylor I feel for the family of Michael Somare and, Lady Veronica Somare. And for the people in his own community in Murik Lakes, Karau, and along the Sepik River and across East Sepik province, and to Governor Alan Bird and his community and people. I’m sorry that I will not be with you all, too, to put to rest our first Chief Minister and our Prime Minister, but most of all, our beloved father and friend. For those of us who are not there, we too feel it very, very deeply, that that central haus-post who was Somare, all the time — has moved on. And the challenges for us going forward are going to be even greater for the next 50 to 100 years –and everything that we do now and our young people do, that we prepare ourselves, that we are still nation-building. We pull our country together as one people and we ensure that there are opportunities for the younger generation so that they contribute to building this nation. God bless Papua New Guinea.

Thank you. Thank you so much, Dame Meg.–ENDS

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