Kokoda Day Speech by Charlie Lynn MLC at the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway, Concord – 3 November 2014
Today we commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the day the Australian flag was raised by our troops after they had recaptured the village of Kokoda. This ceremony would never have happened if our allied naval forces had not thwarted Japanese plans for a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby in the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and the battle of Midway in June 1942.
Japanese plans for the capture of Port Moresby were continually disrupted by the heroic actions of our fighter and bomber pilots who continually bombed Rabaul and the Japanese landing fleets on the northern beaches at Buna and Gona. Our coastwatchers and commandos were instrumental in reporting and harassing Japanese plans and movements.
This left them with the only option of a land assault via a series of unknown native tracks connecting remote native villages across the Owen Stanley Ranges – to become known as the Kokoda Trail.
The Kokoda campaign began with the first contact between the 39th Militia Battalion and the advancing Japanese South Seas Detachment at Awala, forward of Kokoda, on 21 July 1942. The first battle of Kokoda was fought on 29 July when the Australians were forced back into the Jungle.
The scene was set for a bitter campaign in some of the most formidable jungle terrain on the planet. Heroic young Australians fought with rifle, bayonet, grenade and fist as they slipped and slithered, panted, plodded, sweated, bled, sickened, dropped and died in a sodden and crinkled hell of mountain and jungle and swamp before they turned the tide and forced the Japanese to retreat from the last line of defence at Imita Ridge. British Field Marshall and former Australian Governor General, Sir William Slim of Burma, later remarked that we should never forget that it was the Australians who finally broke the spell of invincibility of the Japanese with their victory at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail.
After a bitter and desperate campaign over the ensuring three months the Australians turned defeat into victory and recaptured Kokoda on 2nd November 1942.
The Australian commander, General ‘bloody’ George Vasey held a parade and raised the Australian flag at a ceremony on the Kokoda plateau to commemorate the significance of the occasion the following day. This flag would never have been raised on this historic day if it were not for the valiant actions of our naval and air forces and our coastwatchers, commandos and allies. It is therefore a powerful symbol of sacrifice for all who served in New Guinea during the war in the Pacific.
Whilst the tide of the Pacific War had turned many battles were yet to be fought at Buna, Gona, Salamaua, Lae, Wewak, Nadzab. the Huon Peninsula, the Finisterre Ranges and Guadalcanal before the Japanese finally surrendered at Wewak on 15th August 1945.
My interest in Papua New Guinea began when I first trekked Kokoda with a local guide in 1991. The Kokoda campaign had lain dormant in the minds of Australians for five decades after the war until Paul Keating became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the village that bears its name. Over the next few years I was disappointed to find that large parts of the original trail had been reclaimed by the jungle, battlesites had been bypassed, there were no current maps, no memorials and no plans to do anything about it.
It was to be another decade before the Australian Government revisited the trail when Prime Ministers’ John Howard and Sir Michael Somare opened a significant memorial at the village of Isurava on the 60th anniversary of the campaign. The awareness of these two commemorations led to increasing numbers of Australians wanting to trek Kokoda.
But it wasn’t until a public outcry over the threat to mine a large part of the trail that the Australian Government finally took more than a token interest in the area. The public were united in their opposition to the possible destruction of such an iconic part of our military heritage and Government was forced to act.
For reasons ‘known unto God’ the Howard Government allocated responsibility for the preservation of the trail to the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts rather than the Department of Veterans Affairs which is the relevant department for the protection of our wartime history through the Office of Australian War Graves.
DEWHA, as it was known, set out to use the Kokoda Trail as a gateway to ‘assisting’ the PNG Government to develop a case for a World Heritage Listing of the Owen Stanley Ranges based on its environmental values. A ‘Joint’ Agreement with an emphasis on global warming and climate change speak was signed with great fanfare – but terms relating to the protection of our ‘wartime military heritage’ didn’t rate a mention. I’ll leave it to others to speculate how ‘joint’ the agreement was in the framing process.
Highly paid Canberra envirocrats with tax-free salaries and generous allowances were dispatched to assist PNG to ‘save’ the Kokoda Trail. It was the first trip to PNG for most of those involved and the trail quickly became a lucrative honey-pot for a coterie of anointed consultants who came, saw, held talk-fests and produced 5-point action plans to address issues they will never understand.
The results speak for themselves. When the Canberra envirocrats arrived in 2008, 5600 Australians trekked Kokoda. After three years of ‘assistance’ which led to a ten-fold increase in staff, a conga-line of consultants and more than $20 million of taxpayers’ money, the numbers have decreased by 40 per cent.
During this time they initiated projects without any reference to relevant PNG authorities or the trekking industry. These included the construction of a massage parlour on a historic battlesite; a $3 million ‘Village Livelihood Project’ that has not produced a single cent; and a dysfunctional management structure.
We have learnt little from our colonial experiences.
Patronising white ‘mastas’ still exist – but in different forms. They dictate what is best for the ‘native’ population through Port Moresby based ‘capacity building’ programs, village ‘livelihood’ projects, 4-star hotel forums and 5-point plans. Pioneering Kokoda trek operators are regarded as ‘blackbirders’ and remote village workshops with local clan leaders are an unnecessary inconvenience.
AusAID supported NGO’s refer to a ‘cycle of poverty’ along the trail as a form of emotional blackmail for potential donors. The facts actually reveal a cycle of unprecedented wealth over the past decade as more than 30,000 trekkers have generated around $20 million in earnings for local village communities.
One can only wonder why the Australian Government has not commissioned the University of Papua New Guinea to conduct research into the distribution of the wealth generated by the Kokoda trekking industry. How much is retained by the church? How is the money distributed between various clans? How much is invested in village community development? How much is extorted by the clan enforcers in Port Moresby?
But of more concern is Canberra’s patronising attitude towards local PNG leaders and villagers. Their ‘chosen’ PNG ‘CEO’ of the Kokoda Track Authority was engaged on a salary of $25,000 with no allowances. His Australian counterpart was on a tax-free salary of $180,000 plus generous overseas allowances for having to rough it in Port Moresby.
The PNG ‘CEO designate’ was patronised as a ‘token Papuan’ by the envirocrats. He was flown to Canberra for indoctrination and hosted on a number of visits to various national parks. It was a subtle way of ensuring his acquiescence in dealing with ‘issues’ along the Kokoda Trail.
He then watched as Australian ‘volunteers’ were flown in under a do-gooder program to do ‘track-work’ his people had been doing for centuries.
He observed NGO’s on the AusAID drip using the name ‘Kokoda’ to give relevance to feel-good projects that would otherwise be unremarkable.
He briefed consultants who earned more in a couple of weeks than he earned in a year.
He is now the CEO. But his salary still hasn’t changed and he has no entitlement to the generous allowances his Canberra ‘mastas’ enjoyed.
The results of numerous envirocrat talk-fests were to be seen in the form of glossy ‘Codes of Conduct’, nebulous ‘Licensing Conditions’ and fluffy ‘Strategic Plans’. They remain as meaningless tokens to their presence.
The lack of any legislation supporting management protocols for the Kokoda trekking industry; an obsolete website; a lack of integrity in the trek permit system; the lack of a campsite booking system; poor governance; and a complete failure to protect the welfare of local PNG guides, carriers and campsite owners are testimony to the failure of the Australian Government ‘assistance package’ since 2008.
The Department of Environment in Canberra has hijacked the term ‘Kokoda’ to give relevance to projects that would otherwise be unremarkable. They are driven by their own ideological agenda which has nothing to do with the preservation of the wartime integrity of the Kokoda campaign.
They are unaware of the fact that Australians don’t elect to trek Kokoda to have an ‘environmental levitation’ or a ‘cultural awakening’ – that comes later as a result of their experience. Most come to walk in the footsteps of the brave and to learn about the Kokoda campaign. Most leave with a new learning about themselves; about the humbling hospitality of their hosts in local villagers; and about the spectacular beauty of their pristine environment. They also leave with a profound respect for the sacrifice made by all who served in the Kokoda campaign. Their deeds and their sacrifice are embedded in their consciousness as a reference point for the rest of their lives.
The Kokoda Trail is the gateway to the development of a wartime tourism industry which will protect other battlesites sacred to our military heritage in Papua New Guinea however we have to go back to square one to get it right. We have to declare Kokoda a ‘consultant free zone’, say ‘thanks but no thanks’ to any future Canberra based initiatives, encourage ‘bucketlisters’ to go to Bali and facilitate partnerships directly between those with a genuine interest in our wartime heritage and those who own the land.
In the mid-1990s I attended a commemorative service with the few remaining veterans of the 8th Division at the Cenotaph. I would like to leave you with the words of the late Sergeant Stan Bryant after he spoke of the heroic sacrifice of his mates in Malaya:
‘I say to all you here tonight. To you who are responsible for governing this country, to all you who hold positions of leadership in the community, to all Australians. It is from the servicemen and women we honour today that you inherited this land.
‘These were the men who helped build this nation. They were the ones associated with building of our harbours and our bridges. They sealed the roads across the black soil planes, and they built the railways across Australia. Then they fought off the Japanese invasion so that you could inherit this country.
‘You now have the fruits of our labours. The cities and the harbours and the plains are yours. We few survivors are aged and can only look on with pride and wish you success in the future.
‘But I do charge you, to accept the responsibility of your inheritance and nourish and guard them with care.
‘And remember always those who never returned. They paid the price of your future. Only they know the real cost.
‘And remember – remember – at the signing of the Japanese surrender at Wewak on 15 August 1942 we solemnly promised God that we would never forget.’
In a speech at the Isurava battlesite in 1997, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Rhoden, who assumed command of the 2/14th Battalion during the battle of Isurava said:
‘Those of us now reaching the end of our time should continue to see that our children and their children embrace the notion that the death of the brave is never in vain and, a good action never lost to the world while there is but one actor or observer left to preserve the record of the event.’
Whilst Anzac Day is firmly embedded in our national consciousness other significant days of commemoration such as Remembrance Day and VP Day continue to decline with the passage of time.
I therefore believe ‘Kokoda Day’ will one day rate with the same significance as Anzac Day on our national calendar as increasing numbers of young Australians complete their pilgrimage across the trail each year.
It has been said that Gallipoli created a nation but Kokoda saved a nation. Others have reminded us that at Gallipoli we fought for Britain and lost – at Kokoda we fought for Australian and won.
It is therefore timely for us to recognize the significance of the raising of the Australian flag on the Kokoda plateau on 3 November 1942 and to remind us of the values on those four words carved into the four granite pillars at Isurava: Courage – Sacrifice – Mateship – Endurance.
Our political leaders should be reminded of the motto of the heroic 39th Militia Battalion who bore the brunt of the initial Japanese assault on the Kokoda Trail – ‘Deeds not Words’. Their responsibility for protecting sites sacred to our wartime heritage in Papua New Guinea thus far could best be described as ‘Words not Deeds’.
I congratulate the Board of the Kokoda Track Memorial for having the vision and the commitment to acknowledge this historic day here at this significant living memorial dedicated to our Kokoda veterans.
Kokoda veteran Barney Moore (95) with son Ron and Orokaiva Chief,Benjamin Ijumi
Major General Gordon Maitland AO OBE RFD ED (Retd)
Dick Payten, President, 7th Division AIF Association
Lloyd Birdsell, Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway; Charlie Lynn MLC; Norm Ensor, Senior Vice President, 7th Division Association
John Sidoti MP, Member for Drummoyne – Charles Casuscelli MP – Member for Strathfield
Veterans Ray Gentles and Reg Chard with Chief Benjamin Ijumi