The plight of wartime carriers who supported Australian soldiers in New Guinea during the War in the Pacific is a shameful blot on our history. Each year we hear politicians of all persuasions recite stories of their service and sacrifice in distant jungle battlefields. Those who ask why they have never been officially recognised with a service medal are met with a stare as empty as the words they have just uttered.
The fact is that successive governments since the end of the war have not met their national moral obligation to recognise the classification of ‘wartime carrier’ and take appropriate action to formally embed their service in our national consciousness. The wartime carriers were specifically excluded from benefits under legislation for compensation of PNG nationals who served in the Defence Force. In 1980 they were also deemed to be ineligible for the PNG War Gratuity Scheme for ex-Servicemen.
There are mitigating circumstances that make this a difficult task. Record keeping for around 50 000 indentured labourers in wartime conditions at the time would have been difficult. The issue of compensation has many variants in the land of many cultures. The carriers have never had a representative body to address their welfare issues or to act as advocates for their cause.
A recent Australian Government initiative to issue medallions to a small group of elderly ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ was a deceptive public relations exercise to deflect criticism for their lack of action over the years. A medallion can be produced by anybody and awarded for anything – they are often distributed in cereal packets. A medal is a symbol of service and is formally recorded in the archives of a nation.
There are no such mitigating circumstances for the lack of protection of PNG guides and carriers who support the Kokoda trekking industry in Papua New Guinea today.
Trekkers who undertake the trek without checking that the welfare of their guides and carriers are just as shameless as the government bureaucrats who have denied proper recognition to their forebears. And their words of praise for them are just as empty as a politician’s speech on the subject.
The Australian Government assumed control of the Kokoda trekking industry in 2009. After four years in charge they failed to introduce an accreditation system for guides and carriers. They failed to draft legislation that would prevent their exploitation by limiting the weight of the backpacks they are required to carry; minimum standards in regard to the food required to meet their nutritional requirements and the gear they need for basic comfort such as a sleeping bag, mat and appropriate clothing.
The neglect of the welfare of PNG guides and carriers in today’s Kokoda trekking industry is just as shameful as it was in 1942.