The desecration of our military heritage at Owers Corner by DFAT is now complete with the recent installation of electricity poles around the unauthorised memorial graffiti on the site.
Owers Corner, located at the end of the 40 km road from Port Moresby, is the gateway to the Kokoda Trail. The hosting of APEC by the PNG Government next month provided a unique opportunity for the construction of a Kokoda Trail Visitors Centre to honour and interpret the historical significance of the place and to showcase the culture of the Koiari landowners.
It would have been a major attraction for the thousands of APEC delegates visiting PNG and would quickly become the country’s most popular tourism destination. It would have created a sustainable economic future for the Koiari people living on the Sogeri plateau.
But it was not to be because Australian envirocrats embedded in the PNG ‘Kokoda Initiative’ seem to be ideologically opposed to commemorating our wartime heritage. They will argue this is not the case but the facts suggest otherwise.
Australian Government officials from Environment and DFAT have been insitu for 10 years and have burned through more that $60 million in taxpayer funded aid. The management system they put in place for the Kokoda Trail has collapsed to such an extent the PNG Minister for Environment and Conservation had to establish his own ‘Kokoda Initiative Ministerial Committee’ to try and arrest the decline. Unfortunately he seemed to have been poorly advised by the Australian’s embedded in his Department and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill had to then call for a review to try and stop the rot.
DFAT reverted to a clever ‘sleight of hand’ ploy in the drafting of the Terms of Reference for the Review. They ensured the Prime Minister’s call was actioned but in such a way as to maintain the status quo. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have been proud!
The review is now being conducted in ‘Canberra time’ which means it will extend through to the end of next year. Local villagers will therefore not receive any shared benefits for the entire 2018-2019 period. While this is OK for all those who have the security of a Government salary it is the worst possible outcome for subsistence villagers along the trail.
Our Kokoda veterans had to wait 60 years before an appropriate memorial of any kind was erected on the trail to honour their service and sacrifice. This was initiated by Prime Minister John Howard who opened the memorial at Isurava on the 60th anniversary of one of the most crucial battles of the Kokoda campaign. The memorial has since taken on a spiritual significance as trekkers quietly reflect on the service and sacrifice of our troops.
Since John Howard’s successors assumed control of the trail in 2008 there has been no further action towards the development of a Master Plan to identify, protect honour and interpret the military historical significance of the Kokoda Trail.
Environmental/DFAT officials have used subterfuge to create the impression they are interested in the wartime significance by engaging non-military academics to investigate ‘lost’ battlefields (that have never been lost) and to attach a civilian Military Heritage Advisor to the PNG Museum and Art Gallery. His role is to work on PNG wartime oral history and to explore military ‘objects’. They are actually 60 years too late to do this work as most of the military relics have been removed by collectors over the years.
Another clever subterfuge to avoid responsibility for honouring our military heritage is the use of Aid funds for schools and health centres under the Kokoda Initiative banner. These are normal commitments for our Aid budgets and have been so since independence in 1975. Linking them to ‘Kokoda’ is clever but deceptive because they are not relevant to the wartime heritage of the Kokoda campaign.
Under Environment/DFAT’s watch since 2008 significant historical sites at Lake Myola and Eora Creek have been completely desecrated and nothing has been done to honour the wartime historical sites at Owers Corner, Imita Ridge, Ioribaiwa Ridge, Menari, Brigade Hill, Templeton’s Crossing, Eora Creek and Kokoda.
Nor has anything been done to stop the ongoing desecration of significant sites or to develop a Master Plan for the trail.
It is surely time for responsibility for the Kokoda Trail to be transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs who are already responsible for our World War 1 heritage at Gallipoli and the Western Front. It seems ludicrous for Environment/DFAT to be responsible for our World War 2 heritage at Kokoda and South-West Pacific.