Executive Summary

The wartime heritage of the Kokoda Trail has been hijacked by Australian officials from Environment, Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This is evident in the fact that after 10 years and the expenditure of more than $50 million of taxpayer funds on their ‘Kokoda Initiative’ there is still no Master Plan to identify, protect, honour and interpret the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign.

Evidence now suggests the term ‘Kokoda Initiative’ is a misnomer and has been used to give relevance to consultants’ reports; compliant NGOs; and AusAID projects that would otherwise be unremarkable.

The recent departure of the PNG CEO of the Kokoda Track Authority is the last action in a chain of events that led to a complete collapse of the management system put in place by Australian officials from Environment-DFAT from 2008-2012.

Responsibility for the Kokoda Trail should now be transferred from DFAT to DVA – which is already responsible for our WW1 heritage at Gallipoli and the Western Front – and a new Joint Understanding should be developed with PNG to honour our shared wartime history at Kokoda and beyond.

The current ‘Kokoda Initiative’ should be rebadged as the ‘Owen Stanley Initiative’ to reflect their role in assisting PNG to develop a case for a World Heritage listing for the area.


Our Kokoda heritage lay dormant in the jungles of Papua New Guinea for five decades until Paul Keating became the first Prime Minister to visit the site on the 50th anniversary of the campaign.

Apart from a few memorial plaques installed during pilgrimages by veterans over the years there was nothing to commemorate the sacrifice of the campaign which now rivals Gallipoli in our national folklore.

‘On this day through all those years we have repeated the words “Lest we forget” said Keating at Bomana War Cemetery on 25 April 1992.

‘And we have not forgotten.

‘The message has always been – remember their bravery and sacrifice, their willingness to lay down their lives for their country, and for their friends.

 ‘On the Kokoda Trail it was again the young and inexperienced militia men – this time of the 39th and 53rd battalions – later reinforced with soldiers of the 7th Division, who fought gallantly – and eventually won.

‘When it seemed that Papua New Guinea would fall, when it seemed it would be another Singapore, another Rabaul, these troops gallantly held out and finally drove the enemy back to the sea.

‘These were the heroic days of Australia’s history.’

Unfortunately Keating failed to match his rhetoric with action to ensure our future generations do not forget. No plans to protect the integrity of our shared wartime heritage across the Kokoda Trail were initiated and no interpretive memorials were dedicated.

It took another 10 years before Prime Minister John Howard converted Keating’s words into deeds by commissioning a solemn interpretive memorial at the Isurava Battlesite.

Since then the Kokoda campaign has been largely forgotten.

The rot began in 2006 when gold was discovered under the southern section of the trail. A proposal to mine the area created a backlash that saw the Australian Government rush into a ‘Joint Understanding’ with the PNG Government to develop a case for a World Heritage listing for the Owen Stanley Ranges.

The Joint Understanding created a second gold-rush – this time by government consultants to advise the Department of Environment of the challenges and opportunities in a new horizon across the Owen Stanley Ranges.

While ‘Kokoda’ was recognised as the gateway to their new horizon it presented a dilemma for the ‘envirocrats’ within the Department because of their ideological opposition to commemoration and the fact that wartime heritage is not a consideration for a World Heritage listing. Nevertheless it was recognised that the use of the word ‘Kokoda’ had more marketing appeal than ‘Owen Stanley Ranges’. ‘Kokoda’ was therefore hijacked to give resonance to Aid type projects that would otherwise be unremarkable.

The Kokoda Trail was soon redefined as the ‘Kokoda Corridor’ which then included national parks; Port Moresby’s water supply at Sirinumu Dam in Central Province; a 90 kilometre stretch of road from Kokoda to Popondetta; and two villages on the North Coast of Oro Province. The redefinition would dilute the military historical significance of the Kokoda Trail and provide a smorgasbord of opportunity for envirocrats and consultants in their loop.

Queries regarding the wartime heritage of the Kokoda campaign across the trail would be met with a patronising sermon about the ‘bigger picture’. Compliant media spin-doctors would be engaged to promote their propaganda and ward off any criticism.

Gratuitous taxpayer Aid funding would be used as a pacifier for local communities along the trail. How could they complain about new schools and health centres in their villages – even if they didn’t ask for them?  Any local complaints about the lack of school supplies and medicine could be easily handled by their media spin-doctors.

Australian officials embedded in PNG Government departments linked to Kokoda would provide a steady flow of intelligence back to Canberra. These emissaries soon learned that their PNG counterparts will sign off on any initiative with an Aid dollar attached to it. Canberra could then claim that their agenda was in line with ‘what PNG wanted’. Others would say ‘Yeah, sure!’

Joint Understanding – Midnight Oil or Snake Oil?

Former Minister for the Environment and anti-war activist, Peter Garrett, relegated the significance of the wartime significance of the Kokoda campaign in the Joint Understanding he developed and signed with his PNG counterpart, Benny Allen, on 23 April 2008. According to Garrett’s Media Release:

‘The Australian Government has committed $14.9 million to assist the PNG Government in its efforts to improve the livelihoods of local communities along the Track and to establish effective management arrangements so that the Track is protected and delivers increasing benefits to local people. Those funds will also be used to conduct a feasibility study into a World Heritage nomination.

‘Additionally, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs will administer $1 million of funding to develop educational materials to increase awareness of the special importance of the Track.’

If Garrett’s Key Performance Indicator (KPI) was to ‘improve the livelihoods of local communities along the Track and to establish effective management arrangements so that the Track is protected and delivers increasing benefits to local people’ he has comprehensively failed in every respect.

A decade later Garrett’s initial funding increased to a $60 million windfall for environmental consultants’; compliant NGOs; media spruikers; and AusAid type projects under the guise of their ‘Kokoda Initiative’.

There is no evidence of any expenditure by DVA to increase awareness ‘of the special importance of the Track (sic)’.  As a former anti-war activist Garrett could not bring himself to include words such as ‘wartime heritage’ or ‘commemoration’ or even the official PNG name ‘Trail’.  As a result no funds were ever allocated for the development of a Master Plan to identify, protect, honour and interpret our shared wartime heritage with PNG along the trail.

Subtle attempts to mislead the public about their faux commitment to commemoration were disingenuous.

Australian Government’s ‘Interpretation’ of Interpretive Signs

A tender for the design, development and construction of ‘interpretative panels’ at Owers Corner was awarded to ‘The Interpretative Design Company’ by the Department of Environment. According to their website the contract was ‘for the provision of interpretive services to the Australian Government Kokoda Initiative Taskforce’.

There is no record of The Interpretive Design Company having any previous experience or empathy with Papua New Guinea which is evident in their opening statement:

‘With our first trip to PNG set for November 2015 and a deadline of ANZAC Day 2016 we had to hit the ground running.

‘Port Moresby is a confronting city and rated as one of the most violent places on the planet. It accosts the senses with its obvious social inequity. When the security agency describes recent events of rape and brutal assaults you cannot help but experience fear.’

This patronising insult to their host country reflected an appalling level of ignorance about the progressive advancement of Port Moresby in recent years.

They also indicated that they had no knowledge of historical wartime interpretation:

‘Researching and writing for this project was both stimulating and challenging. As there was no clear objective, other than some signage at Owers’ Corner that would portray the WWII experiences of the people of PNG, we had to start from scratch in workshops and engaging with the local communities.’

One can only wonder why an environmental bureaucrat would develop a tender document with ‘no clear objective’!

The statement that ‘we had to start from scratch in workshops with engaging the local communities’ beggars belief. The Australian War Memorial is the custodian of Australia’s wartime history. They should have been consulted to provide the research material required and to ensure that any such work was completed in accordance with the Principles of Commemoration.

The local community was not involved in the process. When I completed my Anzac trek at Owers Corner on 24 April 2016 I was approached by a local landowner who had a query about ‘somebody from the Kokoda Initiative coming to build something’ the following week. He was never consulted and knew nothing about it. I was unable to provide him with any information as we were also unaware of it.

According to The Interpretative Design Company website they consulted with key partners from both nations ‘to develop an interpretive display that presented the wartime experiences of the Papuan and New Guinean people’. They were obviously unaware that ‘Papuan and New Guinean people’ were united at Independence in 1975 and are now known as ‘Papua New Guineans’.

One would also assume that if Australian taxpayers’ money was to be used on such projects they should be used to interpret our shared Australian and PNG wartime experiences.

This was not to be the case in what was exposed as a politically correct endeavour driven directly from the Department of Environment in Canberra.

The Interpretative Design Company advised on their website that:

‘other than some signage at Owers’ Corner that would portray the WWII experiences of the people of PNG, we had to start from scratch in workshops and engaging with the local communities.’

One can only wonder what an Australian soldier has to do to get a mention in the ‘Canberra interpretation’ of the Kokoda campaign. Private Bruce Kingsbury was posthumously awarded the first Victoria Cross on Australian territory – he does not rate a mention! Corporal Charlie McCallum was recommended for a Victoria Cross, received a Distinguished Conduct Medal and was killed in action at Brigade Hill – he does not rate a mention! Corporal John Metson was bayoneted to death after one of the most selfless acts of sacrifice in the Kokoda campaign – he does not rate a mention!

Nor do any of the other 623 men who were killed in action during the Kokoda campaign!

Facts relating to the sacrifice of the Papua and New Guinea wartime carriers have also been omitted. Without their support Australia would have been defeated by the Japanese. However, to our eternal shame, these selfless heroes have never been recognised with an official medal or Roll of Honour. The remains of hundreds, perhaps thousands, lie in unmarked graves in unknown locations over the Owen Stanley Ranges. They have no name – no grave – no record of their sacrifice – and no spiritual resting place such as a traditional cenotaph or ‘Spirit Haus’.

There is no mention of this shameless omission on any of the interpretation panels.

The panel ‘Friend I’ll Walk With You’ is reminiscent of the hashtag ‘Friend I’ll Ride With You’ which was created by Australian appeasers during the terrorist attack on the Lindt Café in Sydney in December 2014.

The following description on the panel could only be described as unsubstantiated doggerel:

‘My father says the hard work of Papuan carriers was recognised by the Australian soldiers, and he gave the name, the fuzzy wuzzy angels. The Papuan carriers thank him for recognising their work’. Sarah Sau Hiari, Papaki village

‘Today the local people have taken ownership of the term ‘fuzzy wuzzy angel’. In the traditional language, Motu, ‘fasl’ means friend and ‘wasl’ means leg.’

‘Friend, I’ll take you and I’ll walk you is what my father used to tell me. I remember that.’ Inoa Bobogi Ovia, Nainumu 2 village

‘So that’s an angel helping those people carrying the wounded back to hospital.’ Geoffrey Mela, Bisiataby

Historical information on the reality of the service and sacrifice of the wartime carriers is readily available in numerous books written by wartime journalists assigned to New Guinea during the Pacific War. These should obviously be used as reference material rather than subjective recollections that cannot be verified.

The panels refer to ‘Kokoda Track’ rather than the official name ‘Kokoda Trail’ as gazetted by the Papua New Guinea Government on 12 October 1972 (PNG Government Gazette No. 88 of 12 October 1972, page 1362, Column 2. Notice 1972/28 of the PNG Place Names Committee refers).

The battle honour, ‘Kokoda Trail’ was awarded to the Papuan Infantry Battalion by the Commonwealth Battles Nomenclature Committee in 1958.  There is no mention of this prestigious award on the information panels.

The use of the politically correct term ‘Kokoda Track’ is a patronising insult to the traditional owners of the land i.e. the independent sovereign nation of Papua New Guinea – and to their troops who fought in the Kokoda campaign. It is a patronising denial of their sovereign right to name their own geographic features.

It is also worthy of note that soldiers on active service do not get ‘seriously injured or lose their lives’ – they are combat casualties who get killed or wounded and are officially recorded as KIA or WIA.

Under a heading ‘Changes along the Track’ a panel records:

‘In 1942, the Kokoda Track became the site of bloody battles in which Papuans, New Guineans, Australians, Americans and Japanese were seriously injured or lost their lives.’ 

This is historically incorrect as there were no American units involved in the Kokoda campaign.

Under the heading ‘Green Shadows’ the panel records:

‘Members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) were the first to resist the Japanese in the invasion of Papua.’

This is historically incorrect. The first unit to resist the Japanese invasion of Papua was the 2/22nd Battalion, known as Lark Force, at Rabaul on 23 January 1942.

The panels advise:

‘The Kokoda Initiative is a partnership between the Australian and PNG Governments to protect the environment, help develop local communities and maintain opportunities for tourism along the Kokoda Track.’

If this is true the facts indicate they have failed substantially in all three areas.

It goes on to state that the Kokoda Initiative:

‘also seeks to honour the wartime significance of the region and to protect the natural and cultural heritage values while promoting sustainable tourism and trekking opportunities.’

This is misleading. Australian environmental officials have been embedded in Port Moresby since 2008 with budgets exceeding $50 million. After 10 years in-situ:

  • not one of the five strategies or 33 objectives established by the Australian Department of Environment for the period 2012-2015 has been achieved;
  • they have failed to develop a master plan to protect and interpret the wartime heritage of the Kokoda campaign;
  • they have failed to develop the necessary legislation to support the authority of the management authority;
  • they have failed to develop a campsite accreditation system;
  • they have failed to develop a trek itinerary management system;
  • they have failed to develop a campsite booking system;
  • they have failed to develop a database – there is therefore no record of the 40,000 Australians who have trekked Kokoda over the past decade;
  • they have failed to develop a mechanism for resolving local disputes- the dipute at the Isurava Memorial site is now entering its third year;
  • they have failed to develop a mechanism for determining local needs for villagers – not a single village workshop has been conducted since 2008;
  • they have failed to teach local villagers how to ‘value-add’ by providing goods and services that meet the needs of trekkers – there has not been a single outcome from the multi-million dollar ‘village livelihoods program’ initiated in Canberra without consultation with the PNG Department of Community Development;
  • the website for the management authority is obsolete and irrelevant;
  • the management organisation they put in place has collapsed and is the subject of a review ordered by the PNG Prime Minister;
  • the trek ranger system they established exists in name only;
  • the environmental condition of the trail continues to deteriorate because of the lack of a trail maintenance system;
  • there is not a single acceptable ablution facility for female trekkers along the entire trail. The toilets facilities are appalling and are greeted with a disparaging ‘Aaarh Yuk!’ by those who have to use them. Many now choose to ‘go bush’ rather than use them.

National Military Heritage Advisor

Another subterfuge to create an impression of interest in our wartime heritage along the trail came with the appointment of a ‘National Military Heritage Advisor’ in PNG by the Kokoda Initiative and funded by DFAT.

The position was quietly advertised during the Christmas holiday season from 19 December to 8 January 2017 and carefully targeted towards ‘universities, the Army Museum of WA, Darwin Military Museum, Army Museum of NSW, Army Museum of South Australia, and through local and international networks by NMAG, KTA, CEPA and Kokoda Initiative staff.’

The advertisement was obviously targeted and timed to avoid the attention of professional military historians. This is evident in the fact that the custodian of our military heritage, the Australian War Memorial, was not on the distribution list. It is also interesting that Australian envirocrats embedded in the PNG Kokoda Initiative and Kokoda Track Authority were aware of a number of professional military historians with an interest in the Kokoda campaign history but chose not to advise them of the advertisement.

The successful applicant, Dr Andrew Connelly has a Master’s Degree in Anthropology – his thesis was ‘Counting Coconuts: Patrol Reports from the Trobriand Islands. Part 1: 1907-193.’ The thesis for his doctorate was ‘Ambivalent Empire” Indigenous and Colonial Historicities in the Trobriand Islands, 1832-1941’.

Dr Connelly is well qualified and well suited for anthropological work in PNG however he is not a Military Historian. His refusal to acknowledge PNGs official name of the ‘Kokoda Trail’ – or the name of the Battle Honour awarded to their Papuan Infantry Battalion whilst he is embedded in their National Museum and Art Gallery indicates that his agenda might not be in the best interests of our shared wartime heritage in regard to the Kokoda campaign.

75th Anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign

The 75th anniversary of the landing of our Anzacs at Gallipoli in WW1 on 25 April 1915 provided both a precedent and a template to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in WW2 in 2017.

In 1992 Labour Prime Minister Bob Hawke invited 58 Anzac veterans aged 91 to 103 to accompany him to Gallipoli in his RAAF Boeing 707 and allocated a budget of $10 million for the commemoration.  At the 75th anniversary Dawn Service at Anzac Cove on 25th April 1990 he said:

‘Because of their devotion to duty and their comradeship, because of their ingenuity, their good humour and their endurance, because these hills rang with their voices and ran with their blood, this place Gallipoli is, in one sense, a part of Australia’

Unlike Gallipoli, Kokoda was Australian territory in 1942. It was therefore fair to expect that a group of surviving veterans would be invited to the 75th Anniversary Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery just as their fellow Gallipoli veterans were 25 years previously.

As it transpired no veterans were invited and no Australian Minister or Member of Parliament attended the historic service.

Lest we forget indeed!

What to do?

It is clear that the management system put in place by the Australian Government for the Kokoda trekking industry has collapsed and villagers are being denied their fair share of benefits and the opportunity for a sustainable future.

It is also clear that the wartime heritage of the Kokoda Trail has been hijacked to provide relevance to a wide range of cultural-environmental-anthropological studies and Aid projects that would otherwise be unremarkable.

This is evident in the fact that no Master Plan to identify, protect, honour and interpret the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign has been developed and not a single interpretive sign has been placed at any of the battlesites along the trail since the Australian Department of Environment took charge in 2008.

The only signs that have been installed are meaningless propaganda signs for their ‘Kokoda Initiative’ which were installed by helicopter with a Public Relations crew to record the event.

It is now time to stop the rot and transfer responsibility for the Kokoda Trail to the Department of Veterans Affairs which is responsible for commemoration. They are already responsible for our WW1 heritage at Gallipoli and the Western Front and should now be responsible for our WW2 heritage at Kokoda and the Pacific.

The next step should be to establish a Joint Understanding with PNG to:

  1. Acknowledge that PNG is the custodian of our shared wartime history in the Pacific;
  2. Engage a professional heritage architect to prepare a Master Plan to protect, honour and interpret our shared military history of the Kokoda campaign;
  3. Provide funding for a Visitors Centre at Owers Corner to reflect and interpret the military, cultural and environmental heritage of the place;
  4. assist PNG to establish a Wartime Heritage Project in partnership with the United States and Japan – this would lead to the development of a wartime tourism industry which would generate income and opportunity for Papua New Guineans; and
  5. initiate an Australia – PNG project with the Australian War Memorial modelled on the ‘Australia – Japan Research Project’ which was established almost a decade ago and allows scholars from both countries to research and interpret the military history of the War in the Pacific from different perspectives.

But first we have to get the Kokoda model right.

The current ‘Kokoda Initiative’ should be rebadged as the ‘Owen Stanley Initiative’ to reflect DFAT’s mission of assisting PNG to obtain a World Heritage listing for the area – the current Joint Understanding should then be amended to remove any reference to the protection of our shared wartime heritage.

The Kokoda trekking industry should be established as a commercial enterprise with professional management. Incorporated landowner groups (ILGs) across the trail would be equal shareholders in the business with the PNG Government.

Recommendation for Interim Management Arrangements

In the interim period DFAT/DVA should:

  1. Fund an Administrator for a 2-3 year period to allow time for Incorporated Landowner Groups to be established along the Kokoda Trail and a Kokoda Trail Management Company to be established on a commercial basis with the PNG Government and Incorporated Landowner Groups as equal shareholders. The Administrator should have at least 10 years previous experience in commercial enterprises in PNG;
  2. Fund a Chief Ranger for a 2 – 3 year period to develop a ranger system along the trail based on Incorporated Landowner Groups. The Chief Ranger should have at least 10 years previous experience in PNG; have trekked across the trail at least 10 times; be fluent in Tok Pisin; and have a detailed knowledge of the military history of the Kokoda campaign;
  3. Fund an experienced facilitator to conduct workshops in villagers along the trail for a 2 – 3 period as part of the process for establishing Incorporated Landowner Groups. The facilitator should have at least two years’ experience in PNG and be familiar with the trail, its military and cultural history and Tok Pisin; and
  4. Fund a PNG CEO for a 2 – 3 year period to organise village workshops along the trail as part of the process for developing Incorporated Landowner Groups.

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