On the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke sponsored and accompanied 59 veterans to attend the historic Dawn Service at Anzac Cove at a cost of $10 million.

On the 75th anniversary of Kokoda, the Coalition Government did not sponsor a single veteran to join the 3779 diggers who were killed in action on Australian territory and are buried in Bomana War Cemetery on the outskirts of Port Moresby. The DVA Minister did not bother to attend.

The 80th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign has just passed with the DVA Minister MIA once again.

As a former Liberal MLC in the NSW Parliament, I had mixed feelings watching the Coalition vote evaporate last Saturday. My Senate vote also evaporated for the first time in 59 years!

I admit I don’t know much about much – but after 21 years army service and 99 treks across the Kokoda Trail over the past 30 years I do know a little about the need to honour our shared military heritage with Papua New Guinea – our wartime ally, former mandated territory, our closest neighbour and our fellow Commonwealth member. I have also got to know a little about the plight of their subsistence villagers across the Kokoda Trail.

My fellow trek leaders, who have a combined total of 160 years professional military experience and who have led more than 600 expeditions across the Trail, also know a bit about the place and its people.

Unfortunately, we were regarded as persona non-grata as we tried to offer advice to a conga-line of Coalition Ministers responsible for the Pacific and Veterans Affairs since they swept to power in 2014.

The exception was Environment Minister, Greg Hunt. He was genuinely receptive to the problems relating to the dysfunctional management system DFAT imposed on PNG under a ‘Joint Agreement’ in 2008. He then conducted his own research to acquaint himself with the problems then decided to take an effective course of action. Unfortunately, he was moved from Environment to Health in a Cabinet reshuffle a short time later, and so it was back to square one.

Trips to Canberra to brief Ministers responsible for the Kokoda Trail became more frequent due to the revolving door of Cabinet reshuffles – in five years there were five different Ministers for International Aid and the Pacific, and five for Veterans Affairs.

I might as well have been talking to their pot-plants at the meetings I was able to arrange. There was no sense of interest in the topic (Kokoda or PNG) and certainly no outcomes.

It was obvious they preferred the advice of the departmental staff they inherited from the previous Labor Government. Their DFAT Strategic Management Advisor for Kokoda in PNG openly mocked Scott Morrison on his FB page at the same time he was drawing his eye-watering 6-figure salary with generous tax concessions from him. Despite this, Coalition Ministers preferred his advice to that which we old-soldiers offered.

It is revealing that since DFAT assumed responsibility for the Kokoda Trail in 2008 trekker numbers declined by 46 percent. This has resulted in a cumulative loss of $19 million in foregone wages, campsite fees and local purchases for the subsistence village communities we have spent around $60 million trying to help. Go figure!

A review of the Kokoda Trail under the Coalition’s watch from 2014-2020 is a sorry reflection on their performance:

  • One of the first actions under Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop’s watch, was to have the term ‘mateship’ formally changed to ‘friendship’ in our Joint Agreement with PNG.
  • No credible Master Heritage Plan was developed to honour and interpret our shared wartime heritage across the Trail.
  • Not a single dollar has been invested to honour and interpret any of the significant Kokoda campaign battlesites.
  • An American anthropologist, without any Military Heritage credentials, was engaged by DFAT as Australia’s ‘National Military Heritage Advisor’ under a process that could best be described as ‘dodgy’.
  • Not a single ‘income earning initiative’ was introduced to assist subsistence villagers to earn some additional money by providing goods and services to meet the needs of trekkers.
  • Not a single dollar was invested in campsites to meet the basic needs of trekkers.
  • Not a single toilet was constructed that meets the most basic of hygiene standards for trekkers.
  • Not a single village-based workshop was conducted to allow subsistence villagers to discuss their local needs – an essential part of the process of engagement in Melanesian society!
  • Not a single management system was put in place – after 10 years in charge DFAT has not yet been able to work out a system which will allow trek groups to even book a campsite!

I could go on, but you get the drift.

So, what does the Coalition think they have achieved regarding their oversight of the Kokoda Trail?

  • Their plan to develop a case for a World Heritage listing for the Trail failed to meet the necessary criteria and was shelved.
  • Their plan to protect the upper reaches of the Brown River catchment area on the Trail as a possible water source for Port Moresby was trumped by the Chinese who built a $230 million Edevu Hydro Project which solved the problem.
  • Their million-dollar ‘Village Livelihoods’ project, conceived in Canberra without any consultation with their PNG counterparts, failed to produce any vegetables or generate any income for subsistence villagers across the Trail. It was quietly shelved.
  • Their ‘Gender Equity Study’ failed to have any impact on women across the Trail as they continue to live happily within their village communities as they have done for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
  • Their desire to improve ‘access to the Trail for ‘people with disabilities’ in noble but somewhat futile as many trekkers without any disabilities have been physically unable to complete the trek over the years.

The management system they put in place has never published an annual financial report. As a result, nobody has any idea where the millions of dollars they have received in trek permit fees has gone. What we do know is that it seems to circulate in Port Moresby and almost nothing gets to the villagers. There is strong anecdotal evidence of collusion and corruption within the management system DFAT has imposed on them.

A lack of governance has seen a proliferation of illegal Australian eco-operators cashing in. DFAT is aware of the situation but has turned a blind eye to it. PNG is therefore missing out on significant taxation revenue as a result.

The final parting gift from the Coalition is an attempt to sneak an environmental bill into the PNG Parliament which seeks to redefine the Kokoda Trail as a ‘Kokoda corridor’. If successful it will extend the boundaries of the gazetted Trail between Owers Corner and Kokoda from the south coast to the north coast and include a large chunk of the Owen Stanley Ranges.

It’s not as if PNG needs another layer of foreign-initiated environmental legislation as they already have six Acts of Parliament to protect their environment along with the recent establishment of an aid-funded ‘Climate Change Authority’. There is no need for another layer of bureaucracy in a 3rd World country struggling to keep up with the paperwork they already have.

Sadly, the Coalition has allowed the word ‘Kokoda’ to be hijacked by DFAT to give relevance to expanded aid-funded career opportunities for environmental officials, anthropologists, archaeologists, social mappers, capacity builders and gender equalisers who will inevitably swarm north to offer solutions to problems they will never understand.

For reasons known only to exiting Coalition Ministers, and to their eternal shame, the proposed DFAT bill does not address issues relating to management, pilgrimage, commemoration or economic opportunity for the custodians of land sacred to our shared military heritage across the iconic Kokoda Trail!

Lest We Forget!

Lest We Forget – Indeed!