The Weekend Australian: Will Albanese be the latest PM to botch a Kokoda visit?

Keating’s historic visit to Kokoda on the 50th anniversary of the campaign in 1992 was widely acclaimed. While his speeches and gestures were wrapped in his republican cloth, he stirred a patriotic fervour which elevated ‘Kokoda’ in our national consciousness.

Unfortunately, he was let down by his Canberra advisors who displayed a poor understanding of the Kokoda campaign, Kokoda Trail and, more importantly, the ‘Melanesian Way’ in PNG.

The opportunity to use the occasion to initiate a Military Heritage Master Plan to identify, protect, honour and interpret significant sites which had long since been reclaimed by the jungle was lost.

The new air terminal they built at Kokoda in anticipation of his visit was burnt down just before he was due to open it. A sign that his advisors might have negotiated with the wrong landowners!

The Kokoda Memorial Hospital, built in partnership with Rotary Australia, was well intentioned but ill conceived.

It only had one doctor for a short period and has been consistently short of medical supplies to meet local demands for the past 30 years. The toilets at the hospital are now so putrid they are unusable.

In hindsight it would have been more practical to build a health centre at Kokoda, upgrade the Provincial hospital at Popondetta, and fund an ambulance service to meet the needs of villagers along the 90 km road between Kokoda and Popondetta.

For reasons known only to his Canberra advisors they ignored the historical significance of the Kokoda plateau apart from refurbishing a small building with some military ordnance and rebadging it as a ‘museum’.

The historical ambience of the plateau has recently been lost with the construction of a large local government administration building now dominating it. 

There is now nothing to attract pilgrimage tourists to the area.

Prime Minister John Howard committed to a multi-million-dollar memorial at the Isurava battlesite which I rediscovered in 1996. It was officially opened by Howard and his PNG counterpart, Sir Michael Somare on the 60th anniversary of the battle with a spectacular Orokaiva cultural ceremony.

Since then, the Isurava Memorial has taken on the aura of a cathedral for Australian trekkers who pay their respects at impromptu commemorative services before they move on.

The memorial has generated significant income for the landowner communities who relocated back to the site from the village of Isurava about an hour further down towards Kokoda.

To complement the memorial Veterans Affairs built a ‘trekkers hut’ at considerable expense. However they failed to consult with tour operators (a common Canberra trait) and as a result it is rarely used due to the fact it is a metal building with no ventilation – a basic necessity in the tropics.

The contract for the toilets they built was obviously awarded to the lowest bidder and are not fit for purpose. For reasons known only to DVA there are no discrete ablution facilities for female trekkers and no provision for cooking and dining facilities.

On the 70th anniversary of the campaign the Gillard Government funded a crude ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Therapies’ massage hut adjacent to the Isurava memorial. It did not attract a single customer over the following two years and was quietly dismantled by the DFAT funded ‘Kokoda Initiative’.

No funds were directed towards that restoration of any military heritage sites across the Trail.

We were hopeful Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would match the precedent of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke for the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli where he allocated a budget of $10 million to personally lead a group of 52 veterans and their carers back to Anzac Cove to commemorate the campaign.

Turnbull chose not to attend the Anzac Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery and did not make any provision to support veterans who wished to return to pay a final tribute to the mates they left behind. Lest We Forget indeed!

No funds were committed towards any form of military heritage project anywhere across the Trail.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not commit any funds towards any form of military heritage projects anywhere across the Trail until the dying stages of his term.

The $10 million he allocated for the commemoration was diverted to a project in the National Museum and Art Gallery which had already received $25 million from the Abbott Government in 2015.

Nothing was allocated to any commemorative projects across the Trail.

To allay any cynics who may think Albo would use Kokoda as a ploy to bolster his political stocks or divert attention from his hapless Foreign Minister I recommend he attend the official Anzac Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery.

Each year up to 3000 Australian and Papua New Guineans attend this service to commemorate the sacrifice of 3826 servicemen who now rest in a tranquil setting on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Their marble headstones shaded with majestic rain trees, each one marked with tropical flowers and surrounded by manicured lawns.

It is the biggest Australian war cemetery in the world.

The current plan, as reported, has the Pime Minister and his media entourage taking a short trek somewhere on the Trail and attending a fake Anzac Dawn Service at the Isurava Memorial.

Immediately after the service they will return to Port Moresby and board the ‘Toto Express’ directly back to Canberra.

This is reminiscent of the reported attempt by Channel 7 Sunrise host, David Koch, to conduct a fake Anzac Dawn Service with Kevin Rudd at the Long Tan Cross in Vietnam in 2007.

The stunt was cancelled after the Australian newspaper published ‘The long trek to Sunrise’s darkest hour’.

Koch had form in this area. The previous year he attracted considerable flak from Joe Public after staging a fake Anzac Dawn Service at Isurava. An ABC report ‘Sevens Kokoda Sunrise’ on 1 May 2006 captured some of the feedback:

‘I want to give a brickbat to Seven Sunrise for having corporate t-shirts with large 7 logos en mass, degrading the broadcast of the Kokoda dawn service…I personally would have preferred Joe Hockey topless!!’.

Channel 7’s Sunrise coverage of the Kokoda ANZAC Day Service was commercialism at it’s grossest, and a desecration of Australia’s remembrance of those who served and died…

’’T-shirts shamelessly displaying the channel seven logo…Cashing-in on this special day…What idiots!’

Attendance at the official Anzac Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery this year does not preclude Albo from doing a short two-hour trek from Alola village to the Isurava memorial to salute the gallant stand by the bravest of the brave against all the odds at a critical stage of the War in the Pacific, and paying tribute at the spot where Private Bruce Kingsbury VC fell.

However, if Albo proceeds with his plan to draw the media away from the official Anzac Dawn Service at Bomana it will be akin to ‘calling artillery in on himself’ or ‘throwing the pin instead of the grenade’.

He would therefore be well appraised to heed General Geoge S. Patton’s advice that ‘No good decision was ever made in a swivel chair’ when discussing his visit with his minders.

Isurava Memorial at Dawn

Joe Hockey, David Koch and Kevine Rudd at the unofficial Channel 7 ANZAC Dawn Service at Isurava

The official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Blackhawk helicopters swoop down from the Owen Stanley Ranges across the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

‘When you go home, tell them of us. Tell them that for their today, we gave our tomorrow’

PNG Governor-General, Sir Bob Dadae, giving the official ANZAC address at Boman War Cemetery

Proud PNG Guard of Honour at the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

New Zealand and Australian officers at the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and his wife, Lynda May Babao, with Defence Minister Stephen Smith at the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Wonderful, proud, and enthusiastic band from PNG Corrective Services playing at the official ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Angelic PNG Primary school students singing at the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Adventure Kokoda trek leaders looking out for the trekkers they have just led across the Kokoda Trail at the official ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Adventure Kokoda trekkers relaxing with pride after a gruelling trek across the Kokoda Trail to make the offical ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery.

Proud grandsons of the famous ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ at the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

After the break of dawn at the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Traditional indigenous salute to a fallen veteran at the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Australian bush music legend, John Williamson, singing ‘True Blue’ at the official 75th anniversary ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery

Vietnam veterans and Adventure Kokoda trek leaders, Major Chad Sherrin MM (96 treks), and Major Charlie Lynn OAM OL (101 treks) pay their respects to the fallen at the Cross of Sacrifice after the official ANZAC Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery