Kokoda: Time to end the hijack

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.

Background

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!’ (more…)

Desecration of Owers Corner by DFAT ‘Kokoda Initiative’ now complete

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. (more…)

Kokoda Day: A Tribute to Papua New Guinea’s Unsung Heroes

 

The bleached bones of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nameless PNG wartime carriers lie where they fell in unknown locations in swamps, jungles and formidable mountain ranges during the New Guinea campaigns. To this day we don’t know who they were. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know where they died. There is no record of their existence. No medals were ever struck to acknowledge their service towards the war effort.

It’s time to honour their sacrifice by providing a Spirit Haus for their souls and a day to commemorate their sacrifice.

Australia was unprepared for the war in the Pacific in 1942.  Our faith in ‘great and powerful friends’ coming to our aid in the event of Japan entering the war was shattered with the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse near Singapore on 10 December 1941 and the secret deal struck by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt for American aid to be directed to the European theatre of operations at the expense of the South West Pacific.

The defence of Australia and its mandated territory of Papua and New Guinea was dependent on untrained militia forces and a small band of New Guinea Rifles as our experienced AIF units were returning from Europe to meet the new threat.

Resources were so scarce in New Guinea that young males were forcibly recruited to support the war effort[i].  Many of these men from remote mountain villagers had no idea of the war and were conscripted against their will.  They were told that men from Japan were the enemy.  For many of these men other villagers living in remote tribal lands were also considered ‘enemy’.  One can only imagine the fear and uncertainty they felt as they were forcibly marched away from their families and clans to fight in ‘our’ war against Japan[ii].

It has been estimated that some 10,000 PNG nationals served as Carriers in support of the Australians during the Kokoda campaign in 1942. A further 42,000 are estimated to have been indentured to support Australian troops in the Milne Bay and the Buna/Gona campaigns.  They were paid 10 shillings per month.

The issue of compensation remains a vexed issue more than 70 years after the war.  While the Australian government paid some compensation for property damage to PNG nationals between 1944 and 1957 the wartime carriers were excluded from receiving any such benefits under the prevailing legislation. In 1980 they were also deemed to be ineligible for the PNG War Gratuity Scheme for ex-Servicemen.

And they were deemed to be ineligible for a medal.  In the eyes of post-war bureaucrats they were both nameless and invisible. (more…)

Time to reign in KTOA bullies on Kokoda

‘What? Provide for the welfare of natives on the Kokoda Trail – you’ve got to be kidding!’

That’s not exactly what they said but the Australian based Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) submission to a review of the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) ridiculed a suggestion that they should have to provide for the welfare of their guides and carriers. This could create an ‘entitlement mentality’ they wailed!

What is really required, according to the KTOA, is a combination of ‘education – hard skills – and thought process’.

They don’t explain how they would ‘educate’ a subsistence villager to carry loads far heavier than the maximum allowed for their ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angel’ forebears in 1942 – or how they would ‘educate’ them to sleep on freezing, wet ground without a sleeping bag or mat in the upper reaches of the Owen Stanley Ranges – or how they would ‘educate’ their bodies to be physically sustained on packets of two-minute noodles.

The KTOA assertion that ‘for successful commerce, all parties must bring something to the table – there cannot be a hand out mentality’ is reminiscent of a colonial blackbirder addressing a native work-party in the late 19th Century.

Whilst their submission acknowledges ‘the legitimate right of landowners to participate in and benefit from the Kokoda Track tourism experience’ they maintain that ‘this right needs to be translated to viable means by which this can happen; education and mentoring is needed to develop the skillsets required and the appreciation that self-sustainable change and development requires a contribution from oneself’.

WTF! This surely takes patronising arrogance to a new level. (more…)

‘Yes Minister’ alive on Kokoda

‘However it seems that DFAT has sought to outsmart Prime Minister Peter O’Neill by appointing a former employee of the Australian Department of Environment as their preferred consultant. A clever ‘Yes Minister’ ploy to transfer responsibility for the managerial bucket-of-shit they created to the PNG Government.’

 

The Review of the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) ordered by PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, is a disappointing academic desk-top study which recommends more of the same under a different name.

Prime Minister O’Neill ordered the review after the collapse of the management system put in place by the Australian Government in 2009.

Despite spending more than $60 million since then Kokoda trekker numbers have declined by 43 per cent; there is not a single management protocol in place; not one of the five key strategies or 33 objectives established by Australian managers for the period 2012-2015 was achieved; and there is still no master plan to protect and interpret our shared wartime history of the Kokoda campaign.

Australian officials were able to cover their taxpayer funded follies for a number of years but they now seem to have run out of academic subjects for consultants to address in regard to climate change, social mapping, capacity building, gender equity, mentoring and a plethora of other Third World causes along the Kokoda Trail.

The only subject they have failed to address is the identification, protection and interpretation of our shared wartime heritage. It would be easy to conclude that the current crop of Australian’s responsible for Kokoda are ideologically opposed to it.

The situation along the trail is now dire. Local villagers we were supposed to help are now mere spectators to a passing parade of trekkers. Once proud women who used to greet trekkers with huge smiles, dishes of cooked vegetables and tropical fruits now sit despondently in village dust trying to sell twisties and coke. The once pristine nature of the trail continues to be degraded by erosion. Battlesites sacred to our shared military heritage have been desecrated.

Back in Port Moresby the management structure put in place by the Department of Environment has been corrupted. No financial reports or newsletters have been published for at least five years. The Ranger system has collapsed; unlicensed trek operators are able to act without fear of detection; local guides and carriers are overloaded, underpaid and ill-equipped by unscrupulous Australian trek operators. Campsite owners are short changed and local villagers have lost all interest in the industry.

The KTA Review was supposed to address these issues and make recommendations to fix it all. (more…)