Economic or Political Development: The Evolution of "Native" Local Government Policy in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, 1945-1963

By Wright, Huntley | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Economic or Political Development: The Evolution of "Native" Local Government Policy in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, 1945-1963


Wright, Huntley, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Historian Allan Healy has described the evolution of "native" local government policy in post-World War II Papua and New Guinea (TPNG) as the "antithesis of that in the contemporary British colonies". Apotheosising the British system of "indirect role" from within a narrow, politico-administrative framework, Healy argued "that success in legitimating government under cross-cultural conditions could result only from a recognition of traditional inputs and the creation of bridging institutions". To this extent, "Australia in Papua New Guinea failed to identify the key problems and therefore did not establish an appropriate form of administration". This failure, according to Healy, found expression in a policy "designed to serve gradualist, assimilationist purposes". (3) In this sense, assimilation refers to the assumption, supposedly endemic in Australia's post-war policy toward TPNG, that "the problems of administration [...] boiled down to the long-term education of the native to accept the superior usage of Australian civilisation", including the Shire Council. (4)

As payment for "the debt of gratitude" Australians owed to the indigenous peoples of Papua and New Guinea for their service during World War II, the Labor Governments of John Curtin and Ben Chifley promised a "new deal". Outlining this "new deal" in July 1945, Minister for External Territories Eddie Ward invoked the "principle of trusteeship", stating that "the Government regards it as its bounded duty" to provide facilities for "greater participation by the natives in the wealth of their country and eventually in its government". (5) For Administrator Colonel Jack Murray, indigenous participation in government was to be gradual and tutored by the colonial state through local councils. In December 1948, he wrote to Ward demanding that the Minister act decisively in drafting a Native Council Ordinance. Noting that a "lack of accomplishment in political development has been drawn attention to by the trusteeship council", Murray asserted that without the requisite legislation the Administration could not "legally go on with the simplest self-government procedures". (6)

However, for chief architect of the Local Government Council system David Fenbury (then Fienberg), "native" councils were never envisaged as schools for "training the natives in self-government". (7) Rather, local government policy reflected the belief that the productive potential of indigenous households was realisable only through state administration of a direct and systematic kind. Post-war participation by the indigenous peoples of TPNG in agriculture was directed by the Territory Administration in accordance with an agrarian doctrine of development: in a situation where the bulk of the population remained attached to customary landholdings, development became synonymous with plans for strengthening that attachment whilst changing the terms of occupancy. (8) For Fenbury, however, the liberal belief in "progress" had failed and it was not sufficient for the Territory Administration to situate itself in a mediating role between indigenous households and international commodity markets, much less maintain the productivity of labour under conditions subject to fluctuating global prices. The target of local government policy was "the systematic development of native agricultural potential". (9) That is, it sought to negate the perceived inability of orthodox, "peripatetic" agricultural extension practice to extend administrative control over indigenous households in such a way that, 1) prevented fragmentation in landholdings; and 2) organised production and processing along lines designed to yield a high-quality product. Implicit was the supposition that indigenous labour effort was fixed in land, and that state administration was a requisite condition for the realisation of that effort.

For Fenbury, "native" councils were to be tools of area administration and hence, did "not mean any diminution of Administration control". …

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