PNG honours ‘Chief’ Malcolm Fraser

In this autocue age so many political leaders are ‘presenters’ rather than premiers or prime ministers and genuine leaders are as rare as philanthropic bankers.

So it was heartening yesterday to see Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner to Australia, His Excellency Mr Charles Lepani, honour former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser for his leadership during PNG’s fledgling days as an independent nation.

Acting on behalf of his nation’s Governor-General, Mr Lepani conferred PNG’s highest honour on Mr Fraser: Grand Companion of the Order of Logohu, which carries the honorary title of Chief.

Mr Lepani explained that logohu is the Motu word for bird of paradise, PNG’s national emblem. He said the award recognised Mr Fraser’s services to PNG, particularly in its early years of independence.

Mr Lepani recalled that he was the head of his country’s planning department at independence and that his country faced a potential financial crisis as it made the transition from colonial control to national independence.

When Mr Fraser assumed the prime ministership in 1975, he was greeted by blunt advice from his Treasury: now that PNG was an independent nation, Australia should treat it as it did other nations and only give it project-based aid, rather than the budgetary support it had previously given.

This prospect caused panic in the PNG government and bureaucracy. They knew they did not have the fiscal and structural depth to withstand such a drastic change in support. The new nation would have been stillborn.

Malcolm Fraser overrode his treasury advice and maintained the budgetary support, allowing PNG time to stabiles and grow. It was a gesture that has lived long in Mr Lepani’s memory.

Speaking after the award, Mr Fraser said he was well aware of the consequences of following the hardline treasury advice. “It wasn’t the only time I rejected treasury advice in those years,” he added with a smile.

Mr Fraser called on PNG and Australia can work together to continue to be a force for good in the Pacific region.