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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 11



‘Neither side [Australia or PNG] were in favour of a defence commitment of the ANZUS nature. […]

There can no longer be any thought of automatic involvement of Australian forces in Papua New Guinea’.

Lance Barnard, Minister for Defence, August 1974

‘Neither Government wishes to enter into a formal defence commitment’.

Lance Barnard, Minister for Defence, October 1974

At the beginning of their second full year in government Barnard, Morrison and their officials focused on a number of interconnected defence-related issues as Papua New Guinea moved to self-government and then independence. The senior ministers and officials were closely involved in the process of establishing the structure, style, role and responsibilities of the soon to be re-designated Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). They were also preoccupied with negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement on the role and responsibilities of the Australian Defence Force personnel who would continue to serve in the PNGDF after independence. As well, officials looked for a mechanism to allow Australia to be consulted if its defence personnel serving with the PNGDF were to be deployed to what were described as ‘politically sensitive situations’, usually defined as breakdowns in internal security or possible clashes with Indonesian forces on the border. Finally, officials were involved in settling the terms of a supply support arrangement to ensure continued Australian matériel assistance to the PNGDF. The question of the long-term defence relationship with an independent Papua New Guinea stood apart and was managed separately as a whole-of-government issue.

A feature of the consultations and negotiations surrounding these issues, as Paul Mench has commented, was that they were increasingly carried out with indigenous Papua New Guineans serving in the PNGDF or in the government.1 Somare and Kiki were in the forefront of the negotiations, with Noel Levi, Secretary of the Department of Defence, also closely involved. Admittedly, there remained a considerable number of Australians in the administration who briefed local officials and who participated in these discussions but the trend was increasingly for decisions to be taken by Somare and Kiki. This suited the Whitlam Government’s approach to Papua New Guinea. Although the active participation of Papua New Guineans in negotiations had begun to occur in the last years of the Liberal–Country Party Government, Whitlam and his colleagues insisted that Papua New Guinea ministers and officials were to be treated as equal partners by their Australian counterparts.

A second feature was that the negotiations were conducted during a period when Australia was increasingly worried by the internal security problems plaguing the country and the threat of secession, in particular from Bougainville. As noted earlier, Australian ministers and senior officials were preoccupied by the threat that Papua New Guinea would break apart, as firstly the Papua Besena Movement initiated a unilateral declaration of independence for Papua and then, in mid-1975, Bougainville launched a much more serious attempt to secede from Port Moresby’s impending administration. Whitlam, his senior ministers and the Administrator (supported by statements from the United Nations) repeatedly made clear, publicly and privately, that Australia supported a united Papua New Guinea and would only provide assistance to a government based in Port Moresby.

Reshaping the party platform and quarantining the ANZUS Treaty

The Whitlam Government took the first step in clarifying its approach to the issue of the long-term defence relationship and the terms of a commitment to defend Papua New Guinea when, at its July 1973 Federal Conference, the Labor Party dropped the reference in its 1971 Federal Party Platform to a commitment to negotiate a ‘defence treaty’ with Papua New Guinea. The initiative to remove the reference was taken by Morrison as the New South Wales delegate on the conference drafting committee.2 His aim was to give the government the maximum flexibility in its approach to this issue. Other key delegates, including Barnard, agreed to Morrison’s decision to remove the reference. Morrison’s action received little attention and there was minimum debate on the issue at the conference.3 Mench has suggested that the reference was removed ‘because of fears that a rigid treaty arrangement might possibly lead to Australian military intervention in Papua New Guinea’s internal affairs’.4 Whitlam noted, in response to a submission from the Department of Foreign Affairs shortly after the conference, that the decision was designed to ‘simplify the plank not to repudiate the idea’.5 Regardless of Whitlam’s justification, Morrison had made sure that it was no longer Labor policy to conclude a ‘defence treaty’ (of whatever description and scope) with Papua New Guinea. One of the important foundation stones of Labor’s policy approach to Papua New Guinea, adopted in opposition, had been removed.

At the same time as the Labor Party was recasting its policy approach, Australian officials settled the question of whether the ANZUS Treaty would be extended to include an independent Papua New Guinea as a signatory state. The application of the Treaty was, on the surface, the most straightforward and powerful mechanism available to provide Papua New Guinea with a guarantee of its defence against an external aggressor.

In 1962, at the height of the West New Guinea dispute, the Minister for External Affairs, Garfield Barwick, had secured a strong reference in the ANZUS Council meeting in Canberra to the application of the Treaty to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and had followed this up with a statement at a press conference that ‘if our island territories come under attack we can rely upon the United States of America and New Zealand to be standing with us and giving us assistance’.6 In 1963, Averell Harriman, the United States Under Secretary of State, had confirmed that the United States ‘would fight’ to defend Papua New Guinea. Shortly afterwards the United States senior State Department official, Lucius Battle, confirmed that the United States would support Australia against an aggressor in Papua New Guinea.7 Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, had given similar assurances to Australian ministers and senior officials.

At regular intervals throughout the late 1960s and 1970s Australian officials had examined the question of whether coverage of the ANZUS Treaty would extend to an independent Papua New Guinea or include Australian troops operating in an independent Papua New Guinea. Officials were consistently of the view that the Treaty would cover Australian troops on active defence duty in Papua New Guinea. However, they concluded that, despite its former colonial status as an Australian territory, an independent Papua New Guinea would not automatically be covered by ANZUS. Papua New Guinea could only be included if the existing partners agreed to amend the Treaty. It was noted that such a decision would be subject to confirmation by the United States Senate.

As early as 1963 Tange had commented to the Defence Committee that ‘no US Senate is likely to mortgage itself to an independent New Guinea Government which would involve it in a war with Indonesia’.8 At the time of its consideration of the 1973 report on Australia’s Defence Relations with Papua New Guinea discussed earlier, the Defence Committee had also examined a paper on the implications for the ANZUS Treaty of Papua New Guinea gaining independence. In preparation for this discussion the Department of Foreign Affairs had formally sought from the United States Embassy an opinion as to whether, from the perspective of the United States, the Treaty would extend to Papua New Guinea on independence. The report to the Defence Committee drew on the advice from the State Department that the Treaty would not apply to an independent Papua New Guinea, unless specific action were taken by the parties to include it.9 The Defence Committee noted that the United States Senate was ‘most unlikely’ to ‘accept a new security commitment in the Asian–Pacific areas’. Moreover, efforts to secure the acceptance of Papua New Guinea as a Treaty partner ‘could not be expected to succeed’ and, if the question were raised in the Senate, it ‘could … stimulate some unwelcome criticism in the United States of the Treaty commitment to Australia’. In view of this assessment, Australian officials argued that ‘an effort to secure Papua New Guinea’s membership of the ANZUS Treaty is not warranted’.10

Strongly implicit in this judgement was the view that the ANZUS Treaty was too important to Australia’s own security outlook to risk it being weakened through redrafting or rejection in a United States Senate debate over widening its geographic coverage to include Papua New Guinea. Australia was not prepared to jeopardise the fundamental pillar of its own defence policy for the sake of extending the ANZUS security guarantee to Papua New Guinea. In coming to this assessment Australian policy makers also noted that to extend the Treaty to Papua New Guinea might arouse resentment elsewhere in the South Pacific at Papua New Guinea’s ‘preferred status’ and ‘could be taken in Indonesia as implying that Australia considered Papua New Guinea likely to be threatened by Indonesia, a view it is in our interest to avoid’.11 It may also have been the case that the Whitlam Government was wary of putting the ANZUS Treaty before the Nixon Administration given the serious division which had emerged between the two governments in late 1972 and early 1973 over the bombing of North Vietnam. The intensity of the Nixon Administration’s hostility to Whitlam, as revealed by James Curran in Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, would not have boded well for any reasoned discussion about re-negotiation of ANZUS to include Papua New Guinea.12

The question of the possible extension of the ANZUS Treaty was not raised in the discussions between Australia and Papua New Guinea over the options to express a long-term defence commitment. There is no evidence to indicate that Papua New Guinea considered becoming a signatory to the ANZUS Treaty. Its preference for a foreign policy of ‘universalism’ meant that it wished to avoid public commitments and alliances with the superpowers.

PNG’s first thoughts on a post-independence arrangement

In early 1973 officials from both Australia and Papua New Guinea had begun to discuss the details of the future structure, responsibilities, budget and role of the PNGDF. On 5 February 1974 the talks extended to the scope of the post-independence defence relationship. At this meeting Papua New Guinea officials canvassed the possibility of an ‘arrangement’ which, in the broadest terms, would:

(a)   give Papua New Guinea some form of assurance, in mutual terms, which would ensure that in the event of external aggression beyond Papua New Guinea’s capability to handle, Australia would help;

(b)   be flexible, in relation to the type of events and circumstances; (c) provide machinery for consultation which would keep the two countries informed of each other’s attitudes and intentions and enable them to discuss particular developments;

(d)   could be supported and elaborated if desired by unilateral statements of policy from time to time;

(e)   not appear to be directed towards any specific third country or countries; and

(f)   find practical expression for example through joint Australian/Papua New Guinea exercises.13

The scope of the possible ‘arrangement’ was the most detailed outline yet put forward and surprisingly it came from the PNG side. It is difficult to assess the strength of indigenous input into this description. Kiki and Levi were clear in their thinking but they were surrounded by Australian defence officers serving in senior positions in the PNGDF, including its commanding officer. The ‘arrangement’ did not propose a formal defence treaty or commitment. Instead it spoke only of an ‘assurance’ which would be ‘flexible’ and a ‘machinery for consultation’. It approximated some of the elements examined in the Defence Committee three months earlier as it did not seek a formal, unrestricted, unlimited commitment from Australia. The reference to joint exercises serving as a practical expression of the defence relationship was also in keeping with Australian thinking, along with supply support arrangements.

The concern that Papua New Guinea would press Australia for an unconditional or unlimited public commitment to come to its defence proved unfounded. On 4 April 1974, Kiki met Barnard, Morrison and Senator Don Willesee, who had taken over as Minister for Foreign Affairs from Whitlam in November 1973. In his opening remarks, Barnard made clear his view that it was ‘important for both countries that Papua New Guinea be seen domestically and internationally to be a sovereign country and responsible for its own defence’.14 Barnard knew that this approach would resonate with Kiki given the latter’s clearly expressed sentiments in favour of an independent Papua New Guinea. Kiki nevertheless raised the issue of the nature of the long-term defence relationship and referred to the common interest of both countries in a close relationship. He commented that he ‘foresaw a particularly close relationship in the shorter term while Australia provided financial and personnel assistance to the PNGDF’. Kiki added that Papua New Guinea would like there to be:

a general expectation within the region that the close relationship between the two countries resting on historical and geographical considerations and the defence assistance provided by Australia would mean that an attack on one would be seen as an attack on the other.15

Importantly, he commented that Papua New Guinea did not believe that this close relationship needed to be the subject of a formal arrangement. Instead, Papua New Guinea would prefer an ‘understanding’ between the two countries and this ‘understanding’ would include a mutual acceptance that the two governments would ‘consult’ each other should a threat develop. Kiki added that he did not wish to formalise this ‘understanding’ in a major public presentation or a formal agreement as this ‘could lead to pressures on Papua New Guinea for similar arrangements with other countries’.16

Barnard and Willesee both readily accepted Kiki’s argument and proposal, with Barnard noting that Australia also did not want a formal agreement. Barnard added that it would be ‘better to have an understanding that there would always be an opportunity to consult should there be an appearance of a threat, i.e. a mutual acceptance by both governments that the opportunity to consult is there if the need arises’. Senator Willesee added that an announcement to this effect could also refer to the ‘historical and geographical relationship between the two countries’. Barnard also advised Kiki that Australia would not be seeking to maintain its own defence facilities in Papua New Guinea but would look for access to facilities, with the minimum of formality, for visits and exercises. Australia, in particular, wished to retain limited access to the refuelling facilities at Manus, for the short term. Kiki accepted Barnard’s proposal and added that such cooperation in the use of facilities would be part of the defence relationship as ‘understood’ between the two countries.17

The meeting had served the purpose of allowing both sides to articulate their vision for the future defence relationship. As such it reflected the themes emerging in both countries’ foreign and security policies. In Papua New Guinea’s case this had meant a reaffirmation that it wished to be seen as independent, sovereign and not, in public at least, tied to an ally or major power. This was consistent with its wish to pursue a course of ‘universalism’ – friend to all and enemy to none – in its relations with other states. At the same time it demonstrated the lack of a clear alternative for Papua New Guinea in establishing a security policy. Papua New Guinea was inevitably linked, at least for the short term, to Australia. The approach by Papua New Guinea to the management of this possible contradiction was to disguise that relationship by referring to it in terms of an ‘understanding’ rather than a formal, public statement of commitment. This suited Papua New Guinea’s philosophical approach to its foreign and security policies but the deliberate vagueness of an ‘understanding’ had the potential to create uncertainty and misunderstanding, not least in the minds of those who were responsible for managing the policy.

From Australia’s perspective, the Papua New Guinean approach fully suited its policy objectives. The proposals were well aligned with Australia’s concept of the future defence relationship. The option of an ‘understanding’ was in keeping with Labor Party policy of avoiding new international military obligations which would have occurred if the post-independence defence relationship were to be formalised in an international treaty. It also met the objective identified by the Defence Committee of maximising Australia’s options as to how it would respond to an external threat to Papua New Guinea, and in particular, of avoiding an open commitment. Kiki’s positive response to the advice that Australia would seek only access to the naval base at Manus also accorded with the Defence Committee’s recommendation. The similarity in the two countries’ positions on these issues was, as Mench has argued, not unexpected.18 Kiki was determined to ensure that Papua New Guinea asserted a strong degree of independence from Australia in its foreign and security policies and that this should be reflected in the post-independence security arrangements.

In his first sixteen months as Minister for Defence, Barnard had effectively steered the question of the long-term defence relationship away from any possibility that it would be represented by a treaty-level document which included the concept of an open commitment to come to Papua New Guinea’s defence. He had made an early judgement that Australia should not involve itself in trying to restore order and stability in Papua New Guinea and he had also accepted the assessment that Papua New Guinea was not likely to be threatened by Indonesia. The two conclusions combined to reinforce his view that Australia’s best approach was to keep a distance from the country once its formal obligations ended at independence. He agreed with the view that Australia needed to support Papua New Guinea and its defence force but considered that this would be through a defence cooperation program similar to those he advocated with other regional partners.

Kiki sets out PNG’s defence policy

On 25 April 1974 Kiki addressed the House of Assembly on his government’s defence and security policy. This was one of the first comprehensive statements by a Minister for Defence to the House of Assembly and, as such, carried great weight both internally and in Australia. The speech set out a number of decisions taken by the government on the functions, responsibilities and structure of the defence and police forces. Kiki also used the occasion to speak on Papua New Guinea’s external environment. He commented:

There is nothing which would lead us to believe that … an attack is at all likely in the foreseeable future. If such attacks did occur, we would count on the fact that our more powerful neighbours could not avoid being concerned in the interests of their own security.19

Later, in answer to a parliamentary question, Kiki added:

The Australian Government and the Australian people look towards this country as their close neighbour and in the event of attack and so on Australia will come and assist.20

Kiki’s argument was consistent with the rather ambiguous statements he had made in previous months. He saw the new nation of Papua New Guinea as having few enemies in the world due to its comparative isolation and its desire to work cooperatively with its neighbours. He also wished to think in terms of Papua New Guinea being independent, particularly from its former colonial administrator, and able to manage its problems. Nevertheless, he maintained the view that there would be some ultimate form of assistance from Australia, if necessary. Australia’s desire, which Kiki understood, was to keep open the option of how it would respond to any request for assistance. The Australian Government welcomed Kiki’s statement although it made no reference to Kiki’s remarks regarding a possible response to an external threat.

By mid-1974, after two years of discussion with PNG officials, Australia’s position could be summarised as an acceptance of the idea that ‘the principal instrument’ in the defence relationship would be a Defence Cooperation Agreement, formally registered with the United Nations. As Pritchett pointed out to Barnard, this would meet an earlier concern held by the Labor Party that Australian forces serving overseas do so under an international agreement.21 Subsidiary agreements would then follow such as a Loan Agreement specifying arrangements for the stationing of Australian personnel and units in Papua New Guinea and establishing safeguards for the use of Australian personnel serving in the PNGDF, particularly in areas of political sensitivity. A Status of Forces Agreement would establish the respective rights and obligations of the two governments in respect of visiting forces in each other’s country. A Defence Aid Program would allow for defence aid to be directed to the PNGDF and finally a Financial Understanding would allow for Australian subventions to the PNG defence budget.22 The four agreements and programs would form a policy platform which would ensure another key Australian objective was realised, that is, that Australia would be Papua New Guinea’s primary defence partner in the region. As to the long-term defence relationship and the issue of a long-term commitment, Pritchett advised Barnard that the discussions with PNG ministers and officials had established that:

the defence commitment itself would not be a formal agreement. … it is not in our interest or, we understand, PNG’s wish, to have a formal agreement. We want to avoid any commitment that involves us automatically in PNG’s external defence, or internal security. Our policy is to limit our mutual relationship in this respect to a statement of our common strategic interests, our intention to maintain contact and cooperation in the defence field and willingness to consult about circumstances affecting PNG’s security from external threat or attack. … this statement [would] not be embodied in any formal undertaking but declared in a communiqué.23

Somare and Kiki took the opportunity of the visit by the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, Sir Victor Smith, to Port Moresby in July 1974, to restate their reluctance to seek a treaty or formal agreement to serve as the text of a defence commitment.24 Both expressed a strong preference for the more functional arrangements covering defence cooperation to be based on a mutual understanding rather than a formal agreement. Kiki once again expressed his concern that the proposed defence relationship should not be formulated in such a way as to arouse the curiosity and suspicion of neighbouring countries, particularly Indonesia. He acknowledged the Australian Government’s policy preference for an international agreement to cover the stationing overseas of Australian troops but, such was his reluctance to accept the idea of international treaties on defence issues, that he argued an exception to this policy preference should be made based on a confidence drawn from the existing closeness of the two countries.

Barnard outlines the framework of the post-independence defence relationship

Barnard captured the essence of his approach to the defence relationship when he addressed the Chief of General Staff Exercise at Duntroon in August 1974. He made clear to the assembled members of the Defence Force that:

neither side [Australia or PNG] were in favour of a defence commitment of the ANZUS nature. […] there can no longer be any thought of automatic involvement of Australian forces in Papua New Guinea. Nevertheless Ministers foresee continuing close relations in the defence field based in the long term on various strategic interests shared by the two countries and in the short term on Australia’s willingness to continue to assist Papua New Guinea. … Central to the defence relationship would be a mutual acceptance that the opportunity to consult is there, if the need arises.25

On 24 October 1974, Barnard advised the Australian Parliament of the outcome of the discussion between the two governments on the terms of a future defence relationship. Barnard reminded the Parliament that the government’s approach to the question of the transfer of defence powers had been that ‘decisions concerning Papua New Guinea’s post-independence defence capability and the structure and roles of its force, belong with the Papua New Guinea Government’.26 He then outlined the basic decisions announced by the Papua New Guinea Defence Minister in his speech in April 1974 regarding the size, functions, and structure of the PNGDF. He also advised that it was intended to transfer formal defence responsibility to Papua New Guinea at a date to be agreed by both countries. (Somare’s request that the transfer take place on 1 December 1974 was subsequently amended to 4 March 1975.)27 Barnard then set out the proposed principles to govern negotiations on the post-independence defence relations. He noted that these included:

Neither Government wishes to enter a formal defence commitment.

Both Governments wish to project a relationship which truly demonstrates the independent and sovereign status which Papua New Guinea will soon acquire.

Both Governments foresee continuing close relations in the defence field, based in the long term on our common interests as immediate neighbours, and in the shorter term on Australia’s willingness to continue to assist in the development and support of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.

Both Governments see as central to the defence relationship a mutual acceptance that the opportunity to consult is available if the need arises.28

Barnard also canvassed the issue of the possible involvement of Australian personnel in operational situations and noted that it was both governments’ wish to avoid or minimise such a possibility. He referred to the continuing discussions on mechanisms to consult each other before possible deployment in what he described as ‘quite exceptional circumstances’. These were taken to be occasions when the PNGDF could be called on to assist the police to restore law and order. Barnard concluded by noting that ‘no external threat to Papua New Guinea is foreseen’ and the Defence Force would only be used as a ‘last resort’ in restoring public order and internal security.29 In Port Moresby, Kiki delivered an almost identical speech to the House of Assembly to describe the wish of both governments regarding the future defence relationship and long-term commitment.30

The two speeches drew together the ideas and suggestions that had been raised in the various conversations over the previous eighteen months concerning how best to express the long-term defence relationship. As such they represented the crystallisation of the ideas first examined by officials in February 1974 and later refined by Kiki and Barnard. At the same time the speeches also served to bring to a close this period in the negotiations and consultations. The major policy outlines had been established and accepted publicly by both governments with no disagreement on key principles. Barnard retired as Minister for Defence and from the Australian Parliament on 6 June 1975, one week before a scheduled visit to Port Moresby. He was succeeded by Bill Morrison. Morrison also held the portfolio of Minister Assisting the Minister for Foreign Affairs in matters relating to Papua New Guinea.

New obstacles block negotiations

By October 1974 the basic principles of the post-independence defence relationship had been agreed upon. A final document could have been concluded and the details of the post-independence defence relationship could have been made public at that time. However, a number of uncertainties and conflicting demands emerged to delay the drafting of the final text and the securing of ministerial agreement. The delays, in part, can be attributed to the sheer volume of administrative work now before both governments as they prepared for independence. Such was the demand that in June 1974 Somare moved the date for independence to 16 September 1975. Whitlam agreed to this new arrangement. He had also made clear to officials that ‘we cannot expect to make enduring or acceptable arrangements with Papua New Guinea [on a long-term defence arrangement] until she can negotiate as an equal independent state’.31 This view was consistent with comments he had made the year before to officials in Foreign Affairs when he noted that ‘defence and economic arrangements with a country before independence produce post-independence regrets and resentments’.32

Whitlam was also aware of the intense pressure on Somare from the leaders of the Bougainville secessionist movement to accede to their demands for independence and their intention to promote their cause internationally. He took the opportunity to state not only for Somare’s benefit but also for that of other leaders in Papua New Guinea that the ‘Australian Government’s policy is that Papua New Guinea should come to independence on 16 September as one country, in accordance with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Papua New Guinea’s elected representatives. The Australian Government will give no sympathy, aid or support in any form to any groups in Papua New Guinea working to undermine their country’s unity’.33 With the pressure from the separatist movement in Bougainville undiminished as 16 September approached, Whitlam and other Australian ministers regularly repeated the Australian Government’s wish that Papua New Guinea come to independence as a united country.

Finally, the uncertainty that gripped Australia in the second half of 1975, as a result of the constitutional crisis that ended in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11 November, ensured that there would be no quick conclusion to the defence negotiations. In regional terms, the period also saw an increase in activity by the Irian Jaya separatist movement, Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), and a loss of equilibrium in Indonesia’s relations with both Australia and Papua New Guinea following Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor at the close of 1975.34

A further issue emerged reflecting the increasing assertiveness of indigenous Papua New Guinean officials. In August 1975 Papua New Guinean defence officials advised that Australian servicemen serving with the PNGDF would be subject to the jurisdiction of the soon-to-be-established Village Courts. The Village Court system was intended to administer indigenous and customary law at the village level in both civil and criminal matters. The courts would have highly modified judicial procedures regarding the taking of evidence, the role of witnesses, the form of punishment and the absence of an avenue of appeal. Procedures and punishments would vary from court to court depending on local custom.

The Australian Chiefs of Staff objected strongly but Papua New Guinean ministers would not compromise. They quickly articulated the view that this was an important test of the new nation’s ability to introduce its own system of justice, with its own forms of punishment and to determine who should appear before the courts. This single issue stymied any further progress on settling the terms of the future defence relationship. A further twelve months elapsed before a solution was found. The effect was to delay the completion of negotiations on post-independence defence arrangements until early 1977.

As the Australian delegation travelled to Port Moresby in mid-September 1975 to celebrate Papua New Guinea’s passage to independence there was little attention given to the outstanding defence issues. The briefing prepared for Whitlam outlined the stage reached in the negotiations and the difficulties over the jurisdiction of the Village Courts. It did not encourage Whitlam to try to resolve this problem. In the speeches marking the celebration Whitlam did not refer to the long-term defence relationship. Instead, he spoke enthusiastically of the prospects for the broader relationship between the two countries.

With Papua New Guinea’s now independent Australia’s responsibilities for New Guinea under the United Nations Trusteeship Agreement lapsed. Australia also ceased to have an international obligation to defend the territory of New Guinea. It was no longer responsible for the administration of Papua. Australia passed to Papua New Guinea a Defence Force of about 3600, a small maritime capacity and a very small air capacity. It also passed on about $70 million in defence assets and undertook to introduce a defence cooperation program with a budget of about $15.7 million in its first year and a one-off defence financial assistance grant of $8 million. In addition, 650 Australian servicemen, of whom about 490 were integrated into the PNGDF as ‘loan’ personnel, remained in the country to serve as specialist, technical and support personnel. Only about six Australians were stationed in PNGDF combat battalions.35

On 9 October 1975, in one of the last acts of the Labor Government, Morrison, (Minister for Defence), tabled in the House of Representatives a set of documents relating to the interim defence understandings between Australia and the now independent Papua New Guinea. The first document represented an interim Status of Forces Arrangements. The second related to interim undertakings governing loan personnel attached to the PNGDF. The third set out the consultative mechanisms to ensure the Australian authorities were informed and approved of the deployment of Australian loan personnel to ‘politically sensitive situations’.36 The fourth document listed the Australian Defence Force units in Papua New Guinea.

The Joint Statement by Australian and PNG Defence Ministers accompanying the tabling of the documents ‘confirmed that neither Government wished at this time to finalise arrangements which could bind the post-independence Government of Papua New Guinea. The ministers declared however that, as soon as practicable, the two governments would negotiate the long-term defence relationship along the lines of the interim arrangements’.37 The letters exchanged between the two governments established the intention of both to continue with the existing program of defence cooperation.38 The documents and the accompanying press statements made no reference to the earlier discussions on the nature of a possible long-term defence commitment between the two countries.


The Whitlam Government had agreed on the set of revised judgements about the strategic importance of Papua New Guinea to Australia. It had accepted that:

i)PNG was of abiding strategic relevance to Australia.

ii)Control of PNG by an unfriendly power would seriously disadvantage the defence of Australia.

iii)Australia’s principal interest was that its defence relationship with PNG be the primary defence relationship of the State.

iv)The main elements of that relationship should be defence aid, continued access to the naval facilities at Manus Island and a public expression of the relationship – but preferably not in terms of a formal commitment to the defence of PNG in all circumstances.

v)A decision on the nature and presentation of the defence relationship should be deferred until PNG views were obtained.

vi)Australia should avoid close involvement and specifically military intervention in PNG’s internal security affairs.39

It had also endorsed the recommendation set out in the 1973 Report by the Defence Committee regarding the type of defence commitment Australia should enter into with an independent Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea retained its place as one of the countries of prime strategic importance to Australia, but it was no longer considered ‘vital’ to the defence of Australia, nor was there an expectation that Australia would come to its defence in any and all circumstances. The Labor Government did not accept the argument that Papua New Guinea served as a shield for the defence of the Australian continent. Nor did it wish to use Papua New Guinea to project Australia’s military capabilities further into Southeast Asia. Both these concepts were contrary to Labor’s views on how it wished Australia to be seen by its neighbours.

The Whitlam Government, and particularly Barnard and Morrison, who set the policy directions on this issue, shared a preference for the pragmatic approach recommended by senior defence and foreign affairs advisers. Morrison, quietly but quickly, abandoned the Labor Party’s commitment expressed in its platform to negotiate a defence treaty with an independent Papua New Guinea. He realised the dangers and complications for Australia of such an undertaking. He and Barnard also saw the danger of being held hostage to a new and internationally immature state whose own actions could potentially drag Australia into a dispute with its neighbours. He and Barnard had wanted to avoid this possibility. Australia feared that, in such an eventuality, it could be asked to intervene and rescue Papua New Guinea. In doing so, Australia’s relations with Southeast Asia, and in particular Indonesia, could be placed at risk.

Whitlam and Barnard also shared their senior advisers’ strong preference for not jeopardising Australia’s own security assurance with the United States under the ANZUS Treaty by advocating the extension of the treaty to an independent Papua New Guinea. Such a solution was risky not only from the point of view of the treaty partners becoming involved in Papua New Guinea’s own disputes, but also because the debate on the extension in the United States Senate carried with it the possibility of the Treaty being weakened and hence undermining one of the fundamental pillars of Australia’s own defence policy. Australia was not willing to take this chance for the sake of securing a multilateral defence guarantee covering Papua New Guinea.

However, while concern about the actions of an independent Papua New Guinea in its relations with its neighbours was a major influence on Australia’s approach to this issue, the overriding influence on Australian decision makers was a continuing fear of being drawn into Papua New Guinea’s internal security problems. Australia wanted Papua New Guinea to come to independence as a united country. This had prompted Whitlam to make his statement in June 1975 confirming Australia’s strong preference for a united Papua New Guinea. The government was prepared to be as helpful as possible to promote Papua New Guinea’s independence, but it, and senior defence and foreign affairs officials, were equally determined to resist any prospect that Australia would have to intervene in resolving internal security disputes.

The Whitlam Government was fortunate that Papua New Guinea did not press for a formal and specific defence commitment. The wish by Somare, and more particularly Kiki, that Papua New Guinea be seen by the international community as free and independent of Australia, and prepared to establish its own relationships without the suggestion of Australia acting as guarantor, coincided with and suited Australia’s interest. A close relationship with Australia was accepted as inevitable, so long as it did not undermine the perception of independence. A formal defence tie would be seen by Papua New Guinea as doing just that. Kiki’s references to an ‘understanding’ were vague and, at times, they confused both Papua New Guineans and Australians, but the ambiguity was sufficient to satisfy his political requirements and not detract from the new nation’s sense of independence.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt