Gough Whitlam and Papua New Guinea: Independence a key foreign policy priority


Gough Whitlam, the Australian Prime Minister who gave Papua New Guinea its independence in 1975, died this week. The ABC’s long-serving Papua New Guinea correspondent, Sean Dorney, reflects on Whitlam’s historic relationship with PNG and the road to independence.

Gough Whitlam and a young Michael Somare at Independence celebrations. Credit: Whitlam Institute.

Gough Whitlam and a young Michael Somare at Independence celebrations. Credit: Whitlam Institute.

In 1969, Whitlam was Opposition Leader when he visited Papua New Guinea and stated that PNG should have self-government within three years—by 1972—and that full independence should be attained in 1976.

At the time, the Minister for External Territories in the Coalition Government was Charles Edward Barnes, who had publicly stated that Papua New Guinea would not be ready for independence before the end of the 20th Century.

Early independence

Gough Whitlam’s public advocacy for early independence compounded growing problems for the conservative Australian administration.

There were disturbances on the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain, where the Tolais were objecting to the imposition of a multi-racial council; there was disquiet on Bougainville over land matters related to CRA’s opening of the Bougainville Copper Mine; and there was a rising anti-colonial agitation amongst better-educated Papua New Guineans.

Independence a political issue

Whitlam–who narrowly lost the 1969 Australian federal election—continued to regard Papua New Guinea as a significant political issue for Australia.

He made two highly publicised trips to PNG in 1970 and 1971. He visited the Gazelle Peninsula and gave strong support to John Kaputin and the Mataungan Association.

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Gough Whitlam was himself removed from power a few months later, prompting Sir Michael to quip that it had not taken long for Australia to be in crisis after PNG let it go!

On these trips, he promised that if he won the 1972 elections in Australia he would ensure there was early self-government followed by quick independence.

When he did win, he set a timetable for self-government by December 1973, with Independence a year later.

Gough Whitlam during Independence Day celebrations.

Gough Whitlam during Independence Day celebrations.

More time

Sir Michael Somare, who had managed to put together a multi-party coalition government after PNG’s elections in 1972, accepted the December 1973 self-government date but argued for more time.

So, it was not late 1974 but September 1975 before Independence arrived and Whitlam was one of the chief guests at the Independence Day celebrations.

Gough Whitlam was himself removed from power a few months later, prompting Sir Michael to quip that it had not taken long for Australia to be in crisis after PNG let it go!

Mr Whitlam died on Tuesday, 21 October, 2014, aged 98.


  1. Brett Mitchell says

    PNG would be far better under Australian administration.

    The past 50 years have been wasted and the people have had to live with that experience.

    • Dream on Brett,
      PNG is better off without the oppressive and racist inclinations of Australia – apparently the same cues she picked up from the United States (and tried implementing them here) in terms of housing discrimination, employment and educational biases, shameful policing policies/antics and outright discrimination against the African-Americans.

  2. Gough Whitlam and Papua New Guinea: Independence a key foreign policy priority. So where does Sir Paliau Maloat fit in? And Sir Peter Lus? etc…Surely it can’t be only two people that worked on PNGs road to Independence.

  3. Eric Alom says

    How Whitlam’s self-interest sank PNG
    IN all the words written about Gough Whitlam, little has been said of one of his greatest ideological and opportunistic initiatives, one of which he was inordinately proud, yet inevitably became one of his many disasters. We know it as the failed state of Papua New Guinea.


  4. Biama Kanasa has sent the following to us:

    A Tribute to PNGs Friend indeed
    By Biama Kanasa
    (Former history lecturer, UPNG)
    “A friend in need is a friend indeed”
    If you helped a friend in need, then you are a friend indeed so did the late Edward Gough Whitlam, 21st Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975. He unreservedly helped facilitated Papua New Guinea to gain independence from Australia.
    Yes, “A friend in need is a friend indeed”, so Papua New Guinea was in need of independence from Australia and that was never denied and now she owes to her best friend indeed the late Edward Gough Whitlam (11 July 1916 – 21 October 2014).
    Late Whitlam led Labour party to power for the first time in 23 years at the 1972 election; he went on to win the 1974 election and fulfilled his promise for PNG on 16th September 1975 before being controversially dismissed on 11th November by Governor-General Sir John Kerr at the climax of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis.
    Not only did the late Gough Whitlam give PNG its independence but also another significant contribution by him was relating to the development of cultural infrastructure. He actually helped to facilitate a milestone development of cultural infrastructure in PNG before independence.
    In 1973 at UPNG graduation ceremony, late Gough Whitlam officially expressed his sympathy and promised to fund the Cultural Development Programme for the graduating Papuans and New Guineans and made available Australian five million dollars which he funded the construction of National Museum, establishment of National Art School and Institute of PNG Studies. These were the most needed infrastructural development which paved the way for our Grand Chief to call for the overseas cultural institutions such as museums to repatriate our tangible cultural objects of cultural and historical significance. This process was openly welcomed and supported by UPNG academics in the field of Anthropology and Archaeology.
    A decade after our independence marked the flourishing art and music. Repatriation Programme began for the lost artefacts in overseas museums to be returned to our newly constructed National Museum and Papua New Guinean graduates took over most key positions in those institutions in order to develop our cultural heritage. Then in 1990s we found ourselves caught up in the wave of global awareness initiatives and efforts for safeguarding, preserving, protecting and promoting our culture which is passed down to us by our fore fathers over two thousand generations. From 2003 to 2014 PNG is implementing the UNESCO Convention to safeguard our tangible and intangible elements of culture. It is really necessary and reasonably correct that PNG finally recognized her best friend indeed by awarding the chiefly title. PNG truly owes a debt of sincere gratitude to our two grand chiefs; Sir Michael Somare and late Gough Whitlam.
    Late Whitlam’s record shows that he stepped down after losing again at the 1977 election and finally retired from Parliament in 1978.
    Upon the election of the Hawke Government in 1983, he was appointed as the Australian Ambassador to UNESCO, and remained active into his nineties. Although his last years were spent in a Sydney retirement home, it has been said that he still attended his office up to three days a week, until his death on 21 October 2014.
    The Australian children will know later the circumstances of his dismissal as Prime Minister, and the legacy of his government which now remains a large part of Australian political discourse but truly the late Edward Gough Whitlam was and he will always be remembered as PNG’s best friend indeed.

  5. A prime minister of many local Australian and foreign policy firsts – PNG definitely treasures his friendship and beliefs.
    PNG got independence under his leadership just two months before he was deposed.

    Gough Whitlam viewed humanity with a single lens – was color-blind to biases and prejudice, reaching out to wherever they were.Truly a man and a leader of his times.

    He was one of those great leaders who rejected fears and was fiercely bold and pragmatic to reach out for the good of others – an accomplished PM who shaped Australian and world history. #RIPGoughWhitlam

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