Papua New Guinea
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Women and politics in Papua New Guinea


Surprisingly, at the main door of Parliament House is a mural by the National Arts School and depicted there is the picture of two warriors – a man and a woman – guarding the entrance.

If Papua New Guinea has not been guarded well, is it because we’re short of one guard or there’s something wrong with their job roster? It’s a problem because the writing has been on the wall for 47 years.

Then at the Grand Entrance, in the façade is a statement taken from the Preamble of the country’s Constitution which reflects strikingly on that mural inside. More profoundly, the mural on the façade depicts the sun and the moon looking down on all life-forms. One gives light during day and the other at night. The moon, incidentally controls the movement of the tides and many of us know a thing or two about moonlight.


Everything is quiet. But are we waiting for the next General Election to draw near to kick up the fuss again? This conversation is about a Kerema woman in politics. The talk about gender equality is made obsolete by the need for survival – in a world in turmoil– and the one option open to us is to create a second House that will provide us the security we need in terms of decision-making and to bring women into decision making – to give us the widest possible schools of thought, balance our politics and promote stability.

In Wednesday’s edition, we met a very brave woman who changed the world for us. Today we look at another woman who discovered Australia. Miss Tessie Lavau discovers Australia story provides an interesting backdrop to the turmoil permeating all around us, even to the extent of discounting women to our peril. Miss Lavau was ahead of her time; caused quite a bit of stir in Australia and for those of us who want to fiddle around, we should hang our head and contemplate.


Like a handful of other Papua New Guineans in the 1950s, Miss Tessie Lavau of Iokea Village in Kerema District visited Australia as a nursemaid with her employers on their vacation ‘down south’. Those household relations must have been friendly: when Miss Lavau moved on to be a public servant typist. The family offered her a place to stay if she ever visited Australia.

In 1958, she acted on their suggestion and made her application. That very ordinary action startled Australian officials on both sides of the Torres Strait, and forced them to think about relations between the Territory and people of Papua New Guinea and the Commonwealth and people of Australia.

Few Papua New Guineans saw Australia at all. During 1957, five men were brought south by their employers; for everyone else Australia was unknowable. In 1954, an inquisitive ‘native teacher’ asked to see the Australian way of life. Before the Director of Education and the Director of Native Affairs had reviewed his request, however, he withdrew it.


So Miss Lavau’s application startled the authorities, who referred it up through the ranks to the desk of the Administrator. He mulled it over and decided that: the girl is a mature type who has adopted European dress and living standards and has saved sufficient money to pay her fare both ways.

Applications would be rare, since few could afford the trip or had friends to house them. Miss Lavau’s character survived scrutiny and the proposal satisfied the Administrator’s ideas of seemly race relations. Sir Donald Cleland earnestly desired that ‘individual native people build up personal contacts with individual Australian citizens’ – under the sleepless eye of authority, which would assess character and motive.

A decision of this weight required the support of the Minister for Territories. Sir Paul Hasluck endorsed Cleland’s advice and referred the matter to the Minister for Immigration, Sir Alexander Downer.


Two governments, two Commonwealth departments, two Cabinet ministers and many police studied the case, which might seem absurd for a visit to a police inspector’s family by a law-abiding tourist. But the entry of any non-European to Australia was problematic. Miss Lavau was not only testing the racial conventions of the Territory; she was questioning the nexus between the Territory and the rest of Australia, and picking at the seams of white Australia.

The application uncovered a paradox. On what legal basis could Australian citizens be excluded from Australia?
Miss Lavau was rare in being discussed in her own name (and not as a native person in the context of race relations). The Administrator had a Central Advisory Committee for the Education and Advancement of Women. Lady Rachel Cleland, the formidable wife of the Administrator, was one member; but the chair and three of the 14 members were men, and only two or three were indigenes.

The committee had no vision beyond women’s clubs, Girl Guides, water supply and welfare officers. These were irrelevant to most women. Paula Brown recorded this statement from a Simbu woman:
What we women do is very difficult. We cook for our family every day. Go to the garden every day. Clean the grass in the garden and plant the food crops. Look after pigs, Look after our babies while we are doing the other jobs. The work that men do is very simple. They break firewood, cut grass or clear the bush, dig the garden drains, build houses only.

They do not do it every day. Men spend most of their time doing nothing and talking.
Simbu men insisted that they worked just as hard but neither view imagined common ground with the agenda of the committee. The committee hesitated to ‘advance’ educated women. Two went to a Melbourne meeting of the Associated Country Women of the World in 1962 and made such a good impression that the ACWW voted funds for ‘the advancement of the women of the territory’, and asked how to do this.

Six months later the Administration confessed that the file was lost. The ACWW persisted, offering support to women training as nurses in Australia. The health department knew of none, although there were in fact seven.

Tessie Lavau and Julius Chan crossed the boundary between Natives and Citizens, but boundaries of many kinds continued to define the life chances of whole categories of people.

The way forward from statelessness was to transform the Territory into a State, within or beyond the Australian federation. That event would alter the identity of Australia as well as Papua New Guinea.

Tessie Lavau’s curiosity was widely shared but seldom satisfied until 1962 when native leaders including nominated members of the Legislative Council asked to visit Australia to see how government worked. All official thinking accepted that Papua New Guineans must understand the workings of Australian government, not that Australians should understand Papua New Guinea society. No women were ever considered.

Their curriculum was decided by the Territories Minister himself. Give concentrated attention to the Federal Parliament, he instructed his officers. What they want to learn is about:
A. Elections
B. Parties – the role of Government and Opposition
C. How the Parliament works – how it does thing – and they need time with officers of the House to see how the business is prepared…
D. They need to get the idea of argument according to rules
E. They need to learn from members how they look after their constituents
F. They need to see how joint parliamentary committees work
G. They need to learn how Cabinet works
H. They need to learn how Ministers work and the relationship between Ministers and their departments, leading to the role of the public service
I. They should spend a good deal of time to see departments at work…..
J. They should appreciate, too, the workings of the press gallery and the broadcasting system and the reason for the attendance of people in the public gallery.

Reference: A Trial Separation, Australia and Decolonissation of Papua New Guinea – Donald Denoon, Pandanus Books.