The tears came freely as the birth of the new nation of Papua New Guinea was heralded by a new flag — the Glorious Red, Black and Gold.
Tears of joy, tears of freedom, tears of sadness, all rolled into one on the momentous occasion of the end of an era of colonialism.
Julius Chan, then a raw young politician and a prolific crusader for the cause of independence, remembers the occasion like it was yesterday.
And his tears overwhelmed the man from New Ireland, which implored an euphoric realisation of freedom after years of political bickering against Australia.
On the morning of 16 September 1975, the flag of Australia was lowered at the Sir Hubert Murray Stadium in Port Moresby.
With pomp and ceremony, the flag of the new nation of Papua New Guinea — the Kumul soaring over the Southern Cross constellation — was raised to signify the birth of our country.
These are solemn moments.
Flag raising touched hearts
The flag raising touched the hearts and lives of the people who were there, who were witnesses of a dramatic shift in colonization and democracy.
Many people cried, many in sadness and many more in joy. It is a moment etched in time, a proud moment of nationhood.
One man who was there, and who has carried the country through thick and thin is PNG’s longest serving parliamentarian and the Last Knight Standing, Sir Julius Chan.
In an exclusive interview with the Post-Courier’s senior reporter Gorethy Kenneth, Sir Julius remembers the solemnity of the moment.
“I shed tears of joy and sadness, the old had ended, and a new was beginning,” Sir Julius reminisced.
“I do remember very clearly the Australian flag being lowered, folded and presented by John Guise to Prince Charles — now our King Charles III — who then presented it to the Australian Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
“And when the Papua New Guinea flag was hoisted, at that very moment, how I felt? …well, very sensational, I was proud, a sensation of final achievement of a goal in life, I had my head down, first, I tilted my head up watching the flag being raised, and each time the PNG flag was raised by the bearers, there was feeling of pride, sensation,” he said.
Finally ‘broken free’
“I had a few tears, I felt, in my gut, for the first time that I had finally broken free of the colonial yoke, that is when I knew we were free. That was probably the most memorable moment.
“It is 47 years now and my greatest wish is that we make the best of what we have, never give up and don’t expect anything from nothing and everything.
“Life is not meant to be easy and to achieve anything in life; we got to work for it.
“And also probably we really have to reiterate corruption — corruption is so bad and it’s not paid for by the ordinary people that they playing with little games, corruption is wild at the top, that’s what I really think and that the three arms of government must act in accordance with the constitutional spirit of the constitution.
“They must not fear to intervene in the area in which the Constitution requires them to.
“It’s all about justice delayed is the cause and the root of all the evils happening today.”
Sir Julius said that at the stroke of midnight on September 1975 a fireworks display lit up the Port Moresby sky to signal the beginning of independence for Papua New Guinea.
The Australian flag, which had been flown since 1906, was lowered for the last time at dusk on 16 September 1975 and handed to Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, who passed it on to Australia’s Governor General, Sir John Kerr.
Drums beat all night
All through the day and night, the beat of drums could be heard as members of tribes from all over the new nation of jungles and mountainous islands danced in celebration of their new identity.
Papua New Guinea, a nation of 2.6 million inhabitants most of whom lived in very rural settings, had to deal with a situation. Fifteen days before the independence, a declaration of independence was made on September 1 by a secessionist movement on Bougainville.
This declaration which posed a direct threat to the new central government’s authority was dispelled.
“We were still united,” Sir Julius said.
“Our Independence Day celebrations were massive and probably organised on a scale far superior to any other form of gathering in the country before or since.
“You ask anybody why 16 September 1975 was chosen as the official date, I do not think they could tell you.
“Perhaps it was nominated because it was convenient for the Australian Governor-General Sir John Kerr, or for Prince Charles, who came as the Queen’s special representative.
“Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister of Australia came, as well as Malcolm Fraser, who was then opposition leader.”
Good job governing
Australia had governed the enormous, rugged land, and had done a good job.
“I believe what they did was quite appropriate for a country at that stage of development,” he said.
“Any other colonial power such as Britain or Germany would run PNG in a completely different way. Australia was a very young country as they had only come into a Federation in 1901 and they were not entrenched in colonial rule, they themselves were treading on new ground.”
The flag lowering ceremony and fireworks display marked the end of efforts by the Australian Government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to thrust Papua New Guinea into independence and thus rid itself of the stigma of colonial rule.
Speaking at the ceremony, Sir John Guise, the first Governor-General of Papua New Guinea, said it was important that people realised the spirit in which the flag was being lowered.
“We are lowering it,” he said, “not tearing it down.”
Sir John Kerr said the ceremony did not mark the end of Australia’s interest in Papua New Guinea or involvement with it.
Australia, he said, “remains deeply and irrevocably committed to Papua New Guinea.”
But for 39-year-old Michael Somare, the last chief minister during colonial rule and now the nation’s first prime minister, and for other members of his government, Australia’s concern and involvement could be greater than it is.
Republished with permission.