Cameron tapes: A spit in the soup for gough

John Gorton lays claim to guiding PNG history

Prime Minister John Gorton rode rough shod over ministers and senior officials to lead the push for early independence for Papua New Guinea, according to his private reminiscences, released by the National Library of Australia in January 2010.

Bob Wurth argues that Gorton’s evidence, if true, re-writes the history of Papua New Guinea’s path to independence from Australia by his claim that he, rather than Gough Whitlam, was the key catalyst pushing for self rule:

[Picture: Villagers discuss self government and independence outside Wewak, c 1970.]


“I spat in the bastard’s soup and mixed it in!” the rotund Australian cook at a Wewak pub proclaimed with malicious glee as he wiped his hands on a greasy apron. As a young journalist present in the early ‘seventies who had followed Whitlam around the territory, I recall being aghast and agog at the man’s evil delight.

The fat chef certainly wasn’t talking about John Gorton. The recipient of his spatter and wrath was the then Opposition leader Gough Whitlam, who had been touring what was then called Papua and New Guinea, calling at Wewak, and talking openly about the coming of self government and independence.

Whitlam had been guaranteeing the road to home rule, which many whites saw as reversing decades of Australia’s fundamental colonial economic policy of promoting Australian private enterprise in its Papua New Guinea territory.

Planters and other European settlers had mounted a determined rear-guard action, often pressuring indigenous people to espouse the colonial case. Some locals, concerned about the unknown future, did so willingly, talking about themselves as the “pikinini” and Australia as the “mamma”. It was far too early to consider home rule, they argued.

Papua New Guinea became self-governing in 1973 and independent from Australia in 1975.

Gough Whitlam has always been the bogey for many European settlers and their followers in Papua New Guinea in the early ‘seventies by ending the colonial era. There are still whites in New Guinea who will never forgive Whitlam.

But now it appears, the Wewak cook might have tainted the wrong repast. More than eight years after Sir John Gorton’s death and some 25 years after he gave the interview that is released today, it is the Liberal John Gorton who now lays claim to have been the key culprit or activist, pushing Australia into Papua New Guinea’s independence.

Gorton’s interviewer in 1984, former Labor minister Clyde Cameron, now also deceased, clearly was surprised to hear Gorton’s claims: “Your support for independence for New Guinea was hardly, if ever, mentioned” he said, startled. But Gorton was adamant. He had visited Papua New Guinea in 1970 and said he addressed blunt words to settlers, white planters and indigenous Papua New Guineans.

Independence… ‘and you’ll get it next week’

“I’d been talking to them, and I’d told them, ‘Look, any time you want independence, anytime, you can get it. You’ve only got to let us know: ‘We want independence’ and you’ll get it next week.”

Gorton said he had to make big changes to get the movement for independence in Papua New Guinea moving.

“We were having trouble with the Department and with New Guinea, which wasn’t going ahead fast enough; getting enough autonomous control by the people.

“And David Hay was the Administrator in Papua New Guinea and Warwick Smith was the Head of the Department. And the Head of the Department kept saying, “Yes, you’ll get autonomy eventually, but it will be ten years, or fifty years in the future. You know, you’ve got to go very slowly. And they (Papua New Guineans) weren’t going to go slowly.

“And so I moved David Hay from Administrator to be Head of the (Territories) Department – because he had the same ideas as I did, more or less. I got (Les) Johnson, I got him from one of the colleges down in Hobart … to be Administrator, and with those two people we were able to go ahead.”

Records in the National Archives show that departmental head Warwick Smith earlier had clashed with David Hay over the issue of PNG independence and other matters when the former diplomat was Administrator in Port Moresby.

Cameron asked Gorton if he took the changes to Cabinet. “Certainly not!” Gorton replied. Cameron, laughing: “You’re a character. No wonder they said you were a dictator!”

Gorton: “We needed to get somebody, (and) get rid of somebody who was holding things up.”

He said Gough Whitlam as Opposition leader touring Papua New Guinea had made things difficult.

Whitlam made a ‘blue’ in Papua New Guinea, Gorton contended, because he concentrated on talking independence with the Mataungans in New Britain and promising them all sorts of things. He claimed the Mataungans – mainly Tolai people centred on Rabaul - were “much more advanced than the ordinary natives” and were apt to take everything at face value. 

Whitlam was addressing the wrong people, Gorton claimed and “we had a lot of trouble with them later”.

Gorton claimed that the Tolais in the Mataungan Association weren’t the people who should have been promised anything because “they were quite different from New Guinea, from Highlanders and other people of New Guinea. And you had to get all of them in together.”

The Mataungans wanted the land but they were not prepared to allow other New Guineans on New Britain to have any, Gorton said.

Many of the Tolai people in New Britain from the late ‘sixties had formed themselves into the Mataungan Association led by activist Oscar Tammur. The Association organised huge rallies and violence occasionally broke out.


Highlands man, New Guinea, 1971.

Port Moresby, 1970.

Another view of Port Moresby, 1970.

Chimbu family, 1971.

John Gorton.