Conversations with Founding Fathers: Ted Edward Wolfers

By Michael Kabuni. 

Michael is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Papua New Guinea.

We are grateful to republish Michael’s piece. His work on Conversations with Founding Fathers can be found on his blog and Facebook page.  

Photo: Facebook/Academia Nomad

founding fathers

On the 01st of November 2019, I had over 3 hours long conversation with one of the advisors of the Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC) who were the architects behind the Constitution of PNG.

It was for a book I am working on, exploring the reasons behind the resilience of PNG democracy. To be clear, this guy, Ted (Edward) Wolfers is not, though I think he should be, called Founding Fathers of the Nation. He was, then, engaged as consultant by the CPC.

However, as you read through you will realize that there is no denying the passion he has when he talks about Papua New Guinea (PNG) as a nation. I will leave out the discussions we had that relates to the book, but there were interesting stories, and insights he shared that as a Papua New Guinean I never knew nor appreciated.

He arrived in PNG in 1967 as a researcher for a US foundation called Institute of Current World Affairs. He was to research and write about PNG culture, language, people etc., which was what the organization did in colonial countries. 

He quickly understood what others at the time didn’t: that PNG societies were very efficient, in their own traditional ways. He recounted how, for instance, PNG tribes had a differing but quite developed arithmetic system.

When he went over to Canada and the US, he presented at the universities on the arithmetic systems of PNG. The same applied to tell seasons, wind directions and negotiation (he travelled with the Keremas on a canoe to Port Moresby once back in the day).

He then went on to teach at what has become known as ADCOL (Pacific Leadership Precinct). Back then, only 2 Papua New Guineans had cars – John Kaputin and Palaus Matane.

In the afternoons he would walk down the road with his 30-40 students, and white people would drive past with amusements. They would offer to pick him but not his students. He would, of course, refuse it.

In those days, clubs were segregated. Natives were not allowed into whites-only clubs, so one day he followed his Chimbu friends to a native’s club. All the Angras and other natives were so surprised to see him they bought him a beer. He walked away having had 14 bottles too many.

This race dynamics irritated him, and he wrote the seminal book “Race Relations & Colonial Rule In PNG.” (Available in Hardcover and Paperback on Amazon). It was criticized by the colonizers but guys like Ron Crocombe supported him. 

The newly established University of Papua New Guinea (est. 1965) heard about it, requested for a copy and had external examiners evaluated it. The seminal book was considered good enough for a PhD. He was given a PhD in Political Science. The first PhD from the University of Papua New Guinea.

He then returned to Australia to teach at a university and one day got a call to come work with the Constitutional Planning Committee. He speaks with fondness of his role at CPC. The team travelled the breath & length of PNG.

He said, “France colonies’ constitutions were written in Paris, other English colonies’ constitutions were negotiated over the table, PNG constitution was written with the consent of the people.”

I asked him questions like: did the people understand the questions you asked? He said “Yes.” 

They simplified the questions to a basic level and translated them for the people to understand. The people wanted the Ombudsman Commission, the people wanted Provincial Governments, so is most of the provisions of the constitution (not all CPC recommendations were adopted though).

He told a story of one of their trips. He told Sir Mataibe Yuwi that they were now going to consult with the people about the role of Ombudsman Commission. Sir Yuwi replied: “why do we need another Bushman? I have a lot of them in my village!” He misunderstood Ombudsman for Bushman. From then on the CPC gave him the nickname Bushman.

I asked him questions about National Goals & Direction Principles. He said the idea came from a Catholic Priest, who told Momis that the Constitution should have Social Goals, not just institutions.

But CPC didn’t know how to fit it into the Constitution. Then they looked at the Indian Constitution, it had something called National Goals & Directive Principles. They renamed the Social Goals as the National Goals and Directive Principles.

He said NGDPs was not the idea of one particular man, so is every provision of the constitution. It was all a group thing.

He ended by saying…” ask yourself questions like ‘how do I explain why PNG is now one of the longest unbroken constitutional democracies of the post-WWII countries in the world… so far you young academics have been asking ‘what is wrong with this… what is wrong with that etc.”

He said he walked out of Hubert Murray on September 16, 1975, thinking “I may not return. Troubled whether PNG would survive.” He said we take it for granted.

Many countries succumbed to chaos and dictatorship after independence.

When the first vote of no confidence was initiated in 1980, he was worried. Rightly so because it was during such times that dictators either established themselves, not willing to release power, or took over by force.

He thinks Somare’s greatest achievement was accepting defeat in the VoNC. And the first to do so. This came as a surprise to me, as Somare is known for more ‘important’ achievements. But you have to understand it from the context of other post-independent colonies where leaders refused to relinquish power.

Towards the end, I asked, “why you?” I put it to him that he was first asked by the PNG government to assist because of a lack of expertise at the disposal of the government. It was my assumption. He paused and thought for a while, then in a low voice replied “No. It was because they trusted me. And I never took that trust for granted.”

He ended up marrying a young woman from Kerema, Kerri Wolfers and even paid bride price.

Write’s note: Hope you enjoyed reading. I need help to interview other Founding Fathers of our nation. If you have connections with the other remaining CPC members, or to our Founding Fathers, I would like to chat with them. I will keep the more substantive details for my project but share conversations like this on this page.

A delightful read. 

PNG Insight is grateful for the permission given to republish the first part of Conversations with the Founding Fathers by the writer. Visit the Academia Nomad Facebook page or blog for more on this series. Looking forward to reading the future articles (and definitely will be the first to get a copy of Michael’s book about the Conversations with Founding Fathers) 

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