There is one unfortunate early flaw in Ken Fairweather’s rollicking tale about his exceptionally full and interesting life in Papua New Guinea. He is far too modest in describing himself as a “B-grade larrikin”. When I started out as a cadet journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the early 1970s – about the same time that Ken arrived in PNG – journalists were graded. After finishing a cadetship, you became a D-grade. Then could work your way up through C, B, A and, if you were any good, right at the top were the “Super A’s”. Without doubt, Fairweather is a “Super A-grade larrikin!” And I say that fondly.
Ken’s book, “Farewell White Man”, is dedicated to “all those expatriates who supported and participated in the growth of Papua New Guinea as a nation, especially those whose adult life began in the 10 years leading up to independence.” I arrived in Papua New Guinea as a young man in 1974, the year before independence, to work on secondment for the then newly created National Broadcasting Commission of Papua New Guinea. I ended up spending 20 years in PNG and got to know Ken and many of the characters he writes about.
My life has been pretty interesting. But if you want to read about a life lived to the maximum, pushing the boundaries at every turn, making fortunes in boom times and going bust in bad, getting elected to the PNG parliament as a white man – not once but twice – and definitely making a difference in an adopted country that has flummoxed so many, then this book is for you.
What I particularly like is Ken’s honesty and his sense of humour. He writes that, and I agree with him, Australia’s retreat from Papua New Guinea at the time of independence was “done very badly” with almost “no planning whatsoever”. At the time, he was working with the government’s Transport Department and he makes the wry comment that “Dunkirk was better organised”! A lot of good people who Papua New Guinea could not afford to lose were offered golden handshakes to return to Australia.
There was a lot of uncertainty and Ken writes that: ““Port Moresby during this time reminded me of an Australian cattle sale-yard: dusty, windy and with everybody waiting to be sent home to a new place or the slaughterhouse. It was heavy air for a lot of people”. Fairweather is one of those who stayed, went into the trucking business and took up PNG citizenship.
He is withering in his condemnation of recent Australian policy towards Papua New Guinea. “Australia has its post-independence relations with Papua New Guinea all mixed up. Billions of dollars have been wasted. Firstly, Australia was a poor colonial power, a reluctant one; a lazy one, too. It didn’t even build a brick building.… Secondly, they refuse to listen to Australians who live in Papua New Guinea; it’s like they are ashamed of us. Thirdly, they continue to send young women or inexperienced men to represent Australia in a paternalistic society. It is not sensible to do this.”
Fairweather is more than happy to share his forthright views: “The public servants today are soft, molly-coddled, Aircon seeking, government–car–driving sooks – and overpaid, too.” Bank lending policy? – “This is bullshit!” The asylum seekers on Manus? “Economic refugees!”
But the best lines in the whole book, I think, are these: “You walk around with a hand grenade up your arse and just when things are going well, you pull out the pin. Papua New Guinea and I have this in common.” “Farewell White Man” is a great read with lessons galore for those who care about Australia’s nearest neighbour.
*Sean Dorney AM, MBE CSM FAIIA is ABC’s Foreign Correspondent (Pacific and PNG) and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute for International Policy
Papua New Guinea’s intriguing story has been inadequately told. But that is beginning to be remedied by a small but steadily growing corpus of memoirs – from Papua New Guinean politicians and others, and from expatriates who have given most of their lives to the country.
Ken Fairweather’s new bright, breezy and characteristically no-bullshit book is a most welcome addition to these instructive and entertaining stories from folk who made their mark on this wonderful nation.
Not everyone will like his opinions, which litter every page – well, actually every paragraph. This is not an objective work. But Fairweather clearly couldn’t give a hoot what others think.
The front cover itself tells two stories. The title, Farewell White Man, indicates his view that while some white people will keep coming to PNG “as employees or visitors”, they won’t leave a legacy: “There is no place for them.” The cover also describes Fairweather: “Farmer. Trucker. Politician. Larrikin.” Others might add nouns of their own, but those four do the job well enough.
Jeff Wall, who has made quite a contribution to PNG himself over the years, astutely points out in the foreword that Fairweather’s book “does not blame anyone but himself for the ups and downs of his business, and political, careers and adventures.” That in itself places the book in the “rarity” camp.
Fairweather arrived in PNG in 1970 from Melbourne aged 24, shortly before self-government, “penniless, jobless, a drinker, gambler, and very fond of the ladies.” He found his way into the freight business, into plantations, then in 2007 in Parliament, elected for Sumkar in Madang province – gaining a Ministry – and was re-elected five years later, then losing the seat in 2017.
“You must buy votes in PNG,” he insists. “Payment in cash or kind is essential to becoming a political leader, which is the highest level in society and the most sough-after position… a bit like being a film star or sports celebrity. You also become the provider of services – funerals, church functions, bride price. ‘Papa’ means giver of wealth, it doesn’t mean ‘Dad’. You are the counsellor for everything, construction engineer, an ATM, educator, medical doctor, sports administrator and more…”
He writes about building his business empire, about life in parliament, about some other very colourful people: “In Papua New Guinea no one is boring. Every day is different.”
Fairweather himself is of course different. No one will agree with all – maybe even most – of his judgments, but that’s beside the point. He has lived an extraordinary life to the full, in a country of mainly marvellous people about whom Australians know shockingly little.
Farewell, Ken. Let’s hope you’re not as you fear the last of the line of Australian larrikins who make a life in PNG.
*Rowan Callick OBE, FAIIA, is a double Walkley award winning journalist, now an Industry Fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute, worked with Word Publishing in PNG for 10 years
I knew that once Ken Fairweather set about the task of chronicling his life in Papua New Guinea he would do so frankly, probably politically incorrectly, comprehensively, but above all else with absolute honesty.
Having read the book, I could not have been more correct in my assessment! His recollections of a life well-lived are those of a businessman who is, and always has been, tough – but fair.
This book is a “warts and all” – the good, the bad, and the in-between – chronicle of a remarkable life that began before self-government and Independence, and continues to the present day. It covers politics, business, community life and more, but it is not an historic account like a number of earlier publications on Papua New Guinea. And it does not blame anyone but himself for the ups and downs of his business, and political, careers and adventures. It is above all else a profoundly personal outline of a life well and truly lived to the fullest in every respect.
I believe it also offers readers a new perspective on the Australia–Papua New Guinea relationship, something that is much in need and long overdue. In his own unique way, Ken Fairweather has contributed to the enhancement of this vital relation-ship, something I applaud and welcome.
Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour – not New Zealand or Indonesia. The contribution by thousands of Australians, many of whom have taken up PNG citizenship, has enhanced this most important relationship for generations, and continues to do so today. Ken Fairweather is but one of them – but his story is more adventurous, and frankly more fascinating than most.
From the very first time I met Ken Fairweather more than four decades ago, I assessed that Ken Fairweather was a “lifter, not a leaner”. I was not at all astray in that assessment. This is the story of a tough man, one who has made a massive, and unfinished, contribution to the nation and people of Papua New Guinea.
Finally, in commending this book to all who have an interest in the unique and vital Australia–Papua New Guinea association, in its many and varied forms, I congratulate Ken Fairweather on his absolute frankness in telling his life story – his many successes, and his many fewer failures.
He is unquestionably one of Australia’s best “exports” to Papua New Guinea. Long may he remain so!
*Jeffrey Wall CSM CBE, Strategic Consultant to the Prime Minister of PNG.
© Farewell White Man 2020