Person in Focus – Paulus Goresau Arek
01 NOVEMBER 2020
Over the last seven decades, Papua New Guinea has grown from a disparate collection of traditional societies administered as an Australian colonial territory, to a thriving, developing state. The story of how Papua New Guinea came to lose its colonial shackles and gain independence is one of collective endeavour, as the tiny group of Papua New Guineans who gathered in the dusty streets of Port Moresby transformed into leaders of the new nation. One of them was the young teacher, Paulus Goresau Arek, who in his own journey from the village to the nation, experienced many triumphs and tragedies.
Paulus Goresau Arek is an inspirational Papua New Guinean and former Member of the House of Assembly. Slender in build, he had the heart and spirit of a leader but the wit and tact of a politician. He was from a big village in Northern District called Wanigela in Collingwood Bay on the northeastern coast of Papua New Guinea. His father worked as a cook for an Anglican bishop and later as a mission schoolteacher.
Arek was born on 3 December 1929 at Wanigela. He was the youngest among four siblings. His elder brother Christian was in the Royal Papuan Constabulary and later went on to have a colourful wartime career as a member of the Papuan Infantry Battalion. In his childhood, young Paulus looked upon his elder brother as his role model. Paulus received primary education at the local mission school. He avoided working for the Australians during World War Two only because of his youth so Christian convinced their father to enroll him at the Sogeri teacher training centre in 1946. That set the path of Arek’s career, following the footsteps of his father, to becoming a teacher.
In January of 1951, Arek returned to teach at his former school at Sogeri. One of the educational initiatives that he led within the school was a debating society. Topics debated included: “Do you think the townspeople are more important than the farmers?” and “Is town life better than village life?”. Two years later in 1953, his first trip overseas was to attend the second South Pacific Conference in Noumea. Around this time, Arek returned home to Wanigela and married Etheldreda Bairob.
Three weeks after marrying Etheldreda, the Education Department posted him to teach on Manus Island in 1954-1955. Arek was one of the first Papuans to teach in the New Guinea Islands region. At the time there were tensions between the communities and the colonial administration in Manus, caused mainly by Paliau Maloat’s movement on Baluan Island. Arek’s leadership was sought to help deal with the situation. Part of the reason for the tensions was that the colonial administration had built a government school on traditional land which aggrieved the people especially since they already had two existing Mission schools. At the end of 1954, Arek went to Rabaul to study how to run local government councils. He returned in 1955 to continue the conflict resolution he had been doing on Baluan Island. Apart from his administrative tasks which included overseeing the building of two new classrooms for the government school, he also taught.
The Education Department next posted him to become headmaster at Popondetta Primary School in 1956. In 1957 he taught at Iokea, Gulf District, where there was a similar issue between the colonial administration and the landowners where the London Missionary Society had established a school before the colonial government did so. From a Primary School, he went on to teach at Kerema High School that same year. In 1958 Arek was sent to Daru, Western District. His promotion from a senior teacher to headmaster within four years showed enormous capacity. His ambition saw him confronting many challenges and his moral compass and political ideas meant that sometimes he was at loggerheads with the colonial administration. Arek was very vocal about change and the potential for PNG to change. He shared his ideas openly with colleagues and others who would listen. At Daru, he often opened his home to other teachers to discuss and share their ideas about change. These gatherings were a concern for the colonial administration and having displeased the authorities, he was exiled to a school 805 kilometres up the Fly River around the Lake Murray area. In 1959 Arek returned to Popondetta but to a demoted position.
In December 1963, Arek resigned and attempted to enter politics when the first House of Assembly started. He nominated himself for the 1964 elections for Popondetta Open and did well to come second. He lost by about 700 votes of 7,000 cast. After failing at his first try at the elections, Arek went back to teaching at Popondetta Primary School as its headmaster, whilst plotting a strategic professional career to aid his intended political comeback at the next elections in 1968. He worked constantly, establishing the Northern District Workers Association for the local Department of Works and plantation workers. His advocacy for a pay increase of $6 per week for plantation workers and other workers too was successful. For the comfort of the workers of Popondetta he set up a workers club using the model of the Canberra Workmen’s Club. Arek made it a policy that the Popondetta Workers Club was also open to expatriates.
In 1967, Arek resigned from teaching and put himself forward as a candidate again for the 1968 elections. He stood for the Ijivitari Open Electorate. There were a total of five candidates – two expatriates and three indigenous. Arek won by an absolute majority and represented his people in the second House of Assembly. His ideological platform was to localize the Territory Public Service and develop a constitution for the country to lead to self-government and ultimately independence. All his ideas and visions would broaden more when he travelled abroad and saw the presidential government systems of the African nations which he thought would be more suitable for Papua-New Guinea than the Westminster System.
In 1968, Arek was one of two special representatives to the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he heard a resolution put forward by the African and Arab nations calling for prompt independence for Papua and New Guinea. Impressed by the conviction of the African nationalists, Arek nevertheless felt that they had underestimated the difficulties of a rapid transition. Following his motion in the House of Assembly, in October 1969, a Select Committee on Constitutional Development was established with representatives from all the political parties represented in the House, and with Arek as chairman. Between 1970 and 1971 the Select Committee held hearings throughout the country. The Committee also visited a lot of other countries, in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Although he was supported by Pangu Pati representatives—and by Napidakoe Navitu (Bougainville) and the Mataungan Association (Gazelle Peninsula) — in his objective of an early transfer of power, Arek was sensitive to the qualms of the conservative Committee members, as well as to the political advantages of compromise. The Committee’s report, presented to the House of Assembly in March 1971, recommended preparations for self-determination in 1972-76. Its proposals concerning the structure of parliament and the electorates formed the blueprint for self-government in 1973 and independence in 1975.
Arek won the Ijivitari seat again in 1972 and was appointed Minister for Information in the coalition government that was formed with Michael Somare as Chief Minister. He subsequently joined the People’s Progress Party, Pangu’s coalition partner, which was led by Julius Chan. His main achievement as Minister was to oversee the creation of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).
Arek died of cancer on 22 November 1973 in the Port Moresby General Hospital just eight days before self-government was proclaimed and the NBC inaugurated. He is survived by his wife, Etheldreda Bairob Arek and eight children: Winifred, Hudson, Patrick, Sergius, Clive, Theresa, Freda, and last-born son Matthew.
Though Arek did not live long enough to see the realisation of his vision for independence, the National Museum and Art Gallery honours him through the Person in Focus Exhibition as one of many Papua New Guineans who helped lay the foundations for the path towards Independence.
Diane Langmore, ‘Arek, Paulus (1929–1973)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/arek-paulus-9378/text16475 , published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 January 2018.
Etheldreda, BA 2018, pers. comm., 19 April.
Juddery, B 1969, ‘A firm footstep on the path to independence’, The Canberra Times, 4 October, p. 11.
The Person in Focus Exhibition is a biographical concept that seeks to tell Papua New Guinea’s story – from the village to the world – through the experiences of some of its pioneer leaders, beginning firstly with Arek.
Please visit the PNG National Museum & Art Gallery website to learn more about the Haus Independens Museum located on MacGregor St., Downtown Port Moresby. Contact the Museum on (+675) 325 2405 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.