Stephen Pokawin

Stephen Pokawin
Interviewed by Ian Kemish and Jonathan Ritchie May 10 2016

A prominent Papua New Guinean political scientist, lawyer and practising politician, Stephen Pokawin was a student and lecturer at University of Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s. He went on to serve for decades as Premier, and then Governor, of his home province, Manus Island, before becoming the leading party executive of the National Alliance party. In this interview he recalls in vivid detail the heady days on the University of Papua New Guinea campus in the immediate lead-up to independence, and reflects on the country's post-independence experience in balancing national and provincial interests.

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Stephen Pokawin is welcomed to the interview and introduced by Ian Kemish.


Stephen Pokawin discusses his schooling on Manus Island, beginning at a mission school run by Americans, later attending Manus High School in 1966, and his selection as part of a group of six to attend University of Papua New Guinea in 1970 and his uncertainities around Port Moresby.

Manus Island, Port Moresby, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin states that at that time in Port Moresby independence was not an issue, at UPNG most teachers were Australians, and that independence did not become an issue for him until the aftermath of the 1972 election. He remembers the visit of the United Nations mission to Manus Island in 1962 and the discussions surrounding independence.

Australia, Foot Commission, Hugh Foot, independence, United Nations, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin describes the work of his father as a pastor with the Evangelical Church of Manus, and his mother's role with the church.

Evangelical Church of Manus, German missionaries, World War I

Stephen Pokawin describes how he got involved with independence, the association of the Pangu Pati with the independence, and his switch at university from studying English and Anthropology to studying politics due to the excitement of the period after the 1972 elections. He recalled a visit to the university by Michael Somare to a packed lecture theatre and the freedom of the academics to engage in politics.

Eight Point Plan, independence, Michael Somare, Pangu Party, United Party, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin reflects on overseas influences and the intellectual excitement at the university. He recalls a trip to the Western Highlands with the Lutheran Development Services and beginning to talk to communities about the changes including independence and self government.

Eight Point Plan, Gandhi, Mao Tse Tung, Martin Luther King Jr, Tambul, University of Papua New Guinea, Waigani Seminar, Western Highlands

Stephen Pokawin reflects on his identity as someone from Manus Island or from PNG. He discusses provincialism at the university and the test to mix and build relationships with those you studied with, and the push from independence to do this.

independence, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin discusses issues of racism and colonialism at university and the role of leaders and academics. He discusses his options on graduating and his work with the Department of District Administration when he was sent to Manus in relation to local government, when his father died and he requested a posting to Manus in 1974.

Department of District Administration, John Kasaipwalova, Leo Hannett, Manus Island, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin reflects on the regional politics between self government and independence, especially in relation to New Britain and Bougainville. He discusses the splits in the country by party and region.

Bougainville, Matanguan, New Britain, Pangu Party, People's Progress Party, Port Moresby, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin reflects on the importance in retrospect of PNG not fighting and winning independence, as the administration was supportive and helped create the foundation for independence. He speculates on whether PNGs should have fought and died for independence.

bloodshed, independence, Michael Somare

Stephen Pokawin provides a first hand account of independence day, 16 September 1975 in Port Moresby, the electrifying atmosphere and the lasting impact of events.

Independence Day, John Guise

Stephen Pokawin reflects on the importance of widespread consultation, and the importance of people in villages, in the making of the PNG constitution, and the role of the administration in politically educating the community.

Constitution, Constitutional Planning Committee, decentralisation

Stephen Pokawin reflects on the period 1972-1974 and the work of the Constitutional Planning Committee and senior public servants in preparing the country for independence. He discusses the importance of managing the different groupings in PNG.

Albert Maori Kiki, Alkan Tololo, Bougainville, Constitutional Planning Committee, Gabriel Gris, independence, Michael Somare, Paulius Matane

Stephen Pokawin discusses changes in PNG society with the rise of people who have no strong affiliation with a particular place.


Stephen Pokawin reflects on the role of the university in presenting and debating contrasting views on independence, and the general acceptance of independence.

independence, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin discusses political science theories and ideas current in 1972, including dependency theory and the role of multi-national corporations, and reflects on the role of visiting speakers at UPNG and the international community.

Ivan Illich, Rudy James, Telford Georges, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin discusses the role of visiting Australians and administrators in encouraging independence. He emphasises the importance of collaboration between the international community, Australian administrators, the political leadership in PNG's independence.

Andrew Peacock, Australia, Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam, independence, Paul Hasluck

Stephen Pokawin recalls that in 1975 he completed an honours degree at UPNG in politics, with a thesis on community based organisations. He discusses his choices of employment on graduation, becoming a tutor in politics and administration at UNPG, but spending one semester at the Christian Leaders Training Centre in Banz before winning a Masters degree scholarship at McGill University, Canada.

Banz, Canada, Christian Leaders Training College, Evangelical Alliance, Institute of Public Administration, McGill University, University of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin discusses his contact with the political leadership and writing a column for the Times weekly newspaper. He relates that after McGill, he returned to UPNG and after two years went on sabbatical back to Manus as part of his academic program.

McGill University, Times of Papua New Guinea

Stephen Pokawin describes how he built a timber house on Manus in 1980 and when finished moved his wife and son there.

John Waiko, Man Without Pigs, Manus Island

Stephen Pokawin describes his work on Manus removing the Local Government Council and establishing the Community Government Act and the involvement of the communities in formulating each constitution. He discusses his election to the Provincial Assembly in 1983 where he stayed until 2002, culminating as Governor.

Community Government Act, Manus Island, provincial government

Stephen Pokawin reflects on PNG from the perspective of regional leadership especially the challenge to translate national interests at the provincial level. He discusses the implementation of the Organic Law in the provinces.

Islands Regional Secretariat, Julius Chan, Organic Law on Provincial Governments And Local-Level Governments (1995), Peter Barter, provincial government

Stephen Pokawin reflects on a discussion with Michael Somare regarding the rationale for the removal of provisional provincial government from the constitution in order to unite the nation.

Constitution, Michael Somare, nationalism, provincial government

Stephen Pokawin discusses the National Alliance Party and political groupings in independent PNG. He discusses his election in 1997, and the move before the 2002 elections to form the National Alliance and to establish it in government after the election. He relates his involvement in the growth of the party for it to win the 2007 elections.

Mekere Morauta, Melanesian Alliance, Michael Somare, Movement for Greater Autonomy, National Alliance Party, Pangu Party

Stephen Pokawin reflects on the dismantling of the National Alliance Party in 2011 and its rebuilding as part of a long process since the days of the Pangu Party.

Michael Somare, National Alliance Party, Pangu Party

Interview ends