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The Border Problem
The Border Problem

The extension of the Queensland border to the coast of Papua had originally been motivated by a desire to protect Queensland fishing enterprises in the northern Torres Strait. Associated with this was a recognition of Queensland's responsibility to regulate interaction between outsiders and the indigenous inhabitants of the region. A further consideration was the absolute necessity to secure the shipping channel through the Torres Strait which was crucial for Queensland's livelihood and not unimportant to the other states of eastern Australia.

The act of 24 June 1879, urged by Premier J. Douglas but finally confirmed by Premier T. MacIllwraith, can be readily understood in these terms. The absence of any administration in Papua allowed Queensland to fix a line close to the Papuan coast without regard to international convention. But the motives which had induced this arrangement also clearly demanded that Papua should not become a German possession and so Queensland was compelled to encourage annexation by the Imperial Government - a request to which Britain finally acceded in 1884.

With the creation of British New Guinea, Queensland achieved the security she had been seeking in the far north for twenty years, ever since the establishment of Somerset in 1864.
The mainlands on both sides of the Torres Strait were under British administration and, since the Colonial Conference in 1887 arranged for the Queensland governor to guide the administration of B.N.G., both mainlands were therefore responsible to the governor of Queensland. As the problem had been resolved in this way it seemed appropriate to most observers that an adjustment of the border was necessary and would not be difficult to achieve under the circumstances. Appropriately it was Douglas who first voiced concerns on the matter.

In 1884 Douglas had been appointed resident magistrate to Thursday Island and was for a short time special commissioner for British New Guinea, based in Port Moresby. These dual appointments (there was an acting resident magistrate at Thursday Island) enabled him to view the border question in a more balance fashion - certainly it brought home to him the inequitable nature of the problem when viewed from the Papuan side. He now found himself in the difficult position of trying to move south the border which he himself, only six years before, had been largely responsible for moving north. To Douglas however the question was not so much whether to move the border south again but rather how far. He actually recommended at one time that all the islands of the Torres Strait, including Thursday Island and the Muralug group, should be transferred to British New Guinea. Nationalist sentiment in Australia made this suggestion hypothetical though its justification was simple. The Islanders were Melanesian village dwellers similar to the Papuans and dissimilar to the nomadic hunters of mainland Australia. Douglas found Queensland laws framed for Aborigines clumsy and irrelevant, particularly in the northern islands where Papuan influence was stronger: 'It is difficult, nay impossible to apply our Queensland laws to such islands as Saibai, Dauan and Boigu. To the magistrate at Daru, with his native ordinances, and his proximity to these islands, it is another matter altogether.' He despaired of effective administration of the islands: 'unless we can induce the Queensland Parliament to transfer some of them to New Guinea.'

Eventually Douglas advocated the tenth degree south latitude as the border line. This seems the most rational departure from the 1879 border and was based on possession of equal parts of the strait and its resources by each administration. On a cultural basis also it was fairly satisfactory since the northern Western Islands, northern Central Islands and Eastern Islands, which comprised the more sophisticated societies Douglas probably had most trouble applying Queensland laws to, would all be part of British New Guinea with its special provisions for Indigenous customs and land tenure. Possibly the only significant cultural anomaly was that the border fell between Mabuaig and Badu which were the homes of two very closely related peoples. However in the late 1880s it was a solution which, if accepted, would have caused a minimum of disturbance at the time and prevented the dispute which arose during the 1970s.

That the proposal was never accepted is sometimes attributed to a lack of general interest in the subject or to its political unpopularity. Many of the best trochus, beche-de-mer and pearl shell grounds lay north of the 10 degree latitude (Darnley Deeps, Orman Reefs, Warrior Reefs) and a convincing argument would be necessary to prise them from Queensland. Such arguments mainly rested with Douglas's sociological reasoning.

In 1893 Sir Samuel Griffith, who was then Premier of Queensland, toured the islands with Douglas and was impressed by Islanders on the northern islands 'such as those at Saibai who differ in few if any respects from their neighbours on the mainland of New Guinea.' Griffith consequently sought to eliminate the most obvious discrepancy by advocating that the border be moved south of Saibai, Dauan and Boigu, thus uniting the inhabitants of these islands with the Papuans under a British administration.

Sir William MacGregor, administrator of British New Guinea, approved Griffith's proposal with qualifications. During the term of his admininstration he frequently visited these northern islands in the course of exploration and pacification. These visits permitted him to collect a number of Torres Strait artifacts, some of which he donated to the Queensland Museum whilst governor of Queensland. Yet his concern was not limited to the border's sociological implications, for he also insisted that in any readjustment of the border the crucial Warrior Reefs should be included in British New Guinea. In this he was clearly thinking into the future. Griffith's proposal, even if adopted in 1893 would not have prevented the 1970s dispute for although it corrected the most obvious blunder of the 1879 act (Saibai, Boigu, Dauan), it did not allow a fairer distribution of resources. MacGregor's shrewd proposal, if accepted, would have given the prolific fishing area of the Warrior Reefs to Papua. It is unlikely that Papua then could reasonably have asked for more - although it is just as unlikely that Queensland would willingly have parted with them in the first place.

Queensland's obduracy meant that any further initiative would have to come from the British Government. However a special Colonial Boundaries Act passed by the Imperial Government in 1895 provided that the consent of a self-governing colony was required for any alteration of its border. This confirmed the 1879 border and in effect gave the Queensland Government final authority to decide on the border question.

In June 1896 the British Government recommended that the border be moved south of Saibai, Boigu and Dauan. However MacGregor protested strongly that this did not amount to any redistribution of resources, particularly in respect to the northern Warrior Reefs which were a traditional Papuan fishing ground. A compromise agreement, with Queensland holding all the cards, led to a proposal that the border be altered so that Saibai, Boigu, Dauan, Buru, Gebar, Bramble Cay and the northern Warrior Reefs be included in British New Guinea. The British Government issued an order in council in May 1898 along these lines fully recognizing that the approval of the parliament of Queensland was necessary. Such approval was not forthcoming and in 1901 Queensland became a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. Under the Commonwealth Constitution the alteration of a state border requires not only the approval of the Commonwealth Parliament and the State Parliament but also a referendum in which the majority of the electors of that state approve the change. This added qualification effectively ended any hopes of an adjustment in the first half of the twentieth century.

The nearness of the Queensland border, the fishing industries and their attendeant problems concerned the Australian administration of Papua at various times though little could realistically be done about it. So the dispute lay dormant through the years till the nation of P.N.G. began to prepare itself for independence in the early 1970s. Nationalist politicians, both in the Western province and nationwide, understandably resented the proximity of the Queensland border and regarded it as an obsolete colonial border denying Papuans access to their share of the strait's resources.

Much dubious publicity has been made of traditional borders. There is a bank to the northwest of Saibai called Saibailgau Maza where a traditional leader named Alis was fatally wounded by Papuans and which is claimed as a traditional border. This may be correct but twenty-four kilometres to the east Papuans hunt dugong, crabs and fish well south of this on the island of Saibai itself and have done so for generations. Yet this traditional border is hardly acceptable to the people of Saibai. Similarly the reefs north of Moon Pass are a traditional Papuan fishing ground. Islanders in small aluminium dinghies with outboard motors can no longer travel as widely as their large sailing canoes allowed in the past. Today few Islanders are even seen in the northern Warrior Reefs area except as crew on European or Asian-owned fishing vessels, whereas Kiwais regularly sail canoes about these reefs often staying out for days at a time. Much of the 25,000 kilogram catch of crayfish processed through Daru in 1971-72 actually came from reefs which are inside Queensland waters. These northern reefs are just fifty kilometres south of Daru but a hundred and sixty kilometres northeast of Thursday Island. No solution to the border problem would therefore be possible without an allowance for legal access by Papuans to the fishing resources of the Warrior Reefs.

Apart from fishing resources it is possible that exploration could reveal deposits of petroleum or natural gas offshore. Geological data suggest that conditions may be favourable although a single drill operated by Tenneco Australia Inc. in 1969 at Anchor Cay was unproductive. All the Torres Strait is covered by various mining leases, excepting the area about the lower Western Islands. These lower Western Islands are granitic and are not covered by a lease since the chances of discovering petroleum there are negligible.

No further drilling has taken place following the Tenneco attempt because of an embargo by the Queensland Government on oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef. This in turn has led to a lack of geological information. In late 1978 there was a brief controversy over alleged mining interests in the Torres Strait by the Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and this was followed by the suggestion that the state cabinet was reconsidering oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef.

It is difficult to decide to what extent the possibility of oil being discovered has actualy affected the course of negotiations on the Torres Strait border issue, however it does illustrate the important distinction between seabed resources and fishing resources.

The sociological issues that troubled Douglas and Griffith have now been resolved to some extent. Today the Island way of life is different from that of Papua though the Islanders themselves in some cases have changed little. They are still predominantly Melanesian by race and culture, and linked to Melanesians in Papua, often by direct relationship or descent. However their lifestyle has been distorted by their participation in the fishing industry on the labour-for-cash principle (although often there was much labour for little cash). This coupled with large scale integration with the white Australian community, and the all-pervasive influence of the Australian Department of Social Security and the Queensland DAIA, has created a different type of Melanesian from that found on the Papuan side of the border. The Islander is sedate, confident, perhaps possessed of a quiet dignity, yet somehow he seems to lack the humble diligence of the Papuan and the individual initiative and energy that Papuans may display in pursuit of opportunity. But then there a few opportunities in Papua and probably the Islander is entitled to feel more confident than his Papuan neighbour.

It is significant that most Europeans cannot distinguish between Papuan migrants and Torres Strait Islanders. Indeed after one decade in the Torres Strait the Papuan migrant may have learned to speak an Island language, to perform Island dances, to use Island mannerisms and to look at life in the same quietly confident manner as the Islander.

It is the security of life as part of Australia that has transformed Island society and it is surprising how quickly Papuans are also transformed when placed in the same environment.

When negotiations over the border first began there were few Islanders even prepared to discuss alterations to the border. 'Border Not Change' was the slogan of a remarkable political movement which united Torres Strait Islanders to an extent never before experienced. Although marked by a naivete, which weakened its impact, it was a genuine movement which enjoyed the support of a vast majority of Islanders. It was the Islanders' own intransigence on the question which permitted the Queensland Government to adopt the firm position it did over more than five years of negotiations. Without their overwhelming support the State Government would have been unable to maintain such a stand.

In P.N.G. there was a surprising divergence of opinion. Those Papuan vilages with traditional and continuing contact with the Torres Strait Islanders generally approved of the 1879 border since it allowed them to use facilities on the islands which their own government could not provide. One group from Buzi (near Boigu) in 1976 were even reported to have asked that the border be moved north to include their village on the New Guinea mainland.

Complicating the matter was the existence in P.N.G. of a minority who were committed to moving the border south, as far as possible and as soon as possible. I was amazed at the strength of feeling expressed by some young Papuans (Western Province, Southern Highlands and Port Moresby) in this respect. While traditional communities appeared unconcerned, the newly educated elite, disciples of rising national sentiment, pressed strongly for a change. Perhaps the most vocal was Ebia Olewali, a Kiwai from Tureture, who has been a cabinet minister in the Somare government for a number of years.

This group dominates education, administration and politics and clearly it would be a mistake to under-estimate their influence. Continued attempts by Queensland to delay an alteration to the border could only lead to belligerence. The victory of the Somare government in the P.N.G. elections of July 1977 meant a continuation of moderate influence, but the time would come when pressure for change became irresistible.

The legal issues involoved are extremely complex. There are no specific international conventions which satisfy the peculiar problems of the Torres Strait dispute. As early as 1974 a possible solution was being suggested involving a median line drawn between the two mainlands for allocation of seabed resources, with island enclaves under Queensland administration and a negotiated agreement on the utilization of fishing resources perhaps along traditional lines. Such an arrangment would depend upon appropriate and continuous supervision. In the March 1974 World Review R.Lumbe proposed the establishment of a Torres Strait Maritime Commission consisting of representatives of Australia, Queensland and P.N.G.

The Whitlam federal government, before its demise in late 1975, had made noises which Torres Strait Islanders interpreted as indicating a sell-out. The situation developed into a political battle between Prime Minister Whitlam on one side and Premier Bjelke-Petersen, claiming to represent the Islanders' interests, on the other side. However the premier's visits to the Outer Islands, often in conditions of some discomfort, greatly impressed the inhabitants. Whitlam's failure to conduct similar visits was widely resented. How could he make such crucial decisions regarding the islands' future when he had never taken the trouble to visit them or talk to their inhabitants? A visit by Bryant, then federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs, was a disaster. At least one council ignored him, others received him with cold courtesy. A public meeting at the town hall on Thursday Island degenerated into a farce in which Bryant belittled Tanu Nona O.B.E., a prominent Island leader, obviously in the belief that he was not present, only to learn to his embarrassment that Nona was standing within several metres of him. At that time a more damaging action can scarcely be imagined.

Bryant was later replaced by Cavanagh who generated somewhat less hostility among Islanders. Nevertheless the Whitlam years represented a low point in relations between Islanders as a group and the federal government. After 1975 the situation steadily improved though Islanders remained wary of a Canberra which still appeared determined to alter the border - a concept which the Islanders claimed to oppose totally and unconditionally.

Getano Lui, chariman of the Islander Advisory Council and a leading Island spokesman, rejected the proposals for both a seabed boundary and for island enclaves in Papuan waters - "if you take our water and the seabed then you take our lives." He went on to explain the traditionalist philosophy of resources use: "We are happy to share what we have in the Torres Strait, but we will not give - not a teaspoon of water, not a grain of sand." It is remarkable how much the coastal Papuans and Islanders appreciate each other's positions and how cordial discussions between the groups have been. Left to the traditional inhabitants there would be no dispute, however time has caught up with the Torres Strait and its peoples. Politicians in Canberra and Port Moresby, while sympathetic to traditional practices, were committed to a treaty based on international, rather than intertribal, custom.

In fact among the first foreign affairs matters to which the new Fraser government devoted itself were negotiations on the Torres Strait border issue with P.N.G. In March 1976 Somare and Fraser met in Port Moresby and agreed that it was important to reach an equitable and permanent settlement. Following this, in May, the foreign ministers of each country conferred and announced in June that they had reached general agreement on some basic points. Prominent among these was acceptance of a proposal for a seabed resources line running through the Torres Strait. There were even details of its location. This was despite the fact that Islanders on every occasion had made it known that they would refuse to accept such a line. When Fraser visited Thursday Island and then the Outer Islands to discuss the matter with Island chairmen and representatives he received the unanimous refusal he must have expected.

In P.N.G. Prime Minister Somare seemed prepared to wait for Australia to cajole the Torres Strait Islanders into accepting a change. Despite passage through the P.N.G. parliament of the national seas legislation, by which P.N.G. could theoretically take action, Somare's government and the Australian government came to an understanding that no such action would occur pending further constructive negotiations.

In late 1978 Andrew Peacock, Australian minister for foreign affairs, visited the islands to discuss the business with Island leaders once again. His proposal was little different from the one Fraser had put forward two years before. It involved establishing the far northern islands as Australian enclaves, with separate borders for fisheries and seabed resources further south, and provisions for traditional movement. However, Peacock had one crucial advantage which Fraser had lacked. The Queensland premier, Bjelke-Petersen, who accompanied Peacock, had changed his whole stance over the border question and was now prepared to recommend that Island leaders agree to the proposed settlement. In fact, the Australian government had adroitly side-stepped constitutional issues by emphasizing that there was to be no alteration to Queensland's land border, whilst simultaneously asserting the commonwealth's authority over the territorial sea and its resources. Papua New Guinea had meanwhile been persuaded to accept the enclave idea.

At the meeting with Peacock the previously unshakeable Island representatives followed Bjelke-Petersen's lead and accepted the proposed agreement.

On 18 December 1978 Fraser, Peacock, Bjelke-Petersen, Somare and Olewali, now P.N.G.'s minister for foreign affairs, met at Papua New Guinea House in Sydney for the official signing of the treaty and, it was hoped, a conclusion to the problem that had troubled politicians in Queensland, and elsewhere, for a century.

There are however some indications that the agreement is not universally popular. Many Islanders, and not a few white Australians, were dismayed at the sudden collapse of the Border Not Change movement. Actually it only demonstrated once more the Queensland government's continuing influence over Islanders and their representatives. This time though voices have been raised in opposition.

When Bjelke-Petersen arrived at Papua New Guinea House for the signing of the treaty, Carl Wacando, a native of Erub now resident on the Australian mainland, presented the premier with a high court writ challenging the treaty's vailidity on a legal technicality. On Thursday Island, Eti Pau of Erub sought to rally opposition to the treaty amongst ex-servicemen by advocating the reformation of the Torres Strait Light Infantry. Certainly the border settlement is unpalatable from the Islander's point of view, even it may be considered inevitable, for they have lost waters and resources which they have been encouraged to regard as their own.

It was no coincidence that at the time the treaty was signed P.N.G. had just contracted a north Queensland company to expand fish processing and storage facilities on Daru. Papuan fishermen now have access to substantial new fishing grounds in the northern Torres Strait and the P.N.G. government is committed to exploiting them.

Similarly, it was no coincidence that within a week of the signing the Queensland minister for mines announced that drilling for oil on the Great Barrier Reef would again be considered.

If a small number of Islanders alone voiced opposition to the treaty there would be few complications but here is also some dissatisfaction evident in P.N.G. The treaty is, without question, a persoanl triumph for Olewali, but the very fact that Bjelke-Petersen described the treaty as "a just and honourable settlement" must raise doubts in the new nation.

In an article in the Australian on 30 December 1978 the newspaper's Port Moresby correspondent stated : "The Torres Strait border agreement with Australia, presented as the year's crowning triumph of government diplomacy, seems to most people in Port Moresby a ludicrous 'cop-out' leaving black 'Australian' citizens on 'Australian' islands within a few miles of the P.N.G. coast, just as they were before." It would be unreasonable to expect that nationalist politicians in P.N.G., after their success this time, will not seek to renegotiate the border terms on a future occasion - whether it be in ten years or fifty.

As if to irritate P.N.G. nationalists still further the commonwealth undertook to return illegal Papuan migrants in the Torres Strait to their homeland about the time the treaty was signed. Initial reports suggested that more than a hundred people had been repatriated, eliminating some of the more blatant instances of cheap labour exploitation on fishing boats and on Thursday Island. The government in P.N.G. probably hopes that many of the returnees will find employment in the expanded fishing industries. It is clear, however, that all Papuans in the Torres Strait have not been repatriated.

The most intriguing point concerns the timing of the repatriation drive. Why was the move not made years ago? If the drive was linked to the treaty what was the reason? Surely it must have been anticipated that the impact in P.N.G. would be negative in the extreme, unless the move was an attempt to maintain credibility in the eyes of the Islanders. The Australian's correspondent believed that the repatriation of P.N.G.'s nationals from the Torres Strait Islands emphasized "the old white master's sneering continuity of sovereignty over the whole sea."

In these circumstances it is difficult to state with any confidence that a satisfactory and permanent solution to the dispute has been reached. A change of government in P.N.G. could easily result in a new, less moderate administration pressing for renegotiation of the treaty. As it was in late 1978 the Somare government avoided, by a very narrow margin, being displaced. The complexity of the agreement, which is considered unique because of the lack of a natural or traditional border, requires the active goodwill of both sides if it is to succeed.

Keywords: international border, politics, Queensland, Singe, John, Torres Strait, Torres Strait Islanders, treaties

Singe, John 1979, 'Torres Strait - People and History, World War 2', Chapter 8, University of Queensland Press.
Author: Sharp, Nonie
Source: Singe, John