PNG: Tributes flow as heroic Women & Children’s advocate Dame Carol Kidu says adieu to Parliament Print E-mail

 Melbourne ~ Wednesday 16 May 2012

Also at: ~  Wednesday 16 May 2012

PNG farewells a great dame

By Jo Chandler

Dame Carol Kidu pictured with friends in the village of Pari, near the capital, Port Moresby. (Jason South)

As Dame Carol Kidu - the long-serving and lonely female of the 109 member Papua New Guinea Parliament - gave her farewell speech at yesterday's final sitting ahead of next month's scheduled election, the nation's burgeoning social media commentariate lit up with tributes.

''Kidu gets applause! Sir Buri Kidu would have been proud of you Dame,'' tweeted Tarurvur - one of PNG's most influential (albeit anonymous) political bloggers - summoning up the revered memory of Dame Carol's long-dead husband, the nation's first national Chief Justice.

Sir Buri Kidu and Lady Carol Kidu celebrate PNG's 10th anniversary of independence, 1985. (The Age. Photo supplied by Carol Kidu via Jo Chandler)

''Who would have thought a white woman from QLD would impact PNG as you have?''

Mind you, other tweeters observed that the applause from fellow MPs was a bit muted - perhaps as a result of her passing swipe at some of them having one or two wives too many. The feisty Dame is rarely accused of failing to speak her mind.

Dame Carol was one of two lauded figures on the PNG political landscape farewelled as the Parliament dissolved yesterday - the other was former Prime Minister and noted political reformer Sir Mekere Morauta, who said he was moving aside to make way for a new generation.

Dame Carol's impact on PNG politics goes back 15 years as the Member for Moresby South and a minister under the Somare Government, and includes a raft of social development policy, from provisions recognising the rights of the street traders who make up the informal economy; to laws protecting vulnerable children; to a determined and ultimately thwarted campaign to introduce special measures to usher more women into the Parliament.

With her Women's Bill - which would have introduced 22 reserved seats for women - failing to complete its journey into law in time for this election, the odds are stacked high against a single woman taking a seat when the Haus Tambaran in the capital of Waigani next convenes. Social and political culture - and the money politics which underwrites campaigns - remain formidable obstacles to womens' candidacy.

PNG politics is the poorer for the lack of female influence, Dame Carol argues, with the agendas of critical social indicators - maternal deaths, child health, violence against women - failing to achieve the priority they deserve in the Haus.

Though she has lived in PNG for more than 40 years, arriving as a bride and raising her family according to her husband's tribal tradition, Dame Carol once told the Parliament in championing her Bill that ''I don't pretend to understand the complexities [of PNG culture]. The men were the warriors. But remember, the women were the peacemakers.''

Dame Carol's voice and influence has amplified through the past nine months of volatile political power plays. Distancing herself from the Somare camp to take on the role of Leader of the Opposition (for a while there, the only member of the Opposition), she has repeatedly urged the warring Big Men of PNG politics to be accountable to the Constitution and the citizens as the manouevreing for power deteriorated into dirty and dangerous tactics.

This past week, her fearlessness and commitment were captured on a piece of footage widely shared across PNG.

It shows the 63-year-old grandmother - on Mother's Day - confronting heavily armed police and bulldozers at Paga Hill, a site above Port Moresby where a shanty settlement was being razed in preparation for a controversial hotel development, one where questions loom over process and legitimacy.

''This is not an eviction, it's a demolition,'' she snaps at the police, instructing them to stop the bulldozers and allow the settlers to dismantle their homes themselves. ''I feel sorry for you. You're in the middle of this,'' she says to one officer. ''One day it might be your houses being bulldozed.''

Plainly distressed, the event echoed a theme Dame Carol explored in a memoir she wrote back in 2002, reflecting on the transformation she had witnessed in her own adopted home village of Pari, a collection of shanties perched on stilts above the sea. ''As the bulldozers of modernisation slowly pushed further and further into the heart and soul of the village, some physical improvements occurred, but much was lost as well.''

In this latest skirmish, after intervening to free an old man from the grip of a policeman, she is filmed - by a visiting Sydney university student trailing her - being manhandled and removed by a couple of burly officers.

Shaken, bruised and angry, she later said she had watched ''women being dragged from their homes screaming while bulldozers were ordered to move in - but succeeded in stopping the demolition until a stay order was put in place on humanitarian grounds.

The images provoked outrage and admiration across PNG's busy social media sites - ''Brought tears to my eyes .... On behalf of other PNGeans, big apologies and thanks to the brave Dame - We Salute you'' - and pleas by some for Dame Carol to rethink her retirement plans.

But Dame Carol is determined to move into a new realm. ''Perhaps I can achieve more from outside,'' she told me in Port Moresby late last year. The tumult of recent months has only underwritten that resolve.

''I despair in many ways. I'm worried about this country, I don't deny it,'' she told me during a series of interviews late last year as I prepared a profile of her and her Women's Bill campaign for Good Weekend. ''Buri would be shocked at what has happened, if he came back now.''

She rests her hopes for the future on the great resilience of the country she married into, and to which she paid tribute in her final address to the Parliament yesterday.

''The political impasse of the past nine months has been a trying time for all, but we must thank the people of Papua New Guinea for their peaceful patience with their leaders.

''After much public anxiety and international scrutiny ... I think we can tell the world very proudly that we are a young, volatile, democratic nation.''

When she entered the Parliament, Dame Carol put a ring on her finger - a golden Bird of Paradise - to remind herself that she was now wedded to her constituency.

While the Parliament has now dissolved, her duties as Opposition Leader and local member are not yet done. This morning she was continuing legal negotiations over the Paga Hill development.

She says the ring will come off at the end of July, when the writs are returned, and a new Parliament convenes.