Hon. Solomon Mamaloni, Chief Minister, Prime Minister

From 1965, Island and Legislative councils had elected members, aid was increased and policies were controlled by committees of elected MPS. One of those was Solomon Mamaloni (1943-2000). Educated in Solomon Islands and New Zealand, he was elected MP for Makira and would later become Chief Minister (1974-76) and Prime Minister for three terms (1981-84, 1989-93, 1994-97). In an interview recorded in 1995, he told Ian Johnstone about his first career as a public servant and why he moved into politics.

Transcript

Mr Mamaloni: I moved [into politics] because the British were giving me a hard time. Normally, a public officer would enter the service, probation for two years, then get confirmed. I was never confirmed for five years.

Ian Jonstone: So you were always a bit of a troublemaker?

SM: To them, yes, because one time another uncle, great administrator, Silas Sitai, now a government minister…. I grew up in administration under the shadow of Silas Sitai and Sir Fred Osifelo. Once I did something wrong and Silas Sitai said "You know, my son, the best administrator is the one who gets very unpopular. If you are very popular you are not a good administrator".

That sums up my problem because I was a young officer placed in the field, going round villages in Guadalcanal, Russells and Savo to check on the everyday life of people, meeting headmen and reporting back to the boss. Every time I wrote very long reports which were not very sympathetic or sentimental – I couldn't bear this, you know, "Medical department have never been to this place…" so I think from that time they have already concluded that I wasn't a good administrator.

Eventually I took over as Clerk to the Legislature from Mr. Cochrane from England. At the time the Secretariat wasn't well equipped with stenciling machines. I think that was the real boiling point in my career as an administrator. As Clerk to the Legislature I had priority for the machine. The Financial Secretary's secretary was a South African lady and one morning when I was producing papers for the Legislature she came over and asked "Who told you to do this?" I said "These are my orders" So she pulled out my papers, and I swore at her.

I was taken up to the boss and he dressed me down "You are a very young officer. You shouldn't be doing this. You have big potential. We're going to send you to England, to Westminster for a course on being Clerk to Parliament". My boss, the Head of Protectorate Branch, seemed to hear about this little incident. As I was going down the ladder in the same building, he was coming up and he said to me "Good morning, Solomon" so I called him by the same name "Good Morning, Douglas". Now that was very bad – you cannot call your officers by their first name. He took me into his room and he said "You can't call me by my first name, I'm your boss. I've served HMG for over 24 years. I'm 45 and you must address me as "Sir".

At that time we are getting young officers from Scotland and England; one of these crazy Scottish officers was named McEwan – he was above me, no. 3, I think. He saw me crying and asked what had happened. I told him. This fellow from Scotland challenged me. He said "If you're from Makira, this afternoon when you meet him, say the same thing. You say what you want."

This fellow Douglas Freegard, when he walked he waddled a bit. In the afternoon I was waiting for him so when he came up he said "Good afternoon, Solomon" and I said "Good afternoon, penguin" I was reprimanded very severely – my wages cut, probation extended and that was when I started getting a hard time.

IJ: Was this because you were fed up with white officers… or you had this African influence?

SM: I grew up to advance in the system. We were all working in the same office.

He was my boss, like John (Honimae) is the Director of Information. It's about etiquette. He's a senior officer, but I saw nothing wrong in calling him by his first name, and him calling me by my first name. I felt we were colleagues and I felt at that time I was in the office long enough, doing important work and taking big responsibilities to the extent that we could say, OK, we are fair and square, both important. I never had this anti feeling at that time. This anti-colonial feeling was probably something I got from the university students than creating it myself. Those incidents marked chapters in my career. I always recall them and make fun of them every time we have a function or party.

IJ: Would it be fair to say you felt no antagonism to the colonial system? I mean, you were part of it. It wasn't the system you wanted to get rid of. Would you have been happy for your country to have remained the British Solomon Islands Protectorate?

SM: If it had remained longer as the BSIP, it may have been better, it may not have been much different, but you flow with the current, so to speak. This anti colonial feeling was very vocal among university students, both post-graduates and graduates. Every time they came home they organized public forums and seminars – and that's all they talked about. We all joined on the wagon without much thought.

IJ: Did you want to go to university as well, or were you happy to stay where you were?

SM: I was happy – I thought college education was sufficient for me. I started at King George. I opted to take history, geography then English language and literature, mathematics – so when I went to NZ I broadened these studies to colonial history.

IJ: Where were you studying in New Zealand?

SM: Te Aute College in Hastings.

IJ: Was that your choice, or were you sent there?

SM: I was on a government scholarship. We had to go to NZ to go to Form 6 because here we only went up to Form 4. The biggest influence on my studies was a teacher called John Ballantyne, who taught literature and that, combined with world events like colonial history, fitted in very well. It was the only study I was interested in – like when you compare drama with the royal conflicts with the New World – like the Boston Tea Party, the French and English conflicts in Canada, people like Lord Delaware, people who were shaping the governments of the world. Reading about Lord Donalmore (?) and the black hole of Calcutta, this was where I met up with Gandhi. I got this library book and I read it and was so absorbed I even stole it and brought it back to Solomon Islands after I left school.

IJ: This is a book on colonial history?

SM: No, on Mahatma Gandhi, his life. I got involved with studying how the British system was transplanted across the Commonwealth – like Australia, Canada. It gives you that broad-based understanding of constitutional changes, authorities and government.

IJ: What was it like with the British then? Did you have difficulties in negotiating the kind of constitution that would serve an independent Solomons? I gather there were problems about land ownership?

SM: I think one of the most unfortunate things that happened was I didn't stay in politics to see the whole thing all the way to the independence talks and negotiations. Even when I was playing around with the idea of self-government and independence, I compiled some notes which I thought were sellable to England.

After I became Chief Minister, when the Assistant Minister of State, Miss Joan Lester, came down here, we initiated constitutional discussions on the timetable for Solomon Islands and she almost fell over "That early?" I said "Yes, this early, I think we can make it" I had two things in mind. First, the worst thing I'd like to see is Solomon Islands having to fight for its independence. I think that was one of my misconceptions at that time because, as I said, we were dominated by African affairs, you know, people fighting for their independence and I thought Solomon Islands, being what it was during colonial times, its cultural diversity and during the colonial era there were people who were seen as pro-colonial and those who were anti-colonial, because of Marching Rule. Those things lived on and we in the eastern parts like Malaita saw Western people as very pro colonial – we called them "Yes" people.

IJ: Was there also a suggestion, a threat, a movement that the Western people might secede from the newly independent Solomons?

SM: That was during our time.

IJ: How did you handle that? Why did it happen?

SM: What happened was that their main grievance was they weren't getting enough returns from their resources. Co-incidentally, this was a university graduate movement headed by Warren Paia. So, we told the Ministry of Finance and Natural Resources to calculate all the exports during the past two years and see how much came from each province.

We did some quick arithmetic, and I went to the West specially and there was a big demonstration at the wharf at Gizo so we sat down and I said "I think the idea of secession is not good, it will never work because when you go to the west, it's already a cosmopolitan place; you have everybody there, Malaita people, Makira people, so if it was west for west only, you can forget that idea, it will never work" At that time we knew there were no foreign influences or supporters with them.

IJ: And did that kill it?

SM: We gave them better terms. I said OK, we'll get you a bit more in your copra returns.

IJ: So you bought them off, did you?

SM: Not really, these were public funds – it was just a matter of fiddling with the percentages, specially for timber they were producing. All the timber, I think at that time, came from the Western province.

IJ: Did you look enviously at Bougainville – it's part of the Solomons in tradition - and think maybe we should make a request for the North Solomons to be returned to us?

SM: Never. Bougainville has always been part of PNG and it was good because our people at the border, and even as far as Honiara, their business was thriving because of the Bougainville copper mine. A lot of people in Malaita go and trade shell money and bring back money and build ships. It was a natural type of existence which no-one should have interfered with, whether you've put in an international line or treaty.

There's been traditional movement between our people because ethnically there's no doubt western people are tied to the Shortland Islands and vice versa with the Bougainville people. When this thing blew up it was most difficult to handle specially in my government where at that time the Minister for Prisons and Justice was from the Shortlands with relatives in Bougainville – and the Head of State, who had land in south Buin and the Minister of Finance whose uncle is from Kieta and others like the Minister for Provincial Government. It was the most awkward position a Prime Minister would find himself in.

I said "If you want to shoot your mouth off about Bougainville, you do it, as an MP not as a Minister of the Crown".

IJ: You were Chief Minister and then came the election which would take you into independence.

SM: That was in 1976. Peter stood as a candidate and I also stood. Only two of us. Peter won and I lost.

IJ: Ian: What was your feeling then ? You'd done the hard work in some ways.

PK: Mr Mamaloni: My feelings were mixed. On Independence Day I was looking after the plantation.

IJ: How well do you think the British had served you?

PK: The only area – which is almost a common trend after British colonialism for smaller countries – is economic advancement. It's understandable in another way because the British, having been the masters of colonial systems, one of the greatest things they did was this Land Act, still the best act the British left behind – that the owners of customary land should not sell their land to foreigners. That is the best they left behind. I think this has stood the country in good stead up to now, although a lot of modern thinkers, specially developers, still feel it inhibits development or progress. Whereas some of us think otherwise because the customary land tenure system the British protected is the only thing we're hanging on to now.

We don't have a similar thing for the sea, and when people are under pressure for development, you imagine, had we had an act that said you can sell your customary land to foreigners, here, for example, west of Honiara, some crazy people, call them landowners would be selling plots of land for cans of beer in the Solomon Islands. At that time, because of Britain's commitments in Africa and elsewhere, I think the concentration was to set up social facilities, such as education, which they did very well, medical and health services, of course they must do a road for Malaita. I thought that was also smart, it was good, and then the court system and Christianity.

All these areas say the British have not done very bad here, they have done quite satisfactorily. They are not like the French and the Spanish where the French actually impose assimilation of cultures and therefore the people in that colony become francophones or actually become French in taste, everything and culture. I think what the British did was they left all our culture intact and said if you're going to become a modern nation you've got to improve health services, have more education, more exports and all that, leaving the culture and traditions to the people themselves.

IJ: Prime Minister, looking back, would you have preferred now to be a senior civil servant, as you'd have been if you'd carried on with your first career, or perhaps a businessman making a lot of money in the Solomon Islands? Are there regrets?

PK: I'd have preferred to be a Permanent Secretary, rather than a politician… too much headache, too much headache, so politics isn't fun any more. So many times, despite what every political critic has been saying about me, I'd just like to be just an ordinary member or ordinary minister. It's happened that this lot has always fallen on me – and I don't know why. It's a crazy thing. I don't know what my real destiny is.