Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Guise, Sir John (1914–1991)

by Helga M. Griffin

This article was published online in 2019

Sir John Douglas Guise (1914–1991), politician and governor-general of Papua New Guinea (PNG), was born on 29 August 1914 at Gedulalara, near Dogura, Milne Bay, Papua, son of Edward Guise, mission worker, and his wife Grace Samoa. Both his parents were of mixed European and Papuan descent. Reginald Edward Guise, his paternal grandfather, had been an English soldier and adventurer whose family had acquired a baronetcy at Gloucestershire in 1661. John received four years of education at a local Church of England mission school before joining the workforce, aged fourteen, as a labourer. His first job was with Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd, Pacific traders, at Samarai. An outstanding cricketer, he enjoyed demonstrating his superiority to his European bosses: ‘during working hours … I had to be a servant, on the field of sport I showed them I was their master’ (Guise quoted in Nelson 1991).

On 26 December 1938 Guise married Mary Miller at Dogura. After Japan entered World War II, in early 1942 he was drafted into the Papua (later Australian New Guinea) Administrative Unit (ANGAU). Initially serving in the labour corps, he later became a signals clerk for ANGAU, rising to the rank of sergeant. Even-handed, non-racist military experiences politicised his thinking. After the war he joined the police force as a sergeant. He visited Australia for the first time in 1948. Promoted to sergeant major, the highest rank available for non-Europeans, he returned to Australia in 1953 as senior non-commissioned officer in the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary en route to England for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. A devout Anglican, he represented the Territory of Papua and New Guinea at the Church of England Synod in Sydney four times from 1955. In 1957 he joined the Department of Native Affairs in Port Moresby and began taking an active part in local politics. As president (1958) of Port Moresby’s Mixed Race Association he called on people of mixed descent to see themselves as ‘natives’ (Nelson 1991) rather than Australians.

Following the death of his wife in 1944, in 1947 Guise had married Unuba Aukai, who was born at Lalaura. Through her he strengthened his association with the south Papuan coast. In 1961, in the first election in which Papua New Guineans were able to stand for the Legislative Council, he was elected as the member for East Papua. The following year he represented the Territory at the South Pacific Commission conference in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and was special adviser with the Australian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In the first elections for the House of Assembly in 1964, he was elected to represent Milne Bay and was later selected as the leader of elected members of the House. The most experienced indigenous member of the Assembly, he spoke six languages in a House in which three languages (English, Tok Pisin, and Hiri Motu) were official. In 1964 he startled Canberra when he called for a Select Committee on Constitutional Development and became its chairman (1965–66). He probed in vain the possibility of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea becoming a seventh State of Australia, yet he was also the first to recommend cementing national unity with a new name, crest, flag, and anthem for the Territory.

Elected as the representative for Alotau Open in the Territory’s second general election in 1968, Guise beat two European candidates to become the first indigenous Speaker of the House. He added his own style to the position, wearing both the traditional white wig of Westminster and a cloak of tapa cloth (beaten bark) fringed with bird of paradise feathers and a kina (pearl-shell) decoration worn by ‘big men.’ Outspoken in his support for greater access to education and the need for a university in Papua New Guinea, he received an honorary doctorate of laws from the newly established University of Papua New Guinea in 1970.

Guise was an early member of the pro self-government Pangu Pati. However, in what has been viewed as his shifting strategy to become chief minister, he contested the 1972 election as an independent. Few local contestants understood that party solidarity was healthy for the Westminster style of government imposed by Canberra. A former administrator of the Territory, Sir Leslie Johnson, opined that Australians had ‘discouraged the development of political parties [that] might challenge the authority of the Administration’ (1983, 264), and that ‘Papuan New Guineans had been thoroughly brain washed to accept their inferior status as the natural order of things’ (1983, 264).

Returned as the member for Alotau Open in 1972, Guise stepped down as Speaker and was made deputy leader and minister for the interior, later agriculture, under Michael Somare, chief minister and leader of the Pangu Pati, in a coalition administration. With Australia pressing for early decolonisation, Somare and Guise worked in the background of the Constitutional Planning Committee (1972—75) chaired by John Momis. Ignoring earlier draft reports, in June 1974 Somare and Guise submitted a minority report (White Paper) on the proposed constitution. Seemingly under pressure from outsiders, they had somewhat enfeebled its humanitarian liberal intentions. Momis viewed it as a betrayal of trust by the government.

In 1972 Guise had been appointed CBE. Under Somare’s wise and cunning patronage, he was elevated to KBE and made GCMG in 1975; however, he preferred his ‘Dr’ title to ‘Sir.’ He was appointed the country’s first governor-general that year. Marking the end of sixty-nine years of Australian rule, the Australian flag was lowered for the last time on 16 September. Guise, commenting on the peaceful transition, emphasised: ‘We are lowering it, not tearing it down’ (Papua New Guinea Post-Courier 16 September 1975, 4). When PNG’s own national flag rose with its bird of paradise and Southern Cross stars, he proudly announced his country’s independence. Meanwhile a mighty Mekeo sorcerer, who supported the Papuan separatist cause, had been making rain to wash out the Independence ceremony. Heavy rain arrived late and failed to ruin the legal formality.

Guise had strong views on the role of a governor-general; it was ‘to be guardian of the Constitution and the rights of the people … I won’t be a replica of the Australian Governor-General or a rubber stamp’ (Jackson 1975, 4). In Government House he set aside a room for betel nut chewing. His door open to all, he would squat on the floor with his guests, bare-chested and dignified. ‘By turns effusive, choleric and sanctimonious’ (Griffin, Nelson, and Firth 1979, 161), he refused to stay out of politics and fell into an unseemly dispute with the deputy prime minister, Sir Albert Maori Kiki, in 1976. Kiki demanded his resignation. Guise, who planned to resign anyway, did so in 1977 to contest a House of Assembly seat in the next election. Returning to parliament as the independent member for Milne Bay in July, he sought to form a ruling coalition but was unable to gain the numbers. His bid to become prime minister unsuccessful, he saw out his term as deputy leader of the Opposition, retiring from politics in 1982.

Upright and clean shaven, Guise favoured a small moustache and wore dark-rimmed spectacles. In retirement he served on the council of the University of Papua New Guinea, chaired the Papua New Guinea Copra Marketing Board and wrote a column for the weekly Times of Papua New Guinea. Predeceased by four of his nine children and survived by his wife, he died at his home in Port Moresby on 7 February 1991. Following a state funeral, his body and famous spectacles were flown to Lalaura for burial. He was described as the ‘cunning lone wolf of Papua New Guinean politics’ (Moore 2000, 283) and ‘elder statesman and father of inspiration to many leaders’ (Canberra Times 1991, 2). His public life mirrored the vicissitudes of his country’s decolonisation, at times ‘embodying PNG’s uncertain future’ (Denoon 2018). The Sir John Guise Sports Precinct in Port Moresby honours his memory.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘The Coloured Gentleman.’ 7 October 1955, 7
  • Australian External Territories. ‘John Guise.’ 8, no. 4, (1968): 15–16
  • Canberra Times. ‘Statesman Sir John Guise Dies.’ 8 February 1991, 2
  • Denoon, Donald. Personal communication, 15 August 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • Griffin, James, Hank Nelson, and Stewart Firth. Papua New Guinea: A Political History. Richmond, Vic.: Heinemann Educational Australia, 1979
  • Jackson, Peter. ‘I Won’t Be a Rubber Stamp.’ Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 30 July 1975, 4
  • Johnson, L. W. Colonial Sunset: Australia and Papua New Guinea 1970–74. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1983
  • Moore, Clive. ‘John Guise.’ In The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia, edited by Brij V. Lal and Kate Fortune, 282–83. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000
  • Nelson, Hank. ‘John Guise.’ Unpublished draft obituary, 1991. Copy held on ADB file
  • Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. ‘Lowering, Not Tearing Down.’ 16 September 1975, 4
  • Smales, Angus. ‘Father-Figure of PNG Politics.’ Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, 30 July 1975, 5
  • Somare, Michael. Sana: An Autobiography of Michael Somare. Port Moresby: Niugini Press, 1975

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Helga M. Griffin, 'Guise, Sir John (1914–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/guise-sir-john-15980/text35290, published online 2019, accessed online 16 December 2019.

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