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Matthias Tutanava Toliman (1925–1973)

by Neville Threlfall

This article was published:

Matthias Tutanava Toliman (1925-1973), schoolteacher and politician, was born on 25 August 1925 in Bitakapuk hamlet, Paparatava village, New Britain, Mandated Territory of New Guinea, son of To Liman, a traditional Tolai village leader, and his wife Ia Kabu. Matt attended a village school then boarded at St John's De La Salle School, Kinagunan. He entered St Mary's Seminary, Vunapope, to train for the priesthood, but the Japanese occupation of New Britain interrupted his studies from 1942.

When World War II ended, Toliman decided to become a teacher. He taught in mission schools, completed his secondary education and gained a teacher's certificate in 1957. Soon after, he married Matilda, a fellow graduate. Successfully treated for tuberculosis in 1958, he was appointed headmaster of a Catholic school near his home next year. He stood as a candidate in Papua and New Guinea's first common-roll elections in 1964 and won the Rabaul open seat in the new House of Assembly. Toliman served as under-secretary to the Department of the Administrator (1964-66) and to the departments of Education and Local Government (1966-68). As ministerial member for education (1968-72) in the second House—to which he was returned by the Gazelle open electorate—he brought together government and church schools in a National Teaching Service. A member (1964-72) of the Administrator's Executive Council, he travelled abroad and twice joined the Australian delegation to the United Nations Trusteeship Council. In 1971 he was appointed C.B.E.

As political parties took shape in the late 1960s, Toliman was one of the founders and leaders of what became the United Party. Its conservative policy included gradual progress towards independence for the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (in keeping with the Australian government's programme) and contrasted with the policy of the Pangu Pati, led by (Sir) Michael Somare, which called for more rapid progress towards that goal. Toliman won unanimous support for his resolution on 2 September 1964 that Papuans and New Guineans alone should determine 'when the time is ripe for self-government . . . and the form that government should take'. During a crisis in New Britain in 1969-72, he strongly supported the Gazelle Peninsula Local Government Council and clashed verbally, and even physically, with the breakaway Mataungan Association's supporters. These political tensions added to the strain of his additional parliamentary duties.

After the 1972 elections the House of Assembly was empowered to choose a chief minister as a step towards self-government. Although the United Party, led by Toliman, was the largest single party in the House, the Pangu Pati formed a coalition and obtained a majority, whereupon Somare became chief minister and Toliman leader of the Opposition. Tall, good-looking and an impressive speaker, Toliman was an outstanding political leader, liked and respected by his allies and his opponents. Members of all parties were shocked when he collapsed in the House of Assembly on 6 September 1973. He died of heart disease later that day and was buried with Catholic rites in Bitakapuk cemetery. His wife and their seven children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. G. Bettison et al (eds), The Papua-New Guinea Elections 1964 (Canb, 1965)
  • L. W. Johnson, Colonial Sunset (Brisb, 1983)
  • Australian External Territories, 9, no 3, 1969, p 24
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7, 8 Sept 1973
  • Post-Courier (Papua New Guinea), 7, 10 Sept 1973
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Neville Threlfall, 'Toliman, Matthias Tutanava (1925–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 August, 1925
Paparatava village, New Britain, Papua New Guinea


6 September, 1973 (aged 48)
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.