June 10, 2006

Exploiting the Brown Man: A Family Tradition

Australian PM John Howard's father had a secret life:
While this old soldier worked his humble Sydney service station, he was also - on paper - a New Guinea planter with a string of estates where 200 native labourers grew copra in his name. Lyall Howard had cashed in his status as a returned digger to "dummy" for the trading house W. R. Carpenter and Company Ltd. His own father, Walter, was doing it, too. The Howard case provoked secret, official investigations at the highest levels in Canberra, but they and their powerful backer got away with the scam.

The Treaty of Versailles spelt the end for the German planters of New Guinea. Australia took over the colony, stripped them of their land and sent them packing in the early 1920s. The prime minister, Billy Hughes, promised "New Guinea for the returned serviceman" and ex-diggers were offered very generous terms when 40,000 hectares of plantations went on the market in 1926 and 1927.

A hefty catalogue spruiked them as "The Envy of Planters, The Magnet of Copra Buyers" and quoted Shakespeare to inspire investors down south: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune."

For Lyall Falconer Howard, the tide was well out. He had fought in France, was gassed at Passchendaele and returned home to work as a mechanic at CSR. The Prime Minister remembers his father as "a very quiet, very, very lovely bloke". About the time Lyall married the forceful Mona Kell, he lost his job at CSR. As the plantations came on the market, she was about to give birth to their first son, Walter.

Yet at this nadir, Lyall Howard tendered to buy four plantations on Kar Kar, a high volcanic island with perfect soil off the coast of Madang. He was awarded two: Kavilo for £9800 and Marangis for £30,600 - in today's currency a total of roughly $4 million. As an ex-digger, he had only to stump up a 15 per cent deposit and then pay off the rest over 20 years. Every penny of that £6060 deposit - and more - was provided by Carpenters...
This is just part of a 6 page exposé at SMH.


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