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Sir Leslie Wilson (Les) Johnson (1916–2000)

by John Farquharson

Sir Les Johnson, the last and probably the most popular of the colonial administrators of Papua New Guinea, who also played a key role in helping it along the path to nationhood, has died in Sydney aged 84.

His strength throughout his long career in PNG was his ability in building friendship, trust and confidence, particularly among up-and-coming Papua New Guineans in the lead up to self-government and independence. This was evident through his years in the House of Assembly, where he became leader of the official members and in his work as a member of the Assembly’s Select Committee on Constitutional Development.

And when his services to that committee looked like being lost, it was the intervention of his fellow members with the Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, that played a part in the events leading to his appointment as Administrator.

With the conclusion of his five-year term as Assistant Administrator looming, Johnson resigned in 1970 to take up a position as principal of the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education. His move created some controversy at the time, it being seen, variously, as due to his dissatisfaction with Australian Government policies towards PNG and frustration over the constantly strained relations between the Department of Territories and the PNG Administration. It probably had more to do with frustration than anything else, though he always contended that it was simply to secure his future. As a result of the chain of events that followed, including the Prime Minister’s intervention to get him off the hook with his prospective Tasmanian employers, Johnson was offered the Administrator’s job and accepted it on the spot.

Earlier, the then Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, had taken a direct hand in securing Johnson’s initial PNG appointment in 1962 as Deputy Director of Education, with his promotion to the directorship being foreordained. This occurred within a few months upon the retirement of the director, Geoffrey Roscoe. Four years later, on the strength of his ability and despite opposition from the Secretary of the Department of Territories (George Warwick Smith), he became Assistant Administrator (Services) when Dr John Gunther became vice-chancellor of the newly created University of PNG.

To all his tasks in PNG, his country upbringing in Western Australia, marked by cool resilience and quiet initiative, stood him in good stead. These qualities probably came from his years as master of one-teacher country schools. Born on 2 April 1916 in Tambellup, a small town near Katanning, on the road to Albany, the son of a poor sheep and wheat farmer, he was educated, on a scholarship, at Perth Modern School. Going on to pursue a teaching career in the WA Education Department, he crossed paths with Fred Chaney (later Sir Fred), a future Minister for the Navy and Administrator of the Northern Territory. Both future administrators found themselves in charge of one-teacher schools in neighbouring districts of WA.

Marriage followed in 1940, then in 1942 through to 1946 he saw service with the Army’s 7th Division in Australia and Borneo. Returning to teaching, he progressed through the WA Education Department and was director of in-service training when, ‘looking for something more interesting to do’, he applied successfully for the PNG education job. From there on until self-government in 1974, he was associated with most of the important decisions taken about PNG.

Johnson regarded his 12 years in PNG as the ‘most interesting and fulfilling’ years of his life, in which his wife Dulcie fully shared. As director of education, he consolidated and expanded Roscoe’s work, putting the education system generally and teacher training in particular on sure foundations. As well as arguing strongly for the creation of the University of PNG, he steered the legislation establishing it through the House of Assembly.

In discharging his various responsibilities in PNG, one of his most important roles was as conciliator and honest broker. Among other things, this meant that political sessions that began in the House of Assembly often went on late into the night under the more relaxed circumstances and rules of the Johnson home. And there he was aided ably by wife Dulcie, who could effortlessly put ‘the most pompous international visitor or the shyest Papua New Guinean villager’ at their ease.

The approach remained the same when he became Administrator to which he brought fine judgment in winding down his position from chief executive of the Australian Administration to constitutional head of a PNG Government. And as the transitional steps to self-government had to be taken, he worked much as he had on the Constitutional Development Committee - offering advice and counsel. But this did not work on the Gazelle Peninsula. He tried hard to achieve a settlement of the trouble stirred up there by the rebellious Mataungan Association, but with little success. The Mataungans remained at loggerheads with the Administration until after the 1972 House of Assembly elections.

He eschewed the ‘big stick’, which had been the hallmark of Warwick Smith’s term as Secretary of the Department of Territories in seeking to control every aspect of PNG affairs in the name of his minister. Working in cordial tandem with Sir David Hay, his predecessor as Administrator, who had replaced Warwick Smith at Territories, much was done to restore Port Moresby-Canberra relations.

Johnson’s formal role as Administrator ended in 1973, whereupon he became High Commissioner when PNG became self-governing. His PNG functions ended in March 1974, with career diplomat Tom Critchley assuming the High Commission’s post until independence day in September 1975.

While his PNG years were undoubtedly the pinnacle of his career, he still had a professional life after PNG as Director-General of the Australian Development Assistance Agency (now AusAid) from 1974 to 1976 and as Australian Ambassador to Greece and High Commissioner to Cyprus, 1976-80. But it was with PNG that he and Dulcie identified wholeheartedly, their interest in its affairs and friendships formed there enduring throughout their retirement years in Canberra.

Though he worked unstintingly to see PNG take control of its own affairs and for its emerging leadership to gain as much experience as possible in handling political responsibilities, he considered that Australia shed its colonial burden too hastily to ensure reasonable stability. In the process towards independence, he believed more time should have been devoted to consolidate each movement before proceeding to the next. However, the timetable of the Whitlam Government, after it assumed office in 1972, did not allow for this.

His account of his PNG years 1970 to 1974 was published by University of Queensland Press in 1983 under the title Colonial Sunset. A later manuscript, ‘Westminster in Moresby’, remains unpublished, though it was distributed to universities.

In this year’s Papua New Guinea Queen’s Birthday honours, he was awarded a knighthood in the Order of the British Empire (KBE), having been given a CBE in 1976, in a final recognition of his long years of service to that country.

He is survived by his daughter, Fay, son Ian and three grandchildren. His wife, Dulcie, predeceased him in December 1999.

Leslie Wilson Johnson, born Tambellup, WA, 2 April 1916; died Sydney, 31 August 2000.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Johnson, Sir Leslie Wilson (Les) (1916–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

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