It began as a student film project but soon morphed into something much larger – including an unexpected and bruising legal battle.
Karl Quinn | Sydney Morning Herald | 29 April 2017
Dame Carol Kidu didn’t recognise the young Australian woman who said she wanted to make a film about her life in New Guinean politics in 2012, even though they’d shared breakfast a few years before that. But she has no trouble remembering Hollie Fifer now. It’s amazing how an ugly legal battle can jog the memory.
Fifer, who is 28, first met Dame Carol with her mother Dimity, a former CEO of Australian Volunteers International, in 2008. By the time the then-AFTRS student pitched her film idea, PNG was in political turmoil, with Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill both claiming to be the legitimate prime minister of the country. Dame Carol broke the deadlock by stepping away from Somare’s party to become leader of a one-woman opposition.
To Fifer, “it seemed like a great story”, even if she also suspected “I’d arrived too late” to record it at its best.
But as they were filming an interview in Port Moresby in May 2012, Dame Carol received a phone call: a shanty settlement on Paga Hill, near the centre of town, was being bulldozed, its 3000 inhabitants were about to be scattered to the winds, and the developer responsible was Australian.
In that moment, a different film was born.
“She said, ‘Do you want to come’, and I didn’t know what to expect but I said ‘yeah’,” Fifer says. “Then this entire scene happened that completely changed everything.”
As Dame Carol strode about Paga Hill trying to convince police to stop what was going on, Fifer kept her camera rolling. Here was a real-life David v Goliath story, with the country’s only female parliamentarian as the unlikely hero of the people. Or so it seemed.
Over the course of the film’s evolution, Dame Carol’s role changed massively. She left the Parliament. She set up a consultancy, and was hired by the Paga Hill Development Corporation, on a contract of $178,000 for three months’ work. And she became determined to prevent Fifer’s footage of her from ever seeing the light of day.
Dame Carol wasn’t the main character in Fifer’s film, but she was a key player, featuring in about 20 minutes of it. In March 2016, she launched legal action in the Supreme Court of NSW demanding those scenes be redacted. She claimed she had never consented to being in such a documentary. The release she signed was merely for a student film, not for something that might be shown commercially. She claimed the film misrepresented her.
Fifer’s film was set to debut at the prestigious Hot Docs festival in Toronto in May 2016. On April 22, Dame Carol was granted a temporary injunction against the inclusion of the footage in which she appeared.
Fifer had a week and a half to recut her film. Where Dame Carol had been, the screen was now black, with a narration read by actress Sarah Snook explaining what was happening, and why. But the day before she was due to fly to Toronto, Fifer was back in court, being ordered to make more tweaks.
“The hard drive was still warm when I took it to the airport the next morning,” she says.
“It was literally a hot doc. We hadn’t even seen it by the time we screened it. My producer, Rebecca Barry, and I were just looking at each other thinking, ‘I hope this works’.”
It did, and in June, the court ruled against Dame Carol’s application for permanent redaction of the footage in which she appeared.
Now, finally, The Opposition is to have its full Australian premiere, on the opening night of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.
It’s been a long and bruising journey for all parties. Joe Moses, the Paga Hill activist who is the real hero of Fifer’s movie, spent a couple of years in hiding but is now in the UK, studying international human rights law. Many of the former residents of Paga Hill are homeless in downtown Port Moresby; those who took the inducements to move are still living in the tents they were told would be temporary. There are 200 of them at a place called Six Mile, says Fifer, under rotting canvas, with one tap and a toilet that doesn’t work properly.
As for Fifer herself, she says after five years on this one she’s in no hurry to race into the next project.
“I don’t want to just launch into another one because I want to make a film – I want to launch into it knowing this is something that needs to exist.”
She wants to put the difficult journey of her film to good use, and is looking for ways to share what she learnt with other documentary makers, if only so they don’t have to go through the same things.
“I feel like I’ve had a bit of an experience with this film. I don’t feel it’s right for me to silo that and move on to the next film, to go, ‘Oh that’s good that I learnt all that, but it’s just for me’.”
It would be fair to say she’s in a cooling-off period, but she insists she hasn’t gone cold.
“I’m up for a good challenge,” she says, smiling wryly. “But maybe a little less of a challenge.”
The Opposition is opening night film at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, which runs May 4-18 in Melbourne, May 23-27 in Sydney, May 29-31 in Canberra, June 1-3 in June and June 1 in Perth and June 2 in Hobart. Details: hraff.org.au
Late last year, residents of the Tokara NHC Hostel lost their court action against the National Housing Corporation (NHC), and Aees Real Estate Limited. Evicted residents claimed they had been wrongfully removed from the property. It was also claimed that the sale to Aees Real Estate was illegal.
Justice Hartshorn, a judge known for being unsympathetic to the ‘little’ people, dismissed the proceedings with costs. He argued residents had failed to pursue the case through correct legal procedure.
The short judgement does not disclose the sale price of the NHC property to Aees Real Estate Limited.
However, this sale needs urgent review.
It can be revealed Aees Real Estate Limited’s largest shareholder and Director is Anthony Waira.
Up until the 2007, Waira was the principal legal officer at the National Housing Corporation.
Given that the Public Accounts Committee has found that many NHC properties are being sold off, under value, to private developers, with the proceeds being laundered and stolen – there is a need for vigilance with all NHC transactions.
This is especially the case when the purchaser is the former legal counsel for the NHC.
Has Prime Minister Peter O’Neill finally acted on his promises and ended the SABL land grab and stopped the illegal logging?
It is now 1,386 days since the reports of the SABL Commission Inquiry which detailed the widespread fraud and mismanagement that allowed foreign logging companies to gain illegal access to over 50 thousand square kilometres of land.
Over that time the Prime Minister has made repeated promises to cancel the leases and stop the logging but, for almost four years, nothing has happened, while the logging companies continued to chop down and export logs worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Minister Benny Allen has been quoted saying:
“The Government has taken a blanket cancellation of all special agriculture business leases in the country and as we speak, they are all illegal”.
“I have given directions to acting secretary to write letters to all special agriculture business lease holders, informing them that the leases that they are holding are illegal and no longer in force now. It’s another useless document of no legal value and effect”.
There is, of course, a sting in the tail; the Prime Minister and Minister Allen also say the government will now assist ‘genuine’ investors to acquire a new title to the land they have illegally occupied, using incorporated land groups and land registration. It is not clear which SABL areas this applies to, although the PM has singled out Rimbunan Hijau’s operations in Pomio for praise, despite the strong community opposition to the logging and oil palm operations there.
Silent though has been Logging Minister, Douglas Tomuriesa. Has the Forest Authority stopped all logging in SABL areas and are all the Forest Clearance Authorities being cancelled or withdrawn?
Without any word from the Minister or PNG Forest Authority, the public will be wise to remain skeptical.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has signalled he is backtracking on four-years of promises to cancel the unlawful SABL leases and return land to its customary owners.
Just three weeks ago, the Prime Minister berated the Department of Lands for not carrying out orders to cancel the leases and said the foreigners involved “should be put on a plane and sent back home”.
But, on Friday, the PM endorsed what he now says is the Lands Department’s ‘balanced approach’ and he specifically endorsed Rimbunan Hijau’s logging and oil palm operations in the Pomio District, which he said must be allowed to continue.
Over the past six years RH has exported over 1.2 million cubic metres of logs and netted more than K300 million in income from logging operations on land stolen through three Pomio SABL leases.
The SABL leases were obtained using fraud and forgery and the forests have been logged without the lawful consent of local people. The villagers have been consistently beaten and intimidated by police employed by RH to suppress any dissent.
With more than 6.6 million cubic metres of logs worth over K2 billion stolen from SABL areas across the country, it seems the loggers money is proving irresistible to our political leaders as the election approaches.
K800 million is being spent to enrich the Port Moresby club of politicians, construction companies and hoteliers. And all under the guise of playing host to APEC – an international organisation that promotes the same colonial economic policies that have failed Papua New Guinea for the past 30 years.
APEC is a business club that wants to continue to exploit PNG’s rich natural resources for its own benefit; that wants to continue to boost our false export economy at the expense of the real mainstream economy that is based on rural enterprise, local markets and honest endeavour by village people living on and working their own land.
Development does not come from outside, as APEC and its supporters claim and it does not trickle down from large-scale resource extraction; real development has to come from within – by supporting small local businesses and rural agriculture, not building flashy infrastructure in Port Moresby for the elites to enjoy.
Imagine what could be achieved if all the effort from politicians and bureaucrats that is going into organising the APEC summit was being put in to improving our health and education services or agricultural extension work? All those hours of effort by public servants, all that coordination and all that support from overseas?
Imagine what K800 million, spent wisely could do for rural infrastructure and transport?
Seeing it all wasted on opening up PNG to more foreign exploitation is not just sad, it is a crime!
There is still NO ACTION to reverse the huge SABL land grab. NO ACTION to return the land to customary landholders and NO ACTION to stop the illegal logging in SABL areas.
This is despite repeated statements from the Prime Minister that the leases are illegal and will be cancelled.
It is now 1,372 days since the reports of the SABL Commission Inquiry which detail the widespread fraud and mismanagement that has allowed foreign logging companies to gain illegal access to over 50 thousand square kilometres of land.
But for almost four years ago, all we have heard from Prime Minister O’Neill are EMPTY PROMISES that the leases will be canceled and illegal logging stopped.
The latest statement from O’Neill was just two weeks ago. On 14 March, O’Neill said “all the SABL licenses are illegal in this country” and will be cancelled.
This echoed repeated statements he has made over the past three years. In September 2013, O’Neill said in Parliament:
“We will no longer watch on as foreign owned companies come in and con our landowners, chop down our forests and then take the proceeds offshore”
In June 2014, announcing an NEC decision supposedly cancelling the leases, O’Neill said
“We are taking these steps to reclaim our customary land illegally lost to foreigners with the help of corrupt public servants and leaders”
“As a responsible government we want to ensure that all citizens have access to the lands of their ancestors. We will not allow our land to be lost to unscrupulous people out to con our people”
In 2015 the Chief Secretary stated:
“It is widely known that vast amounts of pristine forest have been logged to enrich a corrupt few people, while landowners have unknowingly lost their most valuable asset – their land”.
On November 4, 2016, O’Neill told Parliament and the Nation:
“I am pleased to say that all the SABL leases to be cancelled, instruction has now gone to the Lands Dept and as of today I can assure you that leases are now being cancelled and where there are projects now existing, we’ve encouraged the landowners to renegotiate many of those leases arrangements that they have made with the developers.
“These leases were given without much thought in the past. As a result, a lot of the landowners stood to lose all their years of generations of ownership over the land that they have had for many years.
“We do not want the rightful landowners lose their rights to land.
“That is why we have instructed the department of Lands and Forestry to cancel all the SABL.”
But, despite all the promises, no action has been taken to cancel the leases, landowners are receiving no support from the government in their battles against the land grabbing and WE ARE STILL WAITING for the logging to be stopped.
For 1,372 days O’Neill has failed to ensure the SABL leases are revoked and has been complicit in the illegal logging of our forests by foreign logging companies.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has aided and abetted the theft of logs worth hundreds of million of Kina and the destruction of thousands of hectares of pristine forest.