Pioneering PNG Woman politician Nahau Rooney passes on

Trailblazing, hardworking, audacious, always vivacious and sometimes controversial were among tributes and recollections shared of Papua New Guinea and Manus political pioneer, Nahau Rooney who passed away on Tuesday 15th September.

Rooney was one of three women elected at PNG’s first post-Independence elections in 1977  to its 109 member national parliament. She was re-elected in 1982 as the regional member for Manus province.

The news of Rooney’s death arrived as the nation and former politicians met to celebrate PNG’s 45th Independence anniversary.

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, in whose cabinet  Rooney served as justice minister, described her as a “hardworking female Papua New Guinean” during his term as prime minister.

Rooney drew controversy during her early career when, as Minister for Justice in 1979, she was sentenced by the Supreme Court to eight months in jail for interfering with the administration of justice.

Sir Michael gave a slight smile as he recalled how he overturned the decision.

He said: “She was my first cabinet minister. Even though she was jailed I took her out of jail.

“She was a wonderful woman and she worked very hard for Papua New Guinea.

“I feel sorry for the Manus people especially her family. Manus has lost a great leader in Nahau.

“She performed very well as a woman and she showed that women in Papua New Guinea can do something. My wife (Lady Veronica) and I know her personally,” Sir Michael told Gynnie Gelu, the Editor of the National in Moresby.

A former UN Women Pacific Regional Director, who spent decades working with PNG women’s rights and women farmers’ organisations and networks herself,  Elizabeth Cox recalls, “Nahau Rooney was  an energetic member of the early post-independence governments that made genuine efforts to catalyse constitutional promises of equality, participation and a focus  on rural development.

“Sir Michael Somare believed in Nahau. Her female peers were inspired by her and she enjoyed the support of a loving husband, happy to let her shine while he worked hard at home in Manus researching disease in staple food crops and building their family’s small business.” 

Rooney supported many good causes along the way, and was a leading advocate for women to organise and raise their collective voices.  She was a constant and inspiring presence at conferences and workshops to encourage women’s participation in PNG politics. Climate change and its impact on the environment in Manus and elsewhere in PNG and the Pacific were among her many passions and worries. “She was against destructive logging and fishing and as early as 2001, protested the Australian government moves to make her beloved home a prison for asylum seekers,” Cox recalls.

PNG Governor General Sir Bob Dadae also expressed sadness over the news of the passing of Rooney while using the opportunity to acknowledge PNG women’s leadership and encouraging their rightful place in PNG politics. “As the first female politician of our country soon after our independence, Rooney demonstrated early on to the womenfolk that women too can become politicians and be involved in decision making, a task that is, in our society, traditionally performed by the men,” Sir Bob said.

“She held various ministerial portfolios during her political career and was not one to hold back from freely expressing her opinion. She set the benchmark for women at a time when women’s role in society was relegated to the home and not in decision making for the nation as a politician and minister of state.

 “To the people of Manus, Rooney demonstrated to the rest of the country the potential of what the women of Manus can achieve,” said Sir Bob.

Rooney was married to Wes Rooney, an Australian, who was later murdered (shot dead) on Manus. In the 2000s, retired from politics, her environmental and women’s rights activism continued, while she ran a family guest lodge on Manus Island.

In 2006, Rooney was honoured with the title of the Companion of the Order of the Star of Melanesia. “Nahau leaves us with an important legacy, one that challenges us all to do as much as she did to build a stronger women’s movement in PNG, to get more women into parliament and to make the voices of PNG’s post-independence daughters heard in the region and in the world,” said Cox.

Ms Rooney is survived by her children, Kevin, Michelle, Poyap, Gabriel, Nawes, Eva, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Gynnie Kero is currently the news editor with PNG’s daily newspaper the National.

Sadhana Sen is the Regional Communications Advisor for the Development Policy Centre at ANU.