The PNG piper and the Australian Governor-General – the tale of two Michaels.

By Max Uechtritz, President of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA).

It was a very special bond – the PNG army band piper and the Australian Governor-General.

Lance Corporal Michael Pissa was there for two of the biggest moments in the life of Major General Michael Jeffery AC CVO MC (retd), former Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

General Jeffery, who died yesterday aged 83, was also co-patron of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA) since 2003. Few stories better illustrate the powerful and poignant connection between the two countries than the tale of the two Michaels.

Lance Corporal Michael Pissa piped the bride down the aisle when Michael and Marlena Jeffrey were married at ‘Haus Lotu’ at Taurama Barracks in Port Moresby.

Forty-one years he was with them again – this time at Government House, Yarralumla in Canberra  – reprising the wedding piece in surely the most emotional farewell ever given for an Australian Governor-General.

The moment was recorded beautifully by Fairfax writer Tony Wright.

AS MAJOR-GENERAL Michael Jeffery and his wife Marlena strolled from Government House, Yarralumla, a small man in the crowd of perhaps 500 well-wishers lining their path pumped his bagpipes and blew into the chill Canberra air the strains of that most haunting of farewells, Now is the Hour.

He primed his pipes again, and that other great tune of endings and beginnings, Auld Lang Syne, floated into the afternoon.

As the Governor-General and his wife finally forged their way through the crowd, the little man – clearly a long way from home – stepped into their path and led them to their waiting limousine, this time playing the lilting Mairi’s Wedding.

It was the very tune he had played 41 years previously when Michael and Marlena Jeffery were married in a military barracks in Port Moresby.

The piper then was simply a 19-year-old Papua New Guinean (attached to the Pacific Island Regiment, where Michael Jeffery was a 30-year-old officer.

Now that same piper, Sergeant-Major Michael Pissa, 60, is musical director of the PNG Defence Force.

He was spending a couple of weeks on holiday in Queensland when he heard that his old commander was about to retire as Governor-General. He felt it would be his duty and his pleasure to attend the farewell.

He paid his own way to Canberra, taking his pipes with him, and notified General Jeffery only at the last minute. He was treated to morning tea at Government House and then strode through the gates of the vice-regal estate, waiting alone in the crowd to deliver his tribute.

There has never been a farewell quite like it for an Australian governor-general

At a function in 2005, General Jeffrey had spoken warmly of Michael Pissa.

Some of you may be aware that Marlena and I were married in the ‘Haus Lotu’ at Taurama Barracks over forty years ago, when I was posted here from 1966-69 with the 1st Battalion, The Pacific Islands Regiment,” he said.

“Indeed in 2005 the Battalion piper Michael Pissa, who piped Marlena down the aisle of the Taurama Chapel some 41 years earlier, walked from his village for several days, bringing with him his pipes and old green juniper uniform and played the wedding march at a reception held in our honour, evoking many tears of happiness.”

General Jeffrey had two stints in PNG. He served as company commander of 1 Paific Islands Regiment  from 1966-69  and then was the last Australian CO of 2 PIR in Wewak in 1974/5.  

General Jeffrey continued:

“I returned to command 700 very fine soldiers of the Second Battalion in Wewak, and as a result was privileged to be here at Independence on 16 September 1975.

“In those days we conducted border security operations on the PNG / Irian Jaya border as a battalion and I can say to all of you present here that I would have been honoured to take that battalion to any operational theatre in the world.

“We were a happy, well trained, highly disciplined family with our wives and children living and growing up together in a beautiful barracks environment.

“Last year, I was greatly honoured to be invested as a Grand Companion of the Order of the Logohu by Sir Michael Somare when he visited Australia for the APEC leaders meeting. I have renamed my small fishing boat ‘Logohu’ as a permanent reminder of my association with a country for whom I hold such great affection.”

General Jeffrey felt privileged to be in PNG for Independence in 1975.

“Independence in Wewak was a very special occasion, with, in the words of Sir John Guise, the Australian flag being lowered rather than torn down for the last time and the beautiful Papua New Guinea flag being raised in its stead,” he said.

“It was deeply touching to be personally farewelled at Wewak airport afterwards by Prime Minister Somare, with the pipes and drums of the Regimental Band and a large crowd in attendance.

“The most impressive aspect of Independence was the positive and joyful spirit in which it occurred.

I believe the positive spirit displayed then between our two nations, provided a solid foundation for the multifaceted relationship, based on mutual respect, shared experiences and geo-strategic realities that remain to this day.”

The Canberra Times reported the death of a great Australian yesterday.

Former governor-general Major-General Michael Jeffery has died.

Current Governor-General David Hurley issued a statement on Friday afternoon.

“Linda and I are saddened at the news of Michael Jeffery’s passing,” General Hurley said.

“On behalf of all Australians, our thoughts are with Marlena and the whole Jeffery family. As a nation, we give thanks for Michael’s extraordinary lifetime of service.

“He was, by every measure, a great Australian.”

Mr Jeffery died on Friday, less than a week after his 83rd birthday on December 12.

He was Australia’s 24th governor-general, serving between August 2003 and September 2008.

Mr Jeffery, supported by his wife Marlena, was prominent in his support of Canberrans in the wake of the 2003 bushfires. The couple more than made their mark on Canberra.

The Jefferys, regarded as a strong team, were in high spirits and close to tears when they were farewelled from Government House in September 2008, walking through a throng of school children, staff and other supporters. 

During that farewell, a committee member of the Children’s Medical Research Institute’s Canberra committee, Elly Cox, described the Jefferys as the ”most natural, approachable people”.

General Hurley praised the service of Major-General Jeffery.

“After graduating from the Royal Military College in 1958, he served on operations in Malaya, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, where he was awarded the Military Cross. He held numerous commands, including of the Special Air Service Regiment, before retiring from the military in 1993,” his statement read.

“His distinguished military career was just one chapter in his lifetime of service. He became governor of Western Australia in 1993 and, in 2003, Australia’s 24th governor-general. After his term in office he became Australia’s first National Advocate for Soil Health.

“Throughout his career – in its many iterations – he worked tirelessly, put others ahead of himself and brought immense intellect, work ethic and commitment to everything he did. Unfailingly polite, he was, quite simply, a gentleman.

“He was also a husband, father and grandfather. Our thoughts – as we give thanks and acknowledge a lifetime of service – are with his loved ones.”

As current president of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia and on behalf of the PNGAA family, I pass on the association’s deep condolences to the Jeffrey family.

The pipes will never be silent.

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