One of the last links to the Government that took Fiji to Independence 43 years ago has been severed with the death in Australia of Douglas Walkden-Brown – a member of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s cabinet both before and after Independence. The highly respected agriculturalist known more informally in Fiji as Doug Brown passed away peacefully last Saturday, a week after his 92nd birthday. He had been in failing health in recent months but was still able to enjoy a celebratory glass of birthday champagne with three of his five children – Jennifer, David, Angela, Stephen (Siti) and Andrew. Doug Brown had continued to visit Fiji regularly long after he’d officially retired, spending the Australian winter at the family’s beachside property, Colova, near Korolevu on the Coral Coast. The property is now operated as the Beachouse Backpacker Resort by Andrew Walkden-Brown, Doug’s younger son, who announced his father’s passing in an affectionate Facebook tribute.
Douglas Walkden-Brown was an Australian by birth but became a Fiji citizen at Independence and always regarded himself as a local. He spoke fluent i’Taukei with a heavy Australian accent that never left him but also slipped in and out of Fiji English – the local patois – with consummate ease. He was tall, slim and gregarious, a raconteur with an easy laugh and a string of jokes and anecdotes. It made him easily one of the most popular figures in Government and in the country and he will be remembered fondly by many older Fijians. Doug dedicated much of his life to Fiji, whose people he loved. He shared the strong sense of duty of many of his expatriate contemporaries to give Fiji the best possible start as a new nation. The various political setbacks over the years were hugely disappointing to him, as they were to many others. But he never wavered in his fundamental belief in the decency of ordinary Fijians and their capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation. Nor in his belief that Fiji would eventually overcome its challenges and fulfill its promise as the pre-eminent Pacific Island nation.
Doug Brown – the son of an Australian Methodist clergyman – served in the Royal Australian Air Force in World War Two after graduating from the renowned Hawkesbury Agricultural College. He came to Fiji in 1947 as a Methodist lay missionary and a year later, was appointed principal of the Navuso Agricultural School near Nausori. His own skills as an agriculturalist, combined with his strong leadership skills, made Navuso one of the most respected training facilities in the country. For many years – first under Doug Brown and then his successor and friend, Geoff Bamford – Navuso produced a generation of young farmers, who fanned out over Fiji’s teiteis and farms, using their skills to boost the country’s food production.
Navuso in those days was accessible only by boat poled across the Rewa River by one or more of its students. Doug and his equally popular wife, Barbara (nee Curtis), kept a Rover 90 on the Kings Road side of the river and were active participants in the social and community life of Rewa and beyond. Fiji, of course, was a British colony in those days with a substantial European population. Many Europeans kept to themselves but Doug and Barbara had a firmly multiracial outlook and had many friends and acquaintances across the social spectrum. A large number of those friendships were life-long. Indeed, in a striking coincidence, one of Doug’s oldest local friends, Jo Ratuki, also died last Saturday, in different places but on precisely the same day. They’d been mates and work colleagues for more than 60 years.
After his tenure at Navuso ended, Doug acquired his own farm off the Kings Road near Nausori, where he was able to put into practice much of the theory he’d acquired over the years. One of his great loves was rugby – a passion he shared with one of his Methodist contemporaries, the Reverend Doug Fullerton, who was also a prominent rugby administrator. He was President of the Fiji School Rugby Union, President of Rewa Rugby Union and also managed the Fijian national team that toured England, Wales and France in 1964. But another passion beckoned – politics – and Doug’s deep roots in the community and the esteem in which he was held provided the perfect springboard.
The early 1960s were a time of great change in Fiji, as Britain began to wind down its colonial possessions throughout the world and turn its attention towards a future in Europe. An intense period of “localisation” began, in which Fijians were trained to take over the roles performed at the time by expatriates. A political class also had to be developed, inevitably one that represented the various communities – i’Taukei, Indo-Fijians and what were called in those days “General Electors” – Kailoma and people of European descent. By general consensus, the mantle of national leadership fell to the outstanding Fijian of his generation, Ratu KKT Mara or Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, as he later became known. It was his job to negotiate a path forward and accommodate the wishes of Indo-Fijian leaders such as “AD” Patel and Siddiq Koya. It was no easy task. Indo-Fijians were then in the majority in Fiji and their leadership favoured adopting a “common roll” voting system of equal votes of equal value. This was vigorously opposed by the indigenous minority, as well as General Electors and some Indo-Fijians who were closer politically to Ratu Mara. It took several years of painstaking negotiations and two Constitutional Conferences in London – in 1965 and 1970 – to finally come up with a complex electoral formula acceptable to all parties to take Fiji to Independence. More than four decades later, that system is only now being dismantled as Fiji abolishes race-based voting and embraces a united future.
In the absence of a large pool of suitably qualified locals from which to form a Government, representatives of the General Electors – among them Doug Brown, Charles Stinson, and John Falvey – formed the backbone of Ratu Mara’s first administration after he won the pre-Independence election in September, 1966, and officially became Chief Minister. Doug Brown had successfully contested that election as a candidate for Ratu Mara’s Alliance Party and when he formed his cabinet, Ratu Mara asked him to take the Natural Resources portfolio that he had held himself under the colonial administration. The two men shared a healthy mutual respect. In his memoir, The Pacific Way, Ratu Mara refers to Doug Brown as a “straight talking, down to earth Australian who made an excellent job of Natural Resources”.
And so it was that Fiji went on to gain Independence from Britain on October 10th, 1970, and begin charting its own course. Part of Doug Brown’s task was to supervise the transfer of Fiji’s sugar industry from Australian to local ownership. In August 1972, he introduced a bill in Parliament to establish the Fiji Sugar Corporation which, the following year, took over the operations of the Australian firm, CSR, that had owned and managed Fijian sugar for the best part of a century. In the next government, formed after the first post-Independence elections later in 1972, Doug Brown remained part of Ratu Mara’s winning team, this time as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests. He had found his métier and no-one in Fiji was arguably more capable of doing the job. But when he eventually felt obliged to resign for health reasons, yet another “career within a career” beckoned – that of a diplomat.
In 1981, Doug Brown became Fiji’s Consul General in Sydney – the most important commercial centre in the region – and proved to be a highly effective advocate for the new nation. His eventual successor in the job was Peter Thomson, the son of one of Doug’s contemporaries, the late Sir Ian Thomson, a former colonial servant who stayed on in Fiji after Independence as the Independent Chairman of the Sugar Industry. Peter Thomson, who is now Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, provides the following personal recollection of Doug from New York:
“In my eyes, Doug Brown represented all that was good about the Fiji-Australian relationship in the second half of the 20th century. Whether it was as a hands-on agriculturalist at Navuso, part-time talatala, rugby administrator, Cabinet Minister, or Consul-General in Sydney, he gave his all for Fiji.
Lean, lanky and laconic, speaking Fijian with a heavy Aussie drawl, he was always a man’s man and never lost his sense of humility or humour. I never saw him talk down to anyone, I often observed the care he took to hear his fellow man, and saw how he did not shirk when leadership or clear opinion was required of him. He was someone in whose presence people felt comfortable, whatever their cultural background, whatever their station in life.
I had the honour of taking over from him as Fiji Consul-General in Sydney in 1984, and even though he was of my father’s generation, he showed me more respect and consideration than I deserved, giving me the comfort to run on confidently with the baton that he passed me. Looking back, I see that it was an essential part of his generous nature and commitment to Fiji’s steady development that he would help his successor so, just as he had all those agricultural graduates back in his Navuso days. Like many of his generation in Fiji, he served God, not Mammon. In doing so, he was giving the best of his qualities to both Fiji and Australia, strengthening the binding ties of virtue as well as any man of his time, leaving a role model for those who would strive to repair the bilateral relationship today.”
Like many Australian-born Fijians, Doug Brown was pained by the breakdown of the formal relationship between the two countries because of the events of 2006. Yet he lived to see the first concrete signs of a thaw, as Fiji sets a clear path for elections next year and the new Coalition Government in Canberra responds. Doug lived out his last years without his devoted lifetime partner, Barbara – who predeceased him – but surrounded by an adoring and burgeoning family, his five children plus grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His passing is lamented not only by them but his many friends and admirers, including this writer. Doug and Barbara were life-long friends of my own parents, Peter and Betty Davis, and indeed, were on the docks in Suva one morning in 1952 to farewell them as they left to begin their own missionary work in Lakeba. Doug was the last link to that generation, a generation that placed a big emphasis on service to others. That service was always performed with dedication but also with large doses of humour and wit. The prevailing attitude was that even if life wasn’t meant to be easy, it could at least be fun. There will be many fond memories in Fiji of Doug Brown but his acute sense of humour will be among the fondest. In his Facebook tribute, son Andrew described Doug as “a great father” and a “good mate” who had enjoyed “a full and happy life and was always ready to have a laugh right up to his death”. Surely the best of endings and worthy of a collective “vinaka” from us all.
Doug Brown: Born October 19th 1921. Died October 26th 2013