“I want to see young women having an education, contributing to their societies and to the global stage. I want to see us valuing ourselves as people of the Pacific,” says Dame Meg Taylor in an interview with Debra Vermeer.
By Debra Vermeer
As Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor is bringing together the various strands of her life as a lawyer and diplomat into a role which has confirmed for her this fundamental truth: we all need each other to survive and thrive.
Born in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1950, Meg is a former student of St Scholastica’s College, Glebe, a Good Samaritan school.
“I was born in the Wahgi Valley but grew up in another valley outside Goroka,” she says. “In those days, in the early 1950s they were remote, beautiful valleys with majestic mountains and great agricultural land, populated by tribes, which were very organised societies.”
Meg’s father was an Australian who led one of the first expeditions to make contact with the people of the Wahgi Valley in the early 1930s. That’s where he met and married Meg’s mother and after Meg came along, the family moved to take up land outside Goroka where he became the first coffee grower in the area.
Meg was raised Catholic, following her father’s conversion from Anglicanism.
“His conversion to Catholicism came about through his time in PNG and his relationship with the pioneering priests who he’d come to admire a great deal. My mother became a Catholic later, in the late 70s,” she says.
“I grew up in a situation like many others in my country of holding on to your traditions while absorbing Catholicism.”
Meg’s first experience of education was in the local village school.
“Our classroom had a dirt floor, we sat on benches and wrote on slates,” she recalls.
Later she attended a local boarding school and was then sent to Adelaide where she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy.
“I did myself proud by getting expelled by the Mercies and that’s how I ended up on the doorstep of the Good Sams,” she laughs.
She started off with the Good Samaritans at Stella Maris in Manly, but later moved to St Scholastica’s at Glebe.
“Schols was a wonderful experience for me,” she says. “Everybody contributes to the formation of any young woman, but my experience of the Good Sams and their investment in my education changed my life.”
The woman Meg credits with having the biggest impact on her was the Principal of St Scholastica’s at the time, Good Samaritan Sister Mary Ronayne, then known as Mother De Lourdes. “She had a huge impact on me. She came from a peanut farm in Kingaroy, Queensland and I came from a coffee farm in PNG and that’s where our connection started,” she says.
“I’d sit down in her office and we’d have a chat. She could see the wildness in me and gave me enough rope to go and do things to express myself.
“She had that kind of confidence in me. She could see qualities in me that I didn’t know I had. She had trust in me and I didn’t ever want to break it. She helped me to flourish.”
After school, Meg headed back home and took up a law degree at the recently opened University of PNG.
“I was the only woman doing Law in a class of four students,” she says.
She continued her studies on a scholarship at the University of Melbourne, and became the first PNG woman to receive a Law Degree.
“Now, I’m happy to say, there are lots of women from PNG with Law Degrees. It’s wonderful.”
She soon put the degree to good use, working with (Sir) Michael Somare on PNG’s transition to Independence.
“It was an exciting time,” she says. “I knew that this was history in the making.”
When Independence was achieved in 1975, Michael Somare became prime minister and Meg continued working in his office. Admitted to the Bar in 1976, she practiced law with the Office of the Public Solicitor in Mount Hagen, also read with Justice John O’Meally in Sydney and was admitted to the Bar of the Australian Capital Territory. She returned to PNG and practiced in the Madang and Goroka Public Solicitor’s Office from 1979 until she joined private firm Gadens Lawyers from 1983-85, after having her daughter.
Meg won a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard Law School in 1985, where she obtained her Masters in Law.
When she returned home, she took a two month trek through the Highlands, retracing the 1938 expedition of her father, an experience which was filmed by Film Australia.
Within two weeks of finishing the trek, the PNG Foreign Minister called and asked if she would become the next Ambassador to the United States, Mexico and Canada, a role she fulfilled for almost five years.
In 1999, Meg was appointed as the first Vice President of the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) of the World Bank Group. She set up the CAO, which is a key part of the governance structure of the World Bank and led the office for 15 years, concluding her term in August 2014.
That same month, Meg, who had been made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2002 for her exemplary public service, was appointed by Pacific Islands Forum Leaders as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, a political grouping of 16 independent and self-governing states. She is the first woman to hold this post and it is a role she holds dear to her heart.
“The Pacific is a fascinating place to be right now,” she says. “There are great challenges and great opportunities.
“People think that we are just a bunch of little islands floating in the ocean, but actually the Pacific is a great ocean continent made up of countries with huge economic zones. Part of the Pacific Islands Forum role is to look at the threads that pull us all together.”
At their meeting in Nauru last year, the Pacific Island Leaders identified climate change as the biggest threat to security in the Pacific.
“Our position is that a rise of 1.5 degrees – the position negotiated in the Paris Agreement – is still the temperature that we cannot go above,” Meg says.
“If the temperature rises beyond that it is going to have a huge impact on this region and the lives of the people.
“The Pacific has to take a strong position on this for our people. We can’t give up. We can’t be despondent. We have to follow others in the region and be courageous and keep the pressure on.”
Meg says the Pacific Islands Forum also manages political processes and various aspects of regional security, economics, trade, and legal matters. The Pacific is growing in strategic importance because of developments in South-East Asia and China is an increasingly big player in the region.
There is, she says, still much to be done on many different fronts.
“For instance, the representation of women in the Pacific is one of the lowest in the world. Cervical cancer is one of the biggest killers in this region. There are gender issues. Violence against women is huge,” she says.
“These are issues that are very dear to my heart as a woman of the Pacific and we want to see much more progress being made. I want to see young women having an education, contributing to their societies and to the global stage. I want to see us valuing ourselves as people of the Pacific.”
Meg says that despite the challenges, she is full of hope for the future of the Pacific.
“I believe in the people of this region,” she says. “This job has made me realise the importance of the collective of this region. We all need each other to define and carve a prosperous future for the Pacific continent.”