Mood for autonomy grows among PNG's provinces
The mood for more autonomy is growing among Papua New Guinea's provinces amid the country's continued development struggles.
The mood for more autonomy is growing among Papua New Guinea's provinces.
While the call for more devolution of powers from central government to the provinces is not new, PNG's continued development struggles mean more provinces are talking about autonomy.
This comes as PNG's autonomous Bougainville region approaches its referendum on independence.
Johnny Blades reports:
The growing skyline of the capital Port Moresby reflects PNG's unprecedented economic growth of the past decade. It's been forged mainly through a boom in the mining, oil and gas sectors. But the majority of people in the country have seen few tangible benefits, and PNG is languishing near the bottom in the United Nations Human Development Index world rankings. The governor of New Ireland province says PNG risks breaking up if it continues with the inefficiency of central government machinery. Sir Julius Chan, who is a former Prime Minister, says Waigani takes 90% of provincial revenues yet has failed to adequately manage basic service delivery to provinces
JULIUS CHAN: Everything comes from Port Moresby and Port Moresby is the worst, most inefficient organisation in PNG today. If we continue to allow a very disorganised group or people running the rest of the country, it's sure to break up.
Sir Julius says the time is right for provinces to take on more powers of taxation, over natural resources, education, health and other sectors. It's a claim echoed at a recent summit of PNG's 22 provincial governors, many of whom are frustrated at the lack of control their administratrions have over development in their provinces. An issue for all provinces is the lack of infrastructure and capacity to absorb a greater governance role. But the Governor of West New Britain province Sansindran Muthuvel says the current system is unfair.
SANSINDRAN MUTHUVEL: West New Britain has not been developed for the last forty years, we do not even have proper roads and bridges and infrastructures, while we continue to contribute since the last forty years, 1960s, when they introduced oil palm in our province. Our province's (funds from government) doesn't reflect the economic income of our province, whereas the province like say Manus or Bougainville or New Ireland continue to receive a major chunk of the budget every year - they receive almost forty to fifty million kina whereas we hardly receive any money directly to our infrastructures.
Now, the opposition leader Don Polye has placed a cat among the pigeons by suggesting that PNG's four main regions could be given autonomy. Under this arrangement, he said, provinces within these regions could elect, legislate and regulate administrative and economic activities under regional governments. Governor Muthuvel for one says he's open to discussing the idea but that empowerment of provinces needs to be explored first. A lawyer and former political candidate Camillus Narokobi says regional alignment has been tried before.
CAMILLLUS NAROKOBI: We've had regional groupings before, and it didn't work. So people are more interested in going on their own, to be individualistic, which means competitive. There's nothing wrong with one province competing with another province and outdoing another, so long as the basic needs of people are taken care of.
Sir Julius is also not sold on the regional government idea. He worries that it would create large, potentially unwieldy monsters for the nation state.
JULIUS CHAN You are talking about a big, big government that can be bigger than Port Moresby and I think it can be a little bit open to abuse. I think we could be creating a creature that is going to be very powerful. You put the Highlands region together and that is more powerful than Port Moresby.
He says granting more autonomy to provinces would not cause the disintegration of PNG as a nation but instead help it stay intact.
JULIUS CHAN: In Papua New Guinea, with so many tribes and so many languages, it's just ripe for that sort of thing to happen. And I think by giving them more power you are enabling each province to feel they are running their own and if they can't, they are still part of the family but those that feel that they should be on their own, if you suppress them, they'll probably go their own way. I mean, we got a lesson in Bougainville already.
The autonomous Bougainville government has started laying the groundwork for a referendum to be held on possible independence from PNG. As provided for in the peace agreement negotiated after the Bougainville civil war, that vote has to occur by 2020 at the latest. The former president of the autonomous Bougainville government, James Tanis says this lead-up is a key focus for the new parliament to be elected next month.
JAMES TANIS: The feeling that I am getting from the people is that, most of the people that I talk to, are in support of independence and people are also very careful on how we maneuver and how we get there. Because what is strong in terms of the people is that people would not want the resumption of armed conflict, resumption of violence, whether that is related to referendum or whether that is related to elections. People have had enough and they want to move ahead successfully and steadily.
But Bougainville's economic viability as an independent nation state remains questionable. For many, that question hinges on the controversial possibility of the Panguna copper mine, which was central to the conflict in Bougainville, being reopened. Aside from mining, Bougainvlle's current president, John Momis says they have a lot of work to do.
JOHN MOMIS: There are small signs of economic viability, but it is still difficult because as you know, one of the conditions that must be met before the outcome of the referendum can be positively considered and accepted. And our national government is pushing self reliance and we are no where near reaching that level.
To date, PNG's national government has shown little appetite for granting more autonomy to the provinces. However, increased discussion about the issue among the nation's leaders shows that momentum is gathering for change on this front.
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