10 Aug 2012

Muted hope in PNG's newly elected leaders

4:46 pm on 10 August 2012

With the ninth parliament elected and a new government in place, Papua New Guineans are hoping their elected leaders can turn their efforts to improving basic services across the country.

Almost seven weeks after polling began, the final seat has been declared in a general election that was riddled with delays, fraud, and voting problems.

But while there's widespread relief that a legitimate government has been formed, there are warnings that PNG could face more problems if lessons aren't learnt from the recent political turmoil and if corrupion isn't addressed.

Johnny Blades reports

The Prime Minister-elect Peter O'Neill has formed a coalition government made up of a vast majority of the 111 MPs.

The inclusion in the coalition of Sir Michael Somare appears to have ended the dispute over who was the legitimate government, which began when Mr O'Neill replaced Sir Michael as Prime Minister last August in a parliamentary move ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.

But youth worker, Henry Atu, says while politicians have been fighting over who is in government, PNG's long-neglected infrastructure, health, education and law and order services continue to slide.

"The main role of the MPs is to represent the people but now we're seeing that when they get in there, they're doing anything under the sun, anything that they want to do. What does that mean? Are they representing the people or not? Are we following the constitution of the country or not? The Somare government and the O'Neill government, they've totally done nothing. They've done nothing to the development of our country as a whole."

There is considerable hope for change pinned on the fact that 69 percent of the new parliamentarians are first-time MPs.

Taxi driver Ken Baluba says people who become MPs rarely fulfill that hope.

Sometimes they stand and they have good intentions, good motives, and they say good things but when they get in to power, it's a different picture altogether because most of the leaders they just go and think of themselves and of building their own stuff and all that.

Peter O'Neill has announced his new 33-member cabinet which includes nine first term MPs.

It features one of three new women MPs, Loujaya Toni, who picks up the Ministry for Community Development, Religion and Family Affairs.

Mr O'Neill says his cabinet is balanced and will deliver for the country.

However some appointments have raised eyebrows such as National Alliance leader Patrick Pruaitch regaining the Ministry of Forestry portfolio he held in the Somare government.

Mr Pruaitch is a leader recently implicated by PNG's anti-corruption taskforce for various questionable dealings with the logging industry.

A senior researcher in Governance and Institutional Matters at PNG's National Research Institute, Dr Henry Okole, says until corrupt leaders are properly held accountable, corruption will keep holding PNG back.

Corruption in PNG is a problem, and it's systemic and systematic. The challenge really despite the pronouncements made by politicians and party leaders, captured there in their party platforms, the challenge is transferring those commitments from party platforms into sound policies.

Sound policies may be slowly developing in PNG's party political system but Dr Kristian Lasslett of the International State Crime Initiative says there are still no clear ideaological divisions.

He says the political system is dominated by a "mobocracy", an elite network of businessmen and politicians who operate in order to reward each other.

Governments are often cobbled together through alliances, through mates looking after mates, not through ideaology. But then we are seeing, for example with the O'Neill government, they did introduce policies designed to ameliorate inequality through the provision of free access to public health and also education.

However questions about the suitability of PNG's constitution remain, particularly after the political impasse when despite having the mandate of parliament, the O'Neill regime came to power by means deemed unconstitutional.

Professor Andrew Ladley from Victoria University's School of Government says these questions need to be addressed.

This is a deep wound in PNG and, in terms of its constitution, it's a vulnerability that's still bleeding, in my view, and it does need treatment. The question is not whether your constitution is perfect and everybody follows it but how constitutions adapt and learn from their crises so one of the really big constitutional questions over this term is going to be the attempt to try and get some genuine lessons - not triumphalism by somebody saying, we beat them - but some kind of genuine attempt to get lessons out of this. I imagine it will be a sensitive issue. It might need a commission of inquiry, it might need some kind of process to investigate, to try and say: how did we get into that and how can we can we avoid getting there again.

Dr Okole says PNG's constitution has served the country well since independence was gained in 1975 but that it should be reviewed.

It will be too limited if it's confined to the separation of the three arms of government. There has to be some wholesome review of the constitution because this is an issue that is structural and is systemic. But I think it's an opportunity for the people, even to work with the Constitutional Review Commission, to make sure that the input of the people come into play in a bigger process of review.

In the last nine years, PNG's became one of the world's fastest growing economies as development of the country's significant mineral, oil, gas, fishery and forestry reserves increased.

But most ordinary Papua New Guineans have seen little of the benefits.

Despite this, Simon Nakaiban of the Central Sepik Rural Development Foundation NGO says many communities have become reliant on handouts.

The communities looking after themselves, it's not the common practice in East Sepik because people don't have the mentality of self-reliance as stipulated in our constitution. So that's what we're trying to empower people to make them see, that the money is just another resource to bring tangible development to our communities. But we have the labour, we have the land, we have the knowledge and other resources that we can use to do something to help ourselves instead of waiting for politicians.

Each year, MPs are given or almost 10 million kina, or 6 million NZ dollars, in development funds for direct use in their electorate.

Betelnut vendor and social commentator, Martyn Namorong, says the money disappears down a black hole

Over these past years, the Somare government has just spent 60 billion kina, that's six billion each year from the government budget for the past ten years, sixty billion down the drain for Papua New Guineans. What did they spend it on? That's a good question to ask them because I'm not seeing anything on the roads, in the schools, the hospitals. PNG's national wealth has been squandered.

He says the system that PNG's elite inherited from its former colonial power Australia, and uses in conjunction with foreign corporations, is still designed for keeping control of resources to accumulate power and wealth for themselves.

And that model of development, if you like, has to be deconstructed. Power has to go back to the people so decentralisation is something that is neccessary and along with that, control of resources back to the people. That includes direct mineral ownership rights for landowners. All of that has to happen so that you don;t have this elite up in Waigani fighting over power just so they can accumulate wealth for themselves. And what we see essentially as a result of that is regardless of the amount of money coming into the country, it isn't translated into improvements in social indicators. One can argue that if you give it back to the provinces and districts, then the same things are going to happen. But the difference is that: it's difficult for someone from Morehead (in Western Province) to come to Waigani and hold people accountable for the lack of infrastructure improvements etc. But if the power is in Daru (Western Province capital) it's different, the person from Morehead can come straight to the office in Daru and actually hold their leaders much more accountable.

Calls for an end to corruption are likely to persist in PNG, however Dr Henry Okole says change will only come from the grassroots level.

He says PNG's citizens must become aware of the concept of good governance, and if they can refuse to partake in corrupt activities, they will set a precedent for accountable leadership to eventually follow.