9 Aug 2013

PNG's PM says govt is converting resource wealth into development gains

5:18 pm on 9 August 2013

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister says his administration is going further than any previous government in addressing core issues that the country has struggled with since gaining independence in 1975.

Peter O'Neill says this includes enabling access across the country to education and health services, as well as creating an independent anti-corruption commission.

Johnny Blades caught up with Mr O'Neill while he was in New Zealand this week and asked him how his government can convert PNG's wealth in natural resources into real development gains.

PETER O'NEILL: Our aim is to try and get the benefits that we are now having from resource development to be invested into human resources, and that is why we are focusing on developing education as our main priority of our government. We invest close to 30% of our entire budget on education. That's a massive investment by anybody's standards in one sector. So this goes to show our seriousness to addressing a very young population. Of our country's population 50% is under 25 years of age, and that poses very serious challenges for us. And I think it's important that we invest well for them so that they can have a better standard of living into the future. And the only way we can do it is by education and training them well to apply better skills that will enable them to have a decent life.

JOHNNY BLADES: Up at the university you spoke about some of the problems in the past with the use of public funds. What's changed? How is it that the use of public funds is being more accountable now?

PETER O'NEILL: Because we are making huge savings. We are able to fund big programmes like education. We have managed to find close to a billion kina, 700 million kina, which is now invested into free education, which gives parents relief from paying school fees for their children to go to school. Those are from savings for government. It's not by an increase in government budget, but it's by savings that we are now able to achieve as a result of tightening up many of those loopholes that enable corrupt practises in the public sector. We are also now establishing a dedicated task force which is now addressing the issue of corruption in our country. And we are now in the process of establishing an independent commission against corruption, which will further strengthen its prosecutorial powers and be able to arrest and make sure that people are held accountable for their actions.

JOHNNY BLADES: So will that commission come out of Task Force Sweep?

PETER O'NEILL: Yes. And Task Force Sweep's functions will be taken now into the independent commission against corruption. And we're trying to legislate it so it gives legislative powers independently of the police and other agencies of government.

JOHNNY BLADES: Some of the people in your own cabinet might be looked at. You're happy with that? Anyone can be investigated?

PETER O'NEILL: I've told cabinet from day one and members of parliament from day one, no-one is above the law, including the prime minister. No-one is above the law. Where they're answerable for their actions they must be held accountable. And they all know the rules that are there. We all know the laws that are there, and I think it's important that the right message is given to our leaders and our people. This is a massive problem for us. If we do not tackle it now it'll become even worse into the future. So that is why we are making sure we address it through this independent commission.

JOHNNY BLADES: Are government departments now performing more efficiently do you think in the year or two you've been in? More transparency?

PETER O'NEILL: There is a noticeable change in their approach to work and their enthusiasm to work. But this culture has been around over a laid-back approach to their responsibilities for quite a number of years. So changing that culture is difficult, but we are bringing fresh minds to some of these jobs. We are making strategic changes where there's leadership that is required, or where there's experience required to try and review some of the departments. That is slowly starting to take shape and I see the benefits of that we'll see in the years ahead of us.

JOHNNY BLADES: There's a lot of concern or at least people are curious, in your country, about the refugee resettlement arrangement. People say they're worried about how it might be if there are hundreds or thousands of people from vastly different cultures maybe settling in PNG. What would you say to them regarding their concerns about how it's going to play out?

PETER O'NEILL: We appreciate the, not necessarily, fear, but the concerns that people have different culture groupings coming in and living in a country where it's traditionally a Christian country, different religious groupings coming through. Those are normal human fears that people have, and that's well-appreciated. But we are a country that is a signatory to the United Nations refugee conventions. We sign up to these obligations internationally because we have a role to play. And our role in these circumstances within the region is that the last thing we want to see is loss of life at sea, especially the young children who are dying, which, for us, in our country, it's quite unacceptable that we stand by and watch these things happen. We have to play a role where we discourage this kind of practise. Of course, through the normal UN refugee processing I think countries like ours and others in the region have to step up and play a role like processing and taking care of the refugees.

JOHNNY BLADES: Because the UNHCR has been concerned, hasn't it, with how Manus, the facility, is run.

PETER O'NEILL: And we take into consideration their concerns and we agree with them. There is nothing that we disagree about on the reports that UNHCR has come on. But I think it is important to note that we are starting to build a new facility, a permanent facility in Manus, where genuine refugees will be processed, and after processing, they are genuine refugees. It does not necessarily mean that they will settle in Papua New Guinea. It means that it will now work together with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, work with other governments in the region including Australia and New Zealand, so that we can then participate in who we can take in to be resettled in our respective countries.