1 Oct 2013

PNG anti-corruption group urges institutional strengthening

5:19 pm on 1 October 2013

Papua New Guinea has long been wracked with corruption but many people have been battling to change that.

Some years ago a former prime minister, Sir Mekere Morauta, said corruption within the public service was systemic - a view held by many others.

Transparency International PNG has campaigned for many years to alert people to corruption and encourage politicians and government agencies to do something about it.

Don Wiseman spoke with Transparency's executive director, Lawrence Stephens, and began by asking him whether progress was being made.

LAWRENCE STEPHENS: In some ways things are getting better because people are learning more and people are becoming more and more fed up with what they're seeing and more and more able to speak back. But we are seeing levels of corruption that are of great concern to the government and to the community, and it appears to be on the increase.

DON WISEMAN: Can you give me some examples of what sort of things you're talking about.

LS: An example would be a statement by our finance people that 3.5 billion kina have gone missing from the government budgets over the last few years. That's directly to theft. A statement by a government minister that out of trust funds something in the order of 9 billion kina has somehow disappeared. 9 billion kina is probably close to about US$4 billion, so they're not insignificant amounts. We have a series of reports on inefficiencies, corruption, criminality, which have never been processed by the parliament still waiting for attention, and these go back over many years. We have a public accounts committee that's telling us that there's huge losses that shouldn't be happening, and we see no action happening as a result of them. We see some potentially good moves with, for example, an organisation called Task Force Sweep. That has actually led to some arrests and prosecution is taking place in some cases. But we still have these pretty frightening examples of corruption.

DW: When they talk about 9 billion kina, though, how on earth does that disappear when it's just about the entire budget, isn't it?

LS: Yeah, how does that disappear, that's the question that we're all asking. The other question, of course, we're asking is if it has disappeared why is there not some more obvious investigation going into where it disappeared, what's happening in that regard. It seems totally impossible for this to happen. It seems that there must be a trail of money. But the reality is we're not being told that anybody is doing anything about it.

DW: Are you certain that this is corruption, or is this just perhaps government officials reaching out and reaching too far?

LS: We certainly can't be certain about the possibility that it is corruption, but it certainly sounds like a large part of that has to be involving corruption involving deliberate misuse of funds. Sure, there could be inefficiencies, sure there could be accounting issues, but the minister responsible said the money is actually missing from trust funds. It must be possible to find out what's happened. The fact that nothing appears to have been done may also indicate a level of corruption.

DW: It said that the economy is small, but it is, of course, growing dramatically, and is going to grow much more dramatically over the next 10 years or so. There is this sovereign fund that is being set up. Just how concerned are organisations like yours that there are mechanisms in place, or quality of systems in place, to ensure that that money is not lost?

LS: Not confident. We're following and actually participating in discussion around the setting up of sovereign wealth funds, but there's great concern that this isn't being policed properly, and what we're conscious of is we're talking of non-renewable resources. Once these minerals, once this gas, once the oil is gone, it's gone for good. And the fear is we won't benefit from the results of this massive increase in economic activity to the extent that we should because we're not controlling, or not prepared to control well enough, the way in which the funds are applied.

DW: The government is talking about an ICAC - an independent commission against corruption - how far away is that?

LS: It seems to be getting close. The government is very serious about that and they've been working on legislation. There's been widespread public consultation on the nature of the ICAC. But institutions like that can only be strong if other elements with good governance are in place and that requires a lot more work. It's not just a matter of creating one body, it's a matter of supporting the existing bodies and making sure they're well supported - police, for example, the Ombudsman Commission, for example, the court is another example, or even the prison system is another example. Without all these institutions functioning properly then an ICAC would only be window dressing, and there is some concern that this may be the outcome unless attention is given to the other areas.