Wednesday, January 20, 2010

WHAT WILL IT TAKE, PNG? By Reginald Renagi

A popular PNG blogger recently asked some pertinent questions that I wish to share with readers here: what will it take, what is the PNG Ombudsman Commission doing about this; and the perception now whether a written deal exists between the government and the public watch dog not to go after MPs referred to it for investigation?

It embarrasses many Papua New Guineans to explain to anyone why politicians in this country seem undeterred by public opinions of any kind. Unlike some democracies, where politicians caught in misconduct cases will either resign, or step down to be investigated, but not so in PNG.

The PNG experience to date shows an implicated MP usually denies publicly any adverse reports about his alleged actions. The errant politician accuses the media of being misrepresented, misquoted by inexperienced journalists; the media is spreading false rumours to discredit leader’s reputations and destabilize the government.

It seems inconceivable to many educated Papua New Guineans that MPs involved do not feel disgraced at all, or even feel compelled to temporarily step down from office to await investigations (if any). Despite public outrage and exposure by the media, PNG politicians refuse to step down from their positions of power and privilege. This seems to be condoned by the government. Here citizens may lose confidence in the rule of law and feel discouraged when the prime minister fails to take tough action against parliamentarians to do the ‘right thing’ by the people.

Well, what will it take? Forget about complaining to your local MP. It’s is a complete waste of time. The people are now so fed up about the state of PNG that they have given up writing another useless letter of complaint to their local MP. Except for a handful, most ‘pollies’ are just big disappointments to their electorates and the public. The so-called ‘big men’ are either too busy doing something unrelated to their constituent’s interests, or simply ignores complainants as a mere ‘trouble-makers’.

As for the PNG Ombudsman Commission (OC), it may soon be made powerless if the government has its way. The OC started off well with a new Chief Ombudsman's (CO) appointment with ’gusto’. The public felt very encouraged when the new incumbent discontinued master’s studies in Australia to remind the 'pollies' and senior beauracrats; the commission will without fear or favour address matters of great concern affecting PNG leadership and governance. Some investigations by the OC have to date kept certain public office holders on their toes.

However, in recent times this earlier passion has somewhat waned as the public is fed frequent doses of impropriety by politicians but no relevant authorities takes any responsibility at all to investigate matters, and take the appropriate action by law.

The familiar trend under all former COs repeats itself as political inertia takes over. Does this sound familiar? Yes it does, and the government knows this but won’t fix the problem as the whole thing works in its favour. As with most state institutions, the commission has limited resources with so much to do to clear a huge backlog of outstanding cases.

Is there any secret written deal between the government and OC? I do not believe there is, even if that is a perception now. The CO like all his predecessors is doing his best, but he is being swamped by the magnitude of the job. On the whole, the commission has to date done a sterling job, but it must do more than what it is doing now, or not doing; to put away some bad politicians behind bars. It will need the help of the Attorney General’s office and law enforcement agencies.

However, if that is not bad enough, the government now plans to pass a bill to further regulate the watch-dog. While the intentions may sound noble it is a clever move to further curb the powers of the commission, if not make it ‘impotent’. If this regulation bill is ever passed in parliament then PNG will experience more gross political abuses of power. The end state will be the PNG Ombudsman Commission becoming a mere ‘paper tiger’ with no real prosecuting powers to stop ‘crooks’ occupying public offices in future.

Well, what will it really take? What PNG may now need is a major chain reaction to be generated by professionally committed Department heads, government board CEOs, public and private sector managers, civil society, workers unions and the general public to point-blankly tell the politicians just …’where to stick it’. This may be just what it will take to stop them as done elsewhere to challenge and shame them into lifting their game.

More over, our country needs a strong 'whistle blowers' Act of Parliament to protect intrepid individuals. We must have a law in place now to protect people brave enough to expose graft and corruption of all kinds at all levels of leadership and society. Without this, PNG will continue to suffer in future as people will fear retribution from a corrupt political and weak governance system.

So what will it take? Plenty of guts by good, honest people in all walk of life. The whole nation must now collectively work towards improving and strengthening good governance in the way our national affairs is being managed by political leaders.

The whole change strategy must start from the Governor General to the prime minister, throughout government, parliament, public and private sectors, civil society, the public at large right to the ordinary villager. The buck stops with the PM, his ruling party in the present government coalition to be more committed than before to clean up its act. The PM has no real excuse for passing the buck to anyone but biting the bullet himself, and must do what’s right by the people and our country.

What’s more, Australia too can play an important role in reforming PNG politics in future. Australia must now get tough with PNG to ensure its AusAid programs has the most profound effect in transforming the quality of life for ordinary Papua New Guineans. Australia should also cop some blame in the way PNG has turned out today. As over the years, it has spoilt PNG rotten with too much aid money, and no accountability at all. Australia would do well to try a different tack this time.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd needs to diplomatically tell PNG political leaders to be more accountable for the billions spent in development aid. Australia must not rest on its past laurels but must try to be absolutely honest with PNG government and start systematically reducing AusAid funding levels. This is one foreign policy strategy to ensure our government starts improving the quality of life for all Papua New Guineans. If PNG is to independently prosper, Kevin Rudd's government must now review the overall effectiveness of its future AusAid program with PNG.

This future challenge is also Australia’s responsibility as its AusAid program has for far too long encouraged political corruption in PNG. Despite Australia spending over A$13 billion since self-government and its original good intentions, AusAid is now publicly being perceived to assume a quasi-government role. This somewhat undermines to a degree the government’s function it tends to indirectly encourage the good local member to promote ‘political pork-barreling’ of pet projects using limited resources of the government in unplanned, and unbudgeted manner.

Today, PNG desperately needs more trade balance with Australia, not more aid money. Too much lip-service has been paid over the years to review this aid program and make it an effective development tool for both countries, but the outcome has always been unsatisfactory. PNG must now make some concerted efforts to improve upon its past errors, as it paves the way forward for a new political order in the pacific under a new visionary leadership, and transformational government from here on.

In short, the whole political mess can be cleaned up by the PNG government, if only the Prime Minister does not try to shirk his political and leadership responsibility. It is not impossible for him to clean up his act now before he exits the political scene as he has the numbers in parliament to make a big different in ensuring his government is highly responsive to meet the people’s urgent needs now and in future.

For the government it has no real excuses today, as its leader has a 40 year track record in PNG and Commonwealth politics; so if the PM can’t do it now, then who can? So what will it take? Go ask the Chief for he has the answers. Sadly, it has all been wasted opportunities for the poor people of PNG despite an abundance of natural resources the country has.

Reginald Renagi

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