Team reviews PNGDF air transport wing
SABLs: positive or not, that’s the question

PNG on a path of extraordinary transition


PNG’S FOUNDING FATHER Sir Michael Somare, now aged 75, was suspended for 14 days from April 4 for failing to provide annual reports on his assets and business dealings to the Ombudsman Commission as required.

It is Sir Michael’s skills as a leader and player of the PNG political game—at once ornate and brutal—that have held his ruling coalition together for almost 10 years. He has been at the centre of PNG’s parliaments for 42 years.

But this long-anticipated court case ended up appearing more like a part of the passing of the old independence era, rather than a decisive centerpiece of the PNG story.
For regardless of Sir Michael’s fate, PNG is on the cusp of an extraordinary economic, social and political transition, one which the country has not seen since gaining independence from Australia in 1975.

Where this change will take it, remains utterly uncertain. But that it is undergoing a convulsion is clear. A new generation is on the move, one which has been born since independence and appears unburdened by sentiment towards the past.

The election due in mid-2012—for which the manoeuvring is already well under way—will indicate who is likely to win or lose from this transition.

Usually, more than half the MPs lose their seats—and this time, Sir Michael has said he may decide at last to stand down, whatever the leadership tribunal decides.

Within 30 years, PNG’s population may start to overtake that of Australia—20 million—as it stands today. Its capital Port Moresby is already approaching 1 million.

Its economy is likely to grow faster than China’s this year, more than 8 percent. Almost every leading resource company in the world is now scrabbling over prospects there.

Rio Tinto is back after the Bougainville civil war. BHP-Billiton is back exploring there, after the debacle of its withdrawal from Ok Tedi.

The first liquefied natural gas project, costing some $US16.5 billion, is just starting four frenetic years of construction in the Southern Highlands and along a pipeline route down to the liquefaction plant in Port Moresby. Massive mines are being developed elsewhere.

Port Moresby’s burgeoning backstreet lodges are bursting with landowners from the gasfields and mine sites desperately seeking their fortunes from government and corporations, from anyone who might be persuaded to compensate them amply for their lost lands. And life is being transformed especially rapidly by the wild rush into the mobile phone era.

Irish-based company Digicel, which specialises in telecommunications for developing countries, has launched a remarkably cheap service and backed it up by building towers all over PNG, giving its signals a nationwide reach despite its mountainous interior and myriad islands.

Streetside betel nut sellers, and people offering single cigarettes for 60 toea, now also sell simcards.

In bustling Tabari Place in Boroko in the capital, traders have set up booths where they sell mobiles and all the associated paraphernalia, the deals usually being conducted entirely in Tok Pisin—while in the background young preachers try to attract the attention of the milling crowds.

Outside the US embassy downtown – where security guards hold dogs on leashes, and parking is restricted to diplomatic staff—people wander the pavements selling China-pirated DVDs of American movies for 10 kina a time, as well as memory cards and flash drives.

Arrival of 3G: Now, Papua New Guineans are able to contact relatives back in their villages by phone for the first time. The arrival of 3G has enabled people to go online throughout the country, accelerating the attractions of Facebook, which has already attracted 35,000 users.

Groups of young social and environmental activists—such as Act Now, Patriots and The Voice, are building their numbers rapidly via such new technology, and also propelled by a growing rejection of the old politics of PNG—the parliamentary numbers game, and the domination of money politics.

A “consultancy” firm run by one lobbyist from Enga province in the Highlands—the populous, high-energy but sometimes unruly region which is coming to dominate much of the country’s business and politics—is named with breathtaking frankness Money Talks Ltd.

A massive hoarding at the start of the road to the parliament carries the unadorned biblical text of Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked rule, the people suffer.”

Chronox Manek is among those sufferers. He only narrowly, by rapid evasive action with his car, escaped an assassination attempt 15 months ago by gunmen outside his home. But he still requires treatment for his left arm where one of the bullets fired at him hit home. He is the Chief Ombudsman, whose most controversial role is to police the Leadership Code, which is the prime tool for combatting corruption in PNG.

The foyer to the Ombudsman Commission’s office displays posters with cartoons. One shows a sleek politician urging a group of peers: “All those in favour of the construction of this hotel, say aye.” A thought bubble is emerging from his head at the same time: “…on my block of land!”

Another has an Asian figure saying to an official: “I know you can’t accept a bribe. It’s illegal. But this is just a loan. Pay me back whenever you can.”

The stakes have never been higher in PNG, and thus the institutions established at independence by Australia have never been under such siege—especially the legal system.

Manek, who was for many years the top public prosecutor and has also been the leading public defender, and has a master’s degree in law from Melbourne University, only pursues a limited number of targets at a time.

It is thus all the more extraordinary that the police have failed to make any charges over this assassination attempt on one of the country’s top constitutional office holders.

Manek himself told The Australian: “I’m left without information about what’s going on” over the case. But it’s happened, and I’m moving on.”

He believes that corruption began its insidious undermining of the country’s governance in the early 1980s, when PNG opened up to the logging industry.

“Our world is no longer an Australian-focused one, but a much bigger world”—in this case, that of Asian timber corporations.

Manek’s favourite motto is “no sweat, no get.” He believes that has been undermined by a growing culture of taking short-cuts to getting rich. And he is keen to educate the public that it is their right to insist that their government deliver them the services they are paying for.

“I want to educate the leadership, that the public is right.”

Another figure who is urging on this shift to a new form of leadership in PNG is Powes Parkop, a young former Wantok newspaper journalist and human rights lawyer, who is now the Governor of Port Moresby.

He has gained a huge reputation for cleaning up the city and beautifying it, for new fountains, for the Christmas lights, for his organising of family events in the evenings to “reclaim the night” from the rascal gangs—with some positive indications, young hoodlums being chased away from evening big-screen relaying of rugby league games.

“In the context of traditional PNG politics, logically I wouldn’t win,” he says—coming from the smallest province, the distant island of Manus, and lacking funding. But the people of Port Moresby said they wanted change,” so his focus has been on rapid implementation—not so easy since he has also been in the parliamentary opposition, which usually means constricted funding.

“We need to change the political culture, and quickly,” he says.

“It has gone bad in PNG and we must alter that so that many other changes can happen too. Too many people have effectively been disenfranchised, socially and economically.

“People have migrated here to Moresby looking for the land of milk and honey, and have found instead a place that is not so rosy.”

Sam Basil is another new-generation MP, a young businessman from Bulolo in the Morobe province—the scene of an early gold rush 80 years ago and where top global mining houses are now building or planning to build world-sized mines.

He uses Facebook extensively in communicating his views with his supporters and others.

He says he is concentrating much of his efforts on helping give the Public Accounts Committee of parliament the teeth it needs.

Paul Barker, the executive director of the private sector-funded Institute of National Affairs, says it’s crucial that the government ensures that benefits flow broadly from the new resource projects—especially from the ExxonMobil-led gas deal.

He says: “If the government doesn’t get its act together, and leaders cream off the profits, then PNG will get only the downside, not the upside, from such projects.

“As in the Arab world today, the people in their 30s are the talking generation. But the younger generation below them have no special respect for what’s happened before.”

Alternative paths towards PNG’s development are reflected in the Port Moresby landscape.

Structure that were new at independence in 1975—like the “pineapple building” where prime ministers once had their offices, and the former main government building nearby—have been abandoned for sheer want of maintenance, today decaying skeletons.

Nearby, Malaysian logging giant Rimbunan Hijau—“forever green”—has built a massive mall, the Vision Centre. It is still largely untenanted, but is likely to fill steadily, including with a new cinema complex, which will be Port Moresby’s first since its old cinemas were shut as crime soared.

Over in Boroko, a massive, highly valuable block of land was given for a Korean hotel and casino—which would be PNG’s first, although bookmakers are highly profitable.

This project, a joint venture with a landowner group from the gasfields area who put in about $US50 million, received a tax holiday and exemption from duty on the construction material it imported.

But work has stopped on the site for about four months, and there is a real prospect that it might not start again, leaving it as another of the ill-tended trophy buildings that have ended up as Port Moresby skeletons.

In their shadow, on the streets, the mobile revolution is meanwhile unstoppably creating business opportunities for many Papua New Guineans, pointing down a new path towards a more prosperous, wired and networked society.

There is an intensity in the humid air, a gathering pace of change as individuals and the nation as a whole dices for the prosperous future that has so far evaded them.

Source: Islands Business


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Graham Dent

A very timely and interesting article. Like Barbara I have a great affection and interest in PNG and rely on PNG Attitude to keep me up to date.

The general thread of recent articles indicate that assuredly PNG is facing an upheaval very soon. Whether it is controlled or cataclysmic will rely much on the good will and commonsense of the ordinary voter.

It is possible this drama will be sooner rather than later if the current rumours prove sadly correct.

Barbara Short

A very interesting article for people, like myself, who no longer can actually visit PNG but still have a love for the country and its peoples.

Let's hope that the younger generation will be able to take over the running of the country and do a good job.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)