BY DANIELLE ROMANES
PAPUA NEW GUINEA's new Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has just promised an array of reforms that are bound to placate those who feared last week's coup would lead to the kind of muscular misgovernance that has put neighbouring Fiji's economy into a tailspin.
The palatable reforms include an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), free primary education for all up to the age of ten, and the sale of the controversial A$51 million government jet, with funds to be redirected to health and education.
While all of the proposals are laudable, the sincerity behind some is questionable. As Dame Carol Kidu pointed out, O'Neill has but a year to implement these ambitious initiatives, and his plans are more than a little hazy on details.
PNG is a notoriously difficult operating environment — extending universal primary education in particular will be a mammoth task – and as the hard-learned lessons of development show, throwing money at a problem in a developing country rarely makes it go away.
O'Neill's promise of an ICAC is dubious. Anti-corruptionism is a song loudly sung by PNG's notoriously corrupt elites, and O'Neill's record in this area is hardly blemish free. There's a more than decent chance that O'Neill is, as Kidu suggests, leading voters (and foreign donors) up the garden path, buying time to consolidate power.
One would hope that O'Neill is genuine, because the need to fight entrenched corruption in PNG could not be more pressing. Many have heralded the forthcoming $15 billion LNG project as having the potential to radically alter the course of PNG’s economic and social development. In truth, the odds are stacked in favour of the revenues exacerbating underdevelopment rather than alleviating it.
Both experience and logic support the premise that resource booms choke development. The easy revenues powerfully disincentize good governance (no need to earn your constituents' votes when you can buy them), and once established, corrupt behavioural equilibriums become notoriously difficult to uproot. Systemic incentives militate in favour of corrupt practices, and those who fight it find that the system fights back.
As Jenny Hayward-Jones pointed out last week, nothing in PNG's politics is set in stone. O'Neill has the opportunity to appoint credible statesmen and recapture public confidence in government. At the same time, however, he has to manage the expectations of the ambitious men who surround him.
He has neither the time nor the political maneuvering room to rewrite the rules of PNG politics, and will likely find himself dispensing favors to shore up support. If he wishes to break with the kleptocracy of the past, O'Neill will need to establish powerful incentives for himself (and any of those eyeing his position) to keep the redistribution of public funds to a minimum.
This where the Australian Government could step in. It has already done important work in strengthening law and justice in Melanesia, and there is a compelling case to be made for Australia mobilising funding for an independent anti-corruption commission that has jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute high-level graft.
Whether O'Neill's ICAC proposal is genuine or opportunistic, Australia should take him up on it. Political will to fight internal corruption is rare, after all, and even the best-intentioned reformists falter without support.
The opportunity for Australian tax dollars to make a difference in PNG may have presented itself — why not seize it?
Danielle Romanes is a development economics and political science post-grad student interning in the Lowy Institutes's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program
Source: The Lowy Interpreter