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Is changing the government a solution to corruption in PNG?


An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism

IN THE LAST COUPLE of months, there have been deep sentiments for the change of government by political lobbyists and critics, especially in the social media.

The underlying raison d’etre is discontent about some of the decisions made by the government. Among a number of decisions alleged to have involved corruption of some sort are the amendments to the Vote of No Confidence Act, the government takeover of the PNG Sustainable Development Program and Ok Tedi Mine, the asylum seekers deal with Australia and, more recently, the awarding of a medical kit supply contract to Borneo Pacific Pharmaceuticals.

Bloggers and users of social media are the prominent advocates of this discourse. Some even joined hands with the PNG Opposition in strategising to topple the government. A case in point was the call for a nationwide strike on the eve of the budget session last November that went amiss.

Advocating for change in leadership is a typical Papua New Guinean way of reacting to unpopular policies and allegations of corruption by successive governments and there is nothing wrong with that.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said in his civil rights campaign: “The moment you become silent about the things that matter, you are dead”. Citizens have the moral obligation to raise concerns about government decisions they feel are not in the best interest of their country.

However, the critical question is this: is changing government a solution to corruption? In other words, will the change of government have any tangible impact on corruption?

Corruption has been the main platform for changes of government on the floor of parliament through votes of no confidence in the past.

The ousting of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare by Paias Wingti in March 1980, Wingti by Sir Rabbie Namaliu in 1988, Wingti by Sir Julius Chan in August 1994 and the dismantling of Somare’s National Alliance regime by O’Neill and Namah in 2011 were all motivated either directly or indirectly by anticorruption notions.

But has corruption changed? No. Corruption still exists and has become systemic and complicated. It has become a national plague. Why?

The answers lie in our political culture from the way elections are conducted, the way governments are formed and the modus operandi of governance. These peak political activities are mostly flawed.

The election system is the breeding ground of corruption. Trading cash and cargo for votes has become deeply rooted. A candidate who is serious about winning an election has to spend a lot of money and provide a lot of cargo to bribe as many voters as possible to muster the winning numbers.

Nere-tere – eat and give is a well known election catchphrase in Simbu.

Consequently, when the new member gets elected to parliament, the first thing on his mind is to recoup what he has spent. That’s when all kinds of vices creep in.

Often these people lack leadership qualities. They are prone to vice, negligence, mismanagement and dishonesty because they enter parliament by wicked ways.

The golden handshake is a rite of welcoming MPs to one’s side during the formation of government. Venality is a well-grounded tradition during this horse trading.

Leadership ethics in PNG must be amongst the poorest in the world. There is no moral conscience in most of our leaders.

Politicians can be accused of serious corruption and they will still cling to office. They will appear in public if nothing is wrong with them. They don’t feel ashamed. They don’t have a guilty conscience.

They will even go to court seeking vindication for their wrong doing. It is unethical and shameful but this is PNG.

In most societies we don’t see this kind of leadership. The moment a politician is accused of a scandal in the public media, he or she steps down immediately and paves the way for independent investigation. Or he or she resigns from holding public office if personal reputation is brought into disrepute.

In Papua New Guinea not one politician has resigned from ministerial portfolio or public office on the basis of moral principle.

Moreover, the culture of nepotism in the allocation of project funds and disbursement of District improvement monies make good leaders become yoyos. They compromise their ethics to align with the government of the day.

Tobias Kulang, the member for Kundiawa-Gembogl, is a professed Christian and a strong advocate against corruption. He had been vocal against the O’Neill government on many fronts and yet he crossed the floor and joined government ranks citing the interests of his electorate as his reason and he was right. If he remained in Opposition his District would miss out on projects and DSIP funds.

Although he was a good leader, the flawed and crafty system of governance dictated his crossing of sides at the cost of his reputation.

Of course there are some good leaders but the system of governance is so flawed that it is like a cobweb that is firmly entrenched and will continue to snare and smear them no matter who becomes the prime minister.

Reformation of the entire political culture from electioneering to the formation of government and subsequent active governance will need changes in attitudes to corruption.

The biometric electioneering system, tightening of the loopholes in the political party integrity law and establishment of Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) are positive reforms. The full enforcement of these mechanisms and other like reforms will bring about tangible changes to corruption, not changing government.


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Koni Poiye

I think that the way to stop corruption is to fear God.

All our political leaders, departmental heads, CEOs, and people in authority must turn away from their wrongdoings and see God as their superior and the source of solutions to all the problems that people encounter.

Koni Poiye

Dear Francis - Good site. Simbu is known for nere tere (eat and give). This mentality is rooted in the heart and mindset of the people of Simbu and Papua New Guinea as a whole.

Here are some few questions to answer -

1) Who invented the ideology of nere tere?

2) When is it practiced?

3) Who felt the bad effect?

4) Who will stop it?

A brief answer to the above questions -

1) HonJeffery Nape (former speaker of PNG and MP for Sinssine Youngomugl

2) During the election period

3) The people
4) You - as a citizen of PNG

Nere tere is the root of corruption in PNG so I think it must stop.

Francis S Nii

Gabriel, politicians resigning from office under duress or to evade just are different from voluntarily on moral principle/conscience.

Yes, there were several MPs who resigned to evade justice in the past. In the case of Sir Julius, he and other ministers were forced to resign under extreme duress which included mutiny. I don't categorise that under moral principle.

Gabriel Kuman

Francis, you've provided a good discussion on the corruption that took root in most, if not all, of our political leaders. But I don't agree with your statement that says, "In Papua New Guinea not one politician has resigned from ministerial portfolio or public office on the basis of moral principle."

This is untrue as in fact a few of our noble leaders set a good leadership precedent for us in the past.

At least two leaders in PNG's political history have resigned or stepped aside from office and allowed investigations and the due processes of the courts to take their proper course.

The first leader was Opai Kunangil. His action was recorded in the decisions of the courts cited as SCR No.2 of 1982: Re: Opai Kunangil Amin [1991] PNGLR 1.

The other, more recent, was Sir Julius Chan who stepped down as Primer Minister during the Sandline Crisis. The fact of Sir Julius' stepping aside actually calmed down most of public's animosity, frustrations and anxieties.

Francis S Nii

That's right Bernard, corruption can never be eliminated entirely but it can be brought under control or minimised and one way to that is to identify where the problems are and address them.

The biometric or electronic ID voting system and ICAC are milestones in that direction and we can hope for the best.

Yes Corney, we've got to look at positive side of things sometimes.

Michael Dom

"Guts and hard work". That's what my expatriate principal told me it would take to move PNG forward.

Nothing fancy.

Paul Oates

Thanks for all your feedback and yes, Bernard, I've got well thumbed copies of Machiavelli's books in my bookshelf and read them from time to time. They certainly indicate that humans haven't changed much since recorded history.

All that's needed to ensure we don't make the same mistakes our forebears made is to have the will and intellect to learn from history.

But....in the old parable, 'You can lead a horse to water. You can't make him drink.'

Corney Korokan Alone

Great, penetrating views Francis,

Every voting population in Papua New Guinea, the supervising agents and the electoral commission have sown into the corruption bag.

As you have rightly observed, I am quite optimistic with the current political will to go into electronic identity card for voting (currently in progress) and the ICAC bill.

We can build from these.

Bernard Yegiora

Corruption can never be eliminated entirely.

It is our nature as human beings to be egoistic.

Also all human beings are different intellectually.

Bernard Yegiora

Paul - Machiavelli’s book, The Prince, talks about the practice of maintaining power.

Nere tere, or neck politics, is a way to gain and maintain power. Those in power all over the world have used such tactics

Francis S Nii

Good day Barbara, Mike, Paul and Phil.

PNG has emerged out of tribalism into nationhood through the efforts of our Aussie friends and forefathers and yes, they did erred in some aspects.

Even there are errors after independence and as we continue to progress, we come to realise these past mistakes.

The idea is instead of continuing to embrace the mistakes or overlooking the stumbling blocks, appropriate changes must happen or else we will get nowhere.

Thanks for your constructive comments.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank Paul. Very interesting and thought provoking.

I can't help feeling a bit sorry for some of these men who have taken on this difficult task of trying to govern PNG, have worked hard at it and yet have come under a lot of criticism and accusations of corruption.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I don't think I asked 'what is the answer?'

Indeed, like you Paul, I'm convinced there isn't one simple answer, except perhaps time.

There are multiple answers and they need to be applied one by one.

I also share your regret about Australia pulling out too soon (or were we actually kicked out?).

The UN, Michael Somare and Gough Whitlam have to wear the blame for that one.

Michael Dom

Paul, I don't believe that the problem is Melanesian culture, rather I think it is our failure to allow it to grow and expand to encompass a Melanesian national tribe.

We pay lip service to the ideal of being 'wan pipol' but our current leaders do not up-hold this ideal.

Rather they live off the people's desires for tribal glorification.

Paul Oates

Until one can identify what the problem is one can’t begin to find a possible solution.

We often tend to think that what is happening in PNG is an isolated case peculiar to Melanesian culture. I suggest that is not the case. To blame the current impasse on Melanesian culture merely provides a convenient excuse why nothing can be done to change what almost everyone agrees is a problem.

The issue here is one of a developing society that apparently cannot make a quantum leap forward even though the rationale is available and recognised. It appears that all human societies must go through a ‘coming of age’ where smaller ethnic groups combine and start to become a nation. A nation requires a leader yet that leader must be able to exercise power to keep their position.

Once used to obtain a leadership position, the power to keep that ‘top dog’ position becomes ever more arbitrary and thus the leader becomes corrupted by the necessity to maintain power at all costs. This either leads to conquest, where external threats are used to justify domestic necessity or internal revolution where many start to wonder why they aren’t getting their perceived ‘slice of the cake’.

Ultimately, human societies have gone this circular methodology until some clear thinking and intelligent leaders emerge who have enough power to institute a better and more responsible system of government.

Almost every so called civilised society has gone through this process. The mistake we Australians made with PNG was to expect that it wouldn’t happen after we had taken the time to show PNG people how they could make a dramatic leap forward and copy the Australian Constitution and political system. We thought PNG would follow our example since we had learnt by trial and error what (usually) works and what doesn’t. Wrong!

Some of us now lament that we weren't allowed enough time to permit this cultural leap forward before we were dismissed in what was sometimes an imperious manner. What PNG is now left with is a dichotomy of culture. The many live in rural PNG and don’t have the benefits of a comprehensive education and all the necessities that go with it. There is a thin veneer of educated elite who then have to make a choice between opposing or joining those who have or want to usurp power for their own benefit.

What’s the answer, Phil asks? Maybe there isn’t an easy answer? Maybe that’s what PM O’Neill and his predecessors have already worked out. You have to deal with the hand you’re dealt.

Mrs Barbara Short

Well said, Michael.
Maybe, because you didn't have to fight as a united country for your Independence, you aren't united. People still think tribal.
An outside foe might bring you all together to work together and might stop some of this thinking.

Michael Dom

Feelings of deprivation leads to all kinds of depravity: this is the way of electioneering in PNG.

Moral conscience may have less to do with it than we think.

When people feel that they are deprived of something that they are entitled to they don't mind who they vote into power to give them what they want, so they willingly turn a blind eye to their leaders depraved actions.

This deviant path is justified in the Melanesian conscience because in the end the society feels that so long as their collective needs are being addressed (e.g. school buildings, roads, medical aidposts), and so long as their leader plays his expected role (as a bigman (e.g. money for funerals, employing wantoks, spicing business deals, etcetera), any other crime is merely against the State.

This is the PNG political moral code.

It's as if people don't identify themselves with the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, but rather identify themselves only with their own tribal groups.

As others haves argued this attitude is acceptable in PNG mentality.

Phil Fitzpatrick

A very good summary that gets to the nub of the problem but doesn't offer any gratuitous solutions.

And the central point is well put; why change one corrupt government for another corrupt government?

O'Neill, with his unassailable majority, is in a position to quickly push through the reforms that Francis says are necessary.

Why isn't he doing it?

Mrs Barbara Short

A good effort, Francis, at trying to explain the problem facing PNG when it comes to trying to get rid of the corruption in the government.

I have been immersing myself in the PNG social medai culture in an effort to try to understand what is going on.

This morning I decided that Eremas Wartoto is now looked on as a sort of Robin Hood or famous bushranger, stealing from the rich government to give a cheap airline for the poor.

In researching the medical kit supply contract I can see how it is an effort to give more local employment. The Malaysian Chinese have fitted into the Port Moresby scene and become very wealthy. They are good friends to so many. They employ so many people. They deserve to have the contract. Everything will be alright!

But it probably won't be alright. Whether O'Neill has himself been given much by them really isn't the main thing they have done. Whether he has corrupted the good man, Mr Malabag,is not so important.

The main thing is that they have also given a lot of money to the local community, for various other charities, local organisations etc, and still been able to make a good profit for themselves. One can only hope they take their own medicines in the future.

But it is the educated PNGian with a good moral compass who can see the corruption, who knows who is bribing who, who knows that BPP may cut corners and buy cheap dugs with possibly horrifying consequences. But they are the minority at the moment without the numbers or power to do anything.

We do know that there are good men and women in PNG who do have a good moral conscience. Whether they will one day be elected to the government is up to the people of PNG. When the people themselves start to have a good moral conscience then they will elect the right people and the corruption will start to disappear.

At the moment, PNG has to put up with the Ned Kelly types and the politicians who are easily bribed.

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