friday six pm

The PNG way: Unchecked incompetence, greed & corruption

1975 PNG gold K100 coinCHRIS OVERLAND

SOME readers’ comments on Mathias Kin’s excellent piece, PNG a victim of flawed nurturing, inferred that Australia left Papua New Guinea with legacy systems ill-suited to the country's needs.

While I am sure that Australia relinquished its colonial role with unseemly haste, it did not leave behind a fundamentally unsound constitutional, legal and administrative system.

Since independence, the onus has been entirely on PNG's elected leaders to use and modify that system to better meet the country's needs.

That they have spectacularly failed to do so is no reflection upon Australia, but tells you a great deal about the "Melanesian Way".

The ugly truth is that incompetence, venality, greed and corruption have proliferated more or less unchecked amongst the country's political and business elites.

By passively accepting this or, in too many cases, enthusiastically participating in it, Papua New Guineans have effectively "normalised" corrupt conduct.

Until such time as PNG seriously tackles the cultural underpinning of this behaviour, notably the wantok system, nothing is going to change.

Australia's legacy to PNG was a history of broadly honest, well intentioned and generally enlightened administration, combined with a proven, viable and effective constitutional and legal framework.

Despite this, and PNG's huge natural resources, things have not gone well.

The clear source of the country's problems was, is and will remain its apparent incapacity to actually use the Australian legacy systems for the greater good of the people.

It is up to Papua New Guineans to fix these problems: Australia cannot and will not do so for the very simple reason that any imposed reform will not last.

As Lenin famously said of Tsarist Russia: "What is to be done?"

The answer to that question lies in the hearts and minds of Papua New Guineans.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Good point Tanya.

I guess we started out with two cultures, the Anglo-Celtic one and the Aboriginal one(s). The latter culture, of course, was largely invisible and the Anglo-Celts had no intention of leaving when they (the Aborigines) were ready for independence.

As I recall the Australian Administration in PNG got serious about "political education" around 1970 when Political Education Officers were appointed in each district. These guys were usually seconded kiaps and they were tasked with distributing propaganda generated in Moresby and UPNG. Most of them didn't really understand the stuff they were preaching.

The big deal at Olsobip, where I was at the time, was that salkambaram (penis gourds aka self-government) would be replaced by underpants (independence) very soon. A year later I was chasing cannibals at Nomad.

As Chris intimates, it was all done much too quickly under pressure from the UN and the young PNG elites in Moresby and by Australia's embarrassment at being seen as a colonial power.

I'm not sure whether this explains why Peter O'Neill is running PNG like a clan chief from the highlands though.

Chris Overland

Tanya Zeriga Alone's comment starts from the premise that Australia is a Western nation and, by inference, PNG is not.

Australia is by no means a homogenous, mono-cultural country, with something like 25% of its citizens coming from a non-English speaking background.

In this respect it is similar to countries like the USA, Canada and New Zealand, together with much of South America, all of which were colonised in the last 400 years or so.

Quite what constitutes a Western country is, to my mind, not necessarily well understood.

I would say, as a starting point, that western countries tend to have shared some very important common experiences since around 1500 including the separation of Church and State, the rise of science, the impact of technology and, more latterly, a general (if not perfect) tolerance of religious, philosophical and ethnic diversity.

Importantly, the various "westernised" countries have been obliged to submerge a startlingly wide range of regional, ethnic and language differences within a broader national identity.

Of course, this was not a smooth or painless process and took a fair while to achieve in most cases. It usually required a series of very strong, often authoritarian central governments to achieve it, with the great and powerful slowly being required to relinquish much (but not all it seems) of their grip on power, privilege and wealth for the benefit of the citizenry as a whole.

Sadly, all this was not accomplished without bloodshed, which reached its crescendo in the first half of the 20th century with two almost unimaginably catastrophic industrial scale wars.

Also, separatist tendencies remain: just look at the Scottish Nationalists' current efforts to persuade their fellow Scots to abandon their 300 year old union with England.

PNG's situation, although admittedly an exaggerated version of what is found in parts of Europe or South America, is by no means unique.

Tanya, the task of nation building may be daunting but it is doable. What is required is the political foresight and will to do it.

So, when will PNG's equivalent to Mahatma Ghandi or Nelson Mandela or Abraham Lincoln or even (heaven forbid!) Mao Tse Tung arise to lead this process?

Tanya Zeriga Alone

Australia, as a western nation started out as one culture. The tenet of the western culture was laid down as the law of the land. When other cultures were added on, they had to live by the established law of the land.

Try starting a nation with a thousand tribes and cultures. Try to get them to think and act as one body. That is the dilemma for Papua New Guinea.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Depending upon who you talk to Australia has successfully embraced multiculturalism.

Apart from a few unfortunate incidents like the Cronulla riots it has enlivened and enriched our lives.

Other countries have done the same.

There is no reason why a country cannot function as a polyglot democracy with a thousand tribes.

Tanya Zeriga Alone

Only PNGeans can solve their own problems, Australia cannot do it.

PNG is a united nation of over 800 tribes. Unfortunately wantok system/tribalism runs in the blood.

But change for the better is possible when people start thinking and acting Papua New Guinea and stop acting and thinking tribal groups.

I am not sure if our leaders (political and others) stop to think about the impact of culture on our efforts for development and integration into a western style society.

I was at the POM National High culture day today. I was so proud to see young people celebrating their culture but then it hit me that we are perpetuating tribalism in this manner.

Culture versus development - someone with the guts and the foresight will make that tough decision. For now we are like children building sand castles that keep getting knocked down by the waves, for some reason we are unable to move away from the surf.

Australia will not come and pull us away, we gotta feel it and think it within ourselves and pull ourselves up and away from the surf.

Chris Overland

Thanks for your comments Felix.

While I would be the last to suggest or imply that Australia's version of colonialism was a model of propriety and good governance, it was certainly hugely more benign than most.

Just one important example to consider is the way that the Australian administration strenuously resisted attempts to allow private interests to buy or deal in land.

This proved to be a very wise decision indeed and ensured that, upon independence, something in excess of 98% of all land in PNG remained firmly in the hands of its traditional owners.

There is a great danger that you and others will be seduced by the traditional left wing critiques of colonialism, which tend to proclaim that all ills that beset a former colony derive entirely and exclusively from the colonial experience.

This is just self serving nonsense, once a loud refrain from those models of freedom, justice and humanity, the USSR, Cuba and the Peoples Republic of China.

More commonly these days, it is the indigenous political and military elites who promote this idea, thus conveniently shifting the blame for their manifest failings onto others.

Oscar Wilde once said that the truth is seldom pure and never simple and that is the situation in this case.

I would agree with you that Australia is not blameless in relation to PNG. It left in precipitous haste mostly to avoid the embarrassment of being a residual colonial power in an anti-imperial age.

It set in place forms of governance and a related legal framework that made sense to it as an inheritor of the British legal tradition. Whether they made sense in a PNG context is rather less clear.

Worst of all, it did not create a large enough, well educated elite, sufficiently imbued with democratic ideals and aspirations, to establish and maintain a stable, honest government "of the people, for the people and by the people".

While Australia's failings must be acknowledged, nearly 40 years after independence it is becoming a bit of a stretch to say that the manifest corruption in the political process is the resolution of colonialism.

It is not: it is largely a function of the failure of PNG's own political class' collective inability to resist treating political office as being like winning Cross Lotto, whereby they and their wantoks are free to expropriate public wealth for their own private purposes.

This is the sad and depressing tale in most of post colonial Africa and many other parts of the world besides. Even in a "mature" democracy like Australia's we still have to be eternally vigilant to protect the integrity of our political process.

The onus now lies on you and others like you to take action to correct the situation. Australia cannot do this even if it had the will to do so, which it clearly doesn't.

Felix Baraka

Chris, am not disagreeing with you or agreeing with you but I want to be critical of you in some respect. You have said in the article, "Australia's legacy to PNG was a history broadly honest".

I just want you to pause and think about the patterns and reasons that are embedded in colonisation. The first thing we must understand is that, when a nation colonises territories, it destroys the culture of the people in the territories it colonises that impact with its own culture.

Why? To advance its national interest, and at the same time exploit the natural resources for its own nation building.

In the longer run, it applies soft power, for example, AusAID.

Australia is always giving a 'free handout' to PNG. Here comes Australia saying to PNG, 'I have given you much assistance, now sign for me the asylum-seekers deal.'

We are good at accepting ideas and not being innovative. We cannot live Australia's legacy in our progressive administration.

Corruption in the country is the resolution of colonisation..

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