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The mood for provincial autonomy grows in PNG

Sir_Julius_Chan (The Entrepreneur)JOHNNY BLADES | Radio New Zealand International

THE mood for more autonomy is growing among Papua New Guinea's provinces.

While the call for more devolution of powers from central government to the provinces is not new, PNG's continued development struggles mean more provinces are talking about autonomy.

And, throwing a cat among the pigeons, PNG's opposition leader Don Polye has now proposed the idea that PNG's four main regions could be given autonomy.

The growing skyline of the capital Port Moresby reflects PNG's unprecedented economic growth of the past decade. It's been forged mainly through a boom in the mining, oil and gas sectors.

But the majority of people in the country have seen few tangible benefits, and PNG is languishing near the bottom in the United Nations Human Development Index world rankings.

Sir Julius Chan, the governor of New Ireland Province, claimed that PNG risks breaking up if it continued with the inefficiency of central government machinery. Chan, a former prime minister, said Waigani takes 90% of provincial revenues yet had failed to adequately manage basic service delivery to provinces.

"Everything comes from Port Moresby and Port Moresby is the worst, most inefficient organisation in PNG today," he said. "If we continue to allow a very disorganised group or people running the rest of the country, it's sure to break up."

Sir Julius said the time is right for provinces to take on more powers of taxation, over natural resources, education, health and other sectors.

This feeling was echoed at a recent summit of PNG's 22 provincial governors, many of whom were frustrated at the lack of control their administratrions have over development in their provinces.

An issue for all provinces was the lack of infrastructure and capacity to absorb a greater governance role. But the governor of West New Britain Province Sansindran Muthuvel said the current system is unfair.

"West New Britain has not been developed for the last 40 years, we do not even have proper roads and bridges and infrastructures," he said.

But Mr Muthuvel explained that because it has fewer districts than most provinces, allocated funds from government to West New Britain don't reflect the significant revenue the province generates for the country due to activities like oil palm development.

"A province like Manus or Bougainville or New Ireland continues to receive a major chunk of the budget every year - they receive almost 40 to 50 million kina whereas we hardly receive any money directly to our infrastructure."

The governor was critical of amendments to PNG's organic law two years ago, curbing the ability of provinces to collect taxes. That change was initiated under then Treasurer, Don Polye.

Mr Muthuvel found it slightly ironic that it was now Mr Polye, having left government and become PNG's opposition leader, who had proposed the idea of creating autonomous regional governments in order to help provinces capitalise on local economic developments.

Mr Polye suggested provinces within these regions could elect, legislate and regulate administrative and economic activities under regional governments. Governor Muthuvel for one said he was open to discussing the idea but that empowerment of provinces needed to be explored first.

A lawyer and former political candidate, Camillus Narokobi, says regional alignment has been tried before.

"We've had regional groupings before, and it didn't work," said Mr Narokobi. "So people are more interested in going on their own, to be individualistic, which means competitive.

"There's nothing wrong with one province competing with another province and outdoing another, so long as the basic needs of people are taken care of."

Sir Julius was also not sold on the regional government idea, worrying that it would create large, potentially unwieldy monsters for the nation state.

"You are talking about a big, big government that can be bigger than Port Moresby and I think it can be a little bit open to abuse. I think we could be creating a creature that is going to be very powerful. You put the Highlands region together and that is more powerful than Port Moresby."

The New Ireland governor felt that with so many tribes and languages, Papua New Guinea was ripe for trouble if provinces were continuously held back from being able to manage their own affairs. He said granting more autonomy to provinces would not cause the disintegration of PNG as a nation but instead help it stay intact.

"And I think by giving them more power you are enabling each province to feel they are running their own," said Sir Julius. "And if they can't, they are still part of the family.

“But those that feel that they should be on their own, if you suppress them, they'll probably go their own way. I mean, we got a lesson in Bougainville already.

Meanwhile, the autonomous Bougainville government has started laying the groundwork for a referendum to be held on possible independence from PNG. As provided for in the peace agreement negotiated after the Bougainville civil war, that vote has to occur by 2020 at the latest.

As the former president of the autonomous Bougainville government, James Tanis, explained, this lead-up was a key focus for the new parliament to be elected next month.

"The feeling that I am getting from the people is that, most of the people that I talk to, are in support of independence and people are also very careful on how we maneuver and how we get there."

"What is strong in terms of the people," said Mr Tanis, "is that people would not want the resumption of armed conflict, resumption of violence, whether that is related to referendum or whether that is related to elections. People have had enough and they want to move ahead successfully and steadily."

But Bougainville's economic viability as an independent nation state remains questionable. For many, that question hinges on the controversial possibility of the Panguna copper mine, which was central to the conflict in Bougainville, being reopened. Aside from mining, Bougainville's current president, John Momis admitted his people still had a lot of work to do.

"There are small signs of economic viability," he said, "but it is still difficult because as you know, one of the conditions that must be met before the outcome of the referendum can be positively considered and accepted. And our national government is pushing self-reliance and we are nowhere near reaching that level.”


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Michael Dom

Leonard - you may have lost hope in PNG, but it is still my country and I will always hope for it to be better, just as you do for Bougainville.

Leonard Fong Roka

Do away with PNG since it is becoming a headache.

People talk change; rot still sprouts and decants on and on.

Bomai D Witne

The people do not need old divide and rule tactics for a few 'stupid, selfish and incompetent' politicians, public servants and their cronies to devour their wealth. All they need is for current politicians and public servants to work together to set in motion a accountable and transparent mechanism which are prerequisites for good governance and an enabling and efficient service delivery political environment.

Michael Dom

The PNG Government is a stone drunk man at the wheel of a speeding vehicle going down the wrong direction of an express way in rush hour.

If the passengers jump off, they'll get smashed to bits. It ain't like the movies - no one is walking off this road easily.

They have to work together to restrain the driver and pull the vehicle onto the side-lane.

Then maybe, just maybe, we can turn this vehicle around.

Chris Overland

I think that Robin has put a finger on a major problem with the devolution of power.

In my experience, the proponents a devolutionary strategy blithely assume that reorganising the governance and administrative arrangements will solve what are actually cultural and systemic problems.

I have lived through countless examples of this strategy, none of which really achieved the stated objectives.

The Titanic and deck chairs come to mind I'm afraid.

PNG's problems are not related to a faulty governance structure but to a potent cocktail of ignorance, incompetence and corruption.

The origins of these problems are partly cultural, notably due to the infamous wantok system, whereby people feel compelled by traditional notions of reciprocal obligation to favour their own clan or tribe above all others.

The big risk with regionalisation or devolution is that it will merely create "micro-states" that, in addition to exacerbating all the existing problems, add a lack of economic "critical mass" to the equation.

For example, just how is a prospective mini-state like Bougainville going to effectively negotiate with a multinational giant like Rio Tinto, a company so wealthy and influential that it can and does get even very large states to extend it favourable treatment.

The history of micro-states in the Pacific is very discouraging: enduring poverty, spectacular lack of opportunity and political instability are depressingly common.

PNG policy makers need to think long and hard about any devolution of power lest they simply further fragment an already extremely diverse collection of what might reasonably be called "super micro tribal states".

It would be better to focus hard on solving existing problems, which most assuredly are solvable if the political will is there, rather than simply rearrange the deck chairs in the forlorn hope that it will make much difference.

`Robin Lillicrapp

So the expectation that things will get better if the country's sink-hole (POM) is divided into 4 regional (dare I say it, sink-holes) is afoot.

That does nothing for PNG but increase the opportunities for further rorts.

The international community will not like dealing with 4 new babies anyway. The economy of scale doesn't support such a carve up anyway. PNG has a "small" population hardly able to sustain itself on the revenue flow it now has without duplicating and reinventing layers of government and admin etc.

Dr Clement Waine

The need for devolution is a very pressing matter. Waigani is not only inefficient but a sinkhole. Waigani must be made lean, mean and efficient.

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