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Autonomy for the provinces; an old idea worth revisiting

Phil 2015PHIL FITZPATRICK

THE CREATION of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville following the civil war and now the push for autonomy by the Governor of New Ireland Julius Chan raise interesting questions and also highlight the inherent problems of having a centralised national government in Papua New Guinea.

In theory, the combination of various service improvement funds disbursed by the government at local, district and provincial levels, together with the effective discharge of functions by ministers in charge of education, health and infrastructure, should work well.

This is especially so when you consider that - with the combined revenue that the government receives from a range of sources, including tax, resource royalties and overseas aid - there is plenty of money available to fund just about all Papua New Guinea’s rural and urban needs with a bit left over.

Every local level government and every district in every province should have sufficient funds to maintain health, education and other services as well as the maintenance and development of new infrastructure.

Unfortunately, as everyone knows, this is far from what happens. Papua New Guinea continues to have appalling health outcomes, increasing illiteracy and crumbling infrastructure.

The national government plays favourites for political gain; ministers disburse funds to their own provinces and districts first; and rank and file politicians take kickbacks, load inflated tenders and openly steal public funds. It corrupt behaviour that goes all the way down the line, and infects public servants as well.

And you can add to this some particularly inept economic management in the good years which paved the way for significant fiscal problems now the bad days are here.

Many politicians in the national government also seem to think that Papua New Guinea ends at the borders of the National Capital District.

Huge amounts of money gets salted into causes and infrastructure irrelevant to nation-building and which are funded to the detriment of the 85% people in rural areas.

Centralised government in its present form in Papua New Guinea has been a disaster.

Contrast this with some of the good work being done by John Momis in Bougainville, Julius Chan in New Ireland and Gary Juffa in Oro. They are all making progress despite the meanness and political games played by the central government.

The difference between the national government and these provincial governments is that the latter are actually at the coal face, the grassroots if you like, and can see what needs to be done and where the money needs to be spent.

They are also much closer to their constituents and much more likely to be held to account, especially given the rapid expansion of social media in PNG.

Autonomy for the provinces would not solve all PNG’s problems. There would still be corruption and mismanagement and some provinces would fail miserably, as they have done in the past.

I do not believe across the board autonomy for the provinces would be a good idea. The process would have to be rolled out gradually as specific provinces proved their ability to manage their own affairs.

Some might never achieve that state. But the prospect would offer the people in the more advanced provinces a much better future than the one currently on offer.

No doubt there would be strong opposition from the national government. It would not easily relinquish its power and seats on the gravy train.

Yet, even with autonomous provinces, there would be plenty for the national government to do. It could concentrate on national issues like defence, the justice system, trade and strong oversight of the provincial system. It would need, for instance, to exercise its constitutional ability to withdraw a province’s autonomy status if it did not come up to scratch.

It could address the big picture and leave service delivery to the provinces.

The current legal framework, as Julius Chan has pointed out, already exists and there would be no need for legislative or constitutional change.

It is an idea that might now be ready to limp, battered and bruised back, into the limelight.

Comments

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Hanns Wetzel

A number of good ideas. However, "It (the national government) would need, for instance, to exercise its constitutional ability to withdraw a province’s autonomy status if it did not come up to scratch." But with the endemic level of corruption that exists within the national government today, what guarantee is there that this "constitutional ability" will be exercised justly?
Hanns Wetzel
hbw1770@gmail.com

Peter Sandery

Having been an integral part of the earlier Provincial Government system as the Minister for Finance (albeit, for only nine months) in the first fully elected Milne Bay Provincial Assembly, when provinces had separate constitutions, I have something of a personal interest in this topic.

I agree that the system, if it was re-introduced as it was supposed to be, that is as provinces displayed the ability to handle the entire paraphernalia of provincial government before it was granted, could work.

The real reason why the old system was abolished really had nothing to do with corruption or ineffectiveness, as I said at the time to the committee chaired by Chris Haiveta, the same criticisms could be made in spades at the national government but no one was then advocating a return to Pax Australiana.

The reason for the emasculation was that the national MP's could see that if a provincial government was working properly, their (the national MP's) powers and ability to hoodwink the public would be greatly curtailed.

In relation to Paul's comments on the Australian scene, I have quite a different perspective on it and have just completed a paper which I would be only too happy to email to any one who is interested - my contact is iapuni@hotmail.com

Paul Oates

The other side of the coin, Phil, is that Australia should dispense with State government and just have two levels of Federal and Regional government.

Three levels of government these days only translates into more bureaucracy to fund and more red tape to clog the works and slow everything down. With more procedures and process to keep public servants in employment and try to demonstrate that the elected are actually doing something whereas local governments are mostly ineffectual in achieving anything except making more processes to try and fix those that they were responsible for but didn't work in the past.

Local government in Australia has often become an unelected dictatorship of the Council CEO's who let the Councilors take the limelight and waffle at meetings while the public servants actually run the council.

Taxation at all levels has to constantly increase in order to fund both the elected and their bloated, expanding bureaucracies.

To try and demonstrate that elected politicians are actually doing something, social engineering has been turned to in order to show they can achieve something other than spend money but in practice, this only shows that they can't.

Sorry Ingrid. I know there are always exceptions to the rule and no doubt these exceptions exist everywhere as highlighted by Phil.

The real issue is that once decisions are made for large social groups, the ordinary people who are supposed own their government through democratic processes, actually lose control.

The dilemma is then when to have an election. In Australia we have elections (mostly) every three years and compulsory voting. Other countries have non compulsory voting and elections every four or five years or so.

Is there a better system? Well that really depends on the ordinary voters as to whether they can and want to be involved. Most people don't want to take an interest in government until it directly affects them personally.

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