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.