MANY Australians, perhaps most, merely have been shrugging at news of the shoddy administration of Papua New Guinea’s five-yearly election.
Large numbers of voters were left off the new rolls and counting is still at an early stage, although it’s a week today since polling stopped. At this rate, Australia’s national broadband network roll-out may be finished first.
Three members of an independent electoral watchdog resigned, feeling they had been prevented from carrying out their task.
But why do Australians usually think the worst of our closest neighbours? Amazingly, few have even been there. OK, the fares aren’t cheap and the hotel prices are mostly exorbitant. But I would have imagined a sense of curiosity, at least, might have driven more just to take a look.
I arrived to work there a few months after PNG’s rushed push for independence in 1975. The mood was infectiously optimistic, the level of commitment to the new country of 812 languages, intense.
Before self-government in 1973, the Australian government had invested little in PNG — of which Papua, the southern half, had been a colony since 1906, with New Guinea, the northern part, being mandated to Australia first by the League of Nations after World War I, then by the UN after World War II.
There were very few permanent roads, and none connecting the two regions of Papua and New Guinea — a plight that, astonishingly, hasn’t changed in the 42 years since then.
Most schooling and health work in rural PNG, where the great majority continue to live, was run by the mainstream churches, not by the government. Employment opportunities were scant. The limited housing in towns was supplied by workplaces, which remains common, with many of the rapidly increasing town dwellers living in scrounged or nailed-together shanties.
The adrenalin kicked in by independence and freedom pumped impressively for the first couple of years, during which the program to prepare locals for key jobs seemed to be working well.
The streets of the towns were safe, though public transport pretty well disappeared after dark. Schools were neat and tidy, public libraries were available in key centres, the ABC-equivalent broadcast a broad range of quality programs.
The bureaucracy largely responded in a timely way to the public — although following a victory by the public servants’ union, the government stopped work, and still does, at 4.06pm daily.
I recall the shocked conversations when the Ombudsman Commission announced its first case under the Leadership Code, leading to the dismissal as culture minister of Moses Sasakila over a wantok receiving a free airfare.
Surely not in PNG, many said. It is a devoutly Christian country — certainly more so than Australia, for instance. No public occasion is complete without lengthy prayers and preferably hymns, too.
But PNG is also, it would seem, a nation of many sinners.
Why is it languishing as 154th, alongside Zimbabwe, of 188 countries in the UN’s latest Human Development Index? Its living standards have improved substantially, according to the HDI, during the past 25 years. But others have improved more.
Life expectancy, at 62.8 years, is almost 20 years below that of Australians, and PNG provides education, on average, for only half as long.
The country faces many physical as well as social challenges. But the chief hurdle at which it appears to fall is a moral one — that of corruption. The country is 136th of 176 countries on Transparency International’s index.
This derives from a vicious circle. Living in a society that has failed to develop at the pace or to the level that they long have had a right to expect — or that even has fallen backwards — many will take a chance to pull their extended family, their wantoks, up the ladder to a better life.
Indeed, they will view it as their highest moral imperative — well, a level below the Ten Commandments or the gospel, but those are viewed by many as essentially aspirational — to seize an opportunity, whether it might be labelled corrupt or not, for a windfall to help the family.
Once this idea got a grip, and with diligent competence remaining only modestly or poorly rewarded, then it became more difficult to turn down payments for services.
The examples at the top were and remain crucial.
Culturally in PNG — and Australia isn’t much better — leaders tend to love deals and ribbon-cutting, and shun involvement in the nitty-gritty of competently delivering services and maintaining infrastructure. The choices involved in deal-making lend themselves to personal opportunity.
Although PNG is a country of eight million, its elite circle is small, and word soon gets around about the beneficiaries of deals. A friend, for instance, told me how his uncle was a driver for a minister who used to send him weekly to pick up a briefcase containing cash from a casino run by logging interests.
Lesser fish find it easier to justify to themselves feeding off corrupt earnings when the big fish often seem to do so with scant constraint.
Peter O’Neill, the Prime Minister for the past six years — whose mother was from the Southern Highlands, his father a PNG magistrate originally from Williamstown in Melbourne — has vowed to introduce an independent commission against corruption.
But systemic barriers, opposition from MPs and his own apparent reluctance to invest sufficient political capital have combined to prevent its establishment so far.
The need is encapsulated in a meticulously detailed 812-page report into one particular nest of alleged corruption by a parliamentary-appointed commission of inquiry headed by PNG and New Zealand judges and a famously upright veteran PNG business leader. This alleged that a cabal of top public servants and lawyers, including the then finance secretary and solicitor-general, had stolen more than $300 million from their own government via sham compensation claims.
In all but five of the 783 cases it investigated, the government — whose officials were in on the scam — paid out on default judgments or out-of-court settlements so the concocted claims were never tested in court.
Criminal prosecution of 57 named figures including 14 prominent lawyers was recommended.
Since the report was delivered in 2010 to Michael Somare, the prime minister at the time, it has languished. None of the alleged culprits has been charged and many even have been promoted.
I was sent a rare copy of the report, which for years was injuncted by some of those named in it, with my own injunction written on the cover: “Do us justice, Rowan.” Sadly, despite this newspaper’s best efforts on that front, I’ve let down the sender.
No wonder that corruption cascades down from such levels, so that many coveted official documents become available on the market — from driving licences to passports. More general crime also takes its cue from this perception of “anything goes” among many of those in authority.
In most other respects, this is a country and a people who should be going places. It is achingly beautiful. Its highlands — reaching to 4500m — have a perfect climate to grow almost anything, it has hundreds of exquisite islands, it remains highly prospective for gas, oil and metals, it retains in lively form its traditional cultures.
But these are viewed by many as barriers and burdens rather than opportunities to establish, for instance, a great tourism centre.
Crucially, PNG needs the kind of jobs that booming tourism can create. The population is growing dangerously fast. Bored youngsters inevitably become troublemakers. No one is “unemployable”, although of course education is vital. People are quick on the uptake.
Irish firm Digicel drove the introduction of mobiles, which became swiftly and widely available thanks to commercial savvy, not that of the many state-owned enterprises constantly hovering on the verge of privatisation. Mainly due to government control of utilities, just 15 per cent of PNG has electricity.
My experience running a publishing firm there taught me that PNG’s women perform especially capably as managers, given the chance. But cultural barriers continue to hold them back in public life. Many women celebrated, rather sadly in hindsight, getting even three elected to the outgoing parliament — alongside 108 men.
The country has enough strong institutions to see it through rough patches.
People believe in democracy, as affirmed by the high proportion turning up to vote at this election even though incompetence or worse prevented many from actually voting.
The courts remain largely independent. Media outlets are lively and capable of speaking truth to power. The churches retain the loyalty of the majority. There are capable and focused non-government organisations.
But PNG also needs its best in the political arena that continues to mesmerise many there.
At present, a bitterness overshadows this world, between the two most prominent leaders to have emerged, aside from Somare — O’Neill, likely to retain office for a further five years relatively comfortably, looking at the results in so far, and economist and former prime minister Mekere Morauta.
The battles ahead — for starters, to manage better the economy and the public service, to host next year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, to hold the 2019 referendum on Bougainville independence — require PNG’s talents working together unselfishly.
The political game of thrones of the past hasn’t worked too well, as we have seen.