KATE LYONS | Guardian Australia
SYDNEY - At the end of May, as Papua New Guinea’s most recent political crisis came to a head, huge numbers of people across the country tuned in to watch Peter O’Neill resign as prime minister and the parliament elect a new leader.
Many were watching an online livestream and as the parliamentary debate continued questions from viewers began rolling in, many of them along the same theme: “Where is BK?”
BK, as Bryan Kramer is sometimes known, has become a star of PNG politics, despite being just a first-term MP for the electorate of Madang, on the north-east coast of the country.
He is an anti-corruption campaigner who was instrumental in bringing to light the UBS scandal that helped to bring down O’Neill’s leadership, and was a key leader in the opposition movement, pushing for O’Neill’s removal.
The new prime minister, James Marape, has since appointed him police minister, and Kramer is determined to clean up PNG – which ranks 138th out of 175 countries in the Corruption Perception Index – using a combination of hard work and tech strategies including reporting crime via Facebook.
But it is a role that comes with risks. Kramer wrote on Facebook in July that when he was appointed to the role, Marape warned him the job could pose a danger to his safety and warned him to take precautions.
“My response was, God will decide when it is time for me to leave this earth and if it happens in my cause to fight corruption then so be it,” wrote Kramer.
“I have no question of doubt I will eventually get killed for what I do. It goes without saying when you get in the way of those stealing billions in public funds, they will do whatever it takes to get rid of you.”
Does he really fear something will happen to him?
“More than definitely,” he tells the Guardian on his recent visit to Sydney as part of Marape’s delegation. “But that’s life.”
Kramer says he was not present on that crucial day in parliament when Marape won the vote in protest at the way the change of leadership happened.
“It was my objective since coming ... into office, to dislodge the former prime minister and go after the system of corruption in PNG,” he says.
So when – in his telling of things – the opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch ran “a back channel with O’Neill” and then Marape “did a deal at two o’clock in the morning with the faction of the O’Neill camp” , he decided to sit out the vote in protest.
“I couldn’t support either faction.”
Despite his very noticeable absence from the chamber, Marape still appointed him to the cabinet. The Papua New Guinean political outsider suddenly found himself on the inside.
Before Marape was elected leader, Kramer said that investigating former prime minister Peter O’Neill was among the opposition’s top priorities and Kramer is still determined to pursue the former PM.
“He won’t finish his term,” says Kramer. “He will be arrested and prosecuted.” You think so? I ask. “I intend to do it so,” he says with a laugh.
Predictably, his work has left him with enemies.
In 2014, Kramer was arrested for attempted murder in a case he says was a political stitch-up (the charges were later dropped), a senior police officer recently issued a search warrant for Kramer related to a charge of cyber-bullying, something Kramer says “is being dealt with through administrative process”.
Kramer does acknowledge his social media posts occasionally land him in hot water. For example during the leadership turmoil, an opposition MP used the excuse of needing to go to church as a reason to leave the hotel where opposition MPs were holed up, but then joined the government camp.
Kramer posted news of this defection alongside a picture of Judas and called for the MP’s church to shame him for his betrayal. Kramer chuckles at the memory: “I got told that member almost passed out in shock.”
Kramer’s work as police minister is well and truly cut out for him. Less than two months into the job, PNG suffered one of its most horrific acts of violence in years, when over the course of a few days 23 people were murdered as part of ongoing tribal fighting in Hela province.
Kramer went straight up to Karida village, where 16 women and children were killed in an early-morning massacre.
“When these kinds of incidents happen, what happens is there’s a sense of fear right throughout the community and then people will flee and no one knows what’s going on, if there will be retaliations,” he says.
Kramer arrived in the village just after the bodies had been buried.
“Over the years you just become accustomed [to witnessing this sort of violence],” he says. “Obviously it’s graphic when you turn up to a scene and you see the effects of someone who has been chopped by a machete.”
Indeed, it was witnessing violence in his home of Madang that prompted Kramer to get involved in politics in the first place.
“I’ve spent considerable amount of time in the communities, running an NGO … working as a police reservist, seeing first-hand the effects of sexual violence, vicious crimes,” he says. “And over time you realise that the real problems aren’t caused at the community level, they’re caused at the political level, so I took an interest in politics.”
“The biggest challenge in PNG is, because of the corruption, our institutions have been collapsing, therefore once they collapsed, law and order breaks down and you get a viciousness in the community.”
As to what to do about it, he has a few ideas. The first is the long, slow work of trying to reform the police force. “My focus, initially now is to depoliticise the force, so anyone there that is connected to any politician … will get pushed aside,” says Kramer. “We’ll put in a new younger breed of officers.”
Kramer has already introduced a social media reporting system, encouraging people around the country to report crimes directly to him on Facebook, which he then passes on to police to investigate.
“What will happen is typically they’ll go to a station and either the place is packed or no one’s there, so their complaint never gets addressed,” he says. “Social media is the fastest way to collect information.”
The system has already yielded results. In June, Kramer said on Facebook that a man had been arrested for sexually abusing his granddaughter, an allegation the child’s mother had reported to police to no avail. Someone had later reported the crime directly to Kramer on Facebook.
But Kramer acknowledges that in a country of roughly 8 million people, this is not really sustainable. He is also in talks about developing an app that would allow people to report crimes electronically, rather than relying on living near a police station.
“A lot of time when I worked as a [police] reservist, women would come in and file complaints and other officers would say ‘Oh no, that’s just a marriage issue, you guys need to solve it.’ ... Using technology now and an app-based complaints system, it will be electronically registered and so you can’t ignore it.”
Kramer welcomes Australia’s commitment to give PNG $135.9m by the end of 2022 for a new policing program and says it is in Australia’s interest to ensure the country thrives.
“For the first time we’ve become so important strategically to Australia because of the boat people [on Manus island],” he says. “What they forgot to realise is rather than worrying about a few boat people and stopping the boats, if PNG collapses and fails as a state, you don’t have to worry about the boat people, you have to worry about 8 million people crossing the border.
“If meaningful measures aren’t taken to assist us in the governance area, [that’s] what the risk long term is.”
As for how long this outsider will be able to stay on the inside of a notoriously changeable political system, Kramer says he will stay only for as long as he feels the government he serves in has integrity.
“From my point of view … if I see things aren’t right, I would be happy to just resign and walk across to the opposition.”