ALBERT SCHRAM | Edited
The first of three articles based on Chapter 4 of Dr Schram’s memoir, ‘Experiences of a Vice Chancellor in Papua New Guinea’. Link here to read the full chapter
"We think of politics in terms of power and who has the power. Politics is the end to which that power is put" (Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kenyan writer and academic)
VERONA - I want to thank my more than 7,000 followers on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook for their encouraging comments on this series, and Keith Jackson for publishing the short versions.
Many of my followers are students, sponsors or relatives of students, or among the over 6,000 graduates for whom I signed degrees. Thank you all.
I will make a few remarks on the economic and moral environment in which Papua New Guinea’s universities operate. The disastrous state of the economy since Peter O'Neill took over in 2012, stimulated dishonest and opportunistic behaviour.
Dishonesty in turn was further justified by exceptionalist 'logic' and the fundamental difficulty many Papua New Guineans have in accepting that everybody is equal before the law, and that rules should be applied to everyone without exception.
The tribal wantok system seems the only system that works, and it is what most people are comfortable with.
Since 2012, continuing misgovernment, thievery and wasteful spending have put a terrible stress on society due to Peter O'Neill's callous and delusional economic policy. In 2014, in some areas in the highlands there was a fully-fledged famine and at one point the World Food Program was supporting over 250,000 people with food aid.
The non-payment of liquefied natural gas revenues to landowners by the government has led to a continuing civil war in Hela and Southern Highland provinces, which ironically are the provinces the current and previous prime minister hail from.
For the University of Technology, UNITECH, where over 50% of students come from the highlands, this created a difficult operating environment. Many parents and sponsors were unable to pay the fees on time.
In recent weeks, Ian Ling-Stuckey MP, the excellent treasurer in the new Marape-Stevens government, has made abundantly clear how disastrous the legacy of the O'Neill government has been for state finances.
It is unwise for any country to run a greater than 5% budget deficit. The European norm, for example, is 3-4%, and these are strong economies. Stuckey has stated that O’Neill has left a "shameful legacy".
However, worse news is yet to come. The large deficit can be addressed relatively quickly by controlling expenditure and improved tax collection. It will be painful, but it can be corrected within a few years.
The real issue is ballooning debt, a result of O’Neill running high deficits year after year and embarking on some disastrous projects such as Pacific Games, APEC and the Oil Search share purchase.
High interest loans were taken from international loan sharks rather than from reputable international organisations, burdening generations to come with debt repayment.
In the coming weeks, the total extent of the debt and interest payments will become clear, and it is doubtful whether PNG can avoid defaulting on debt payment. A Latin American 1980s style debt default and crash is far from imaginary.
We must remember how many people rode on Peter O'Neill's gravy train.
In fact, the UNITECH chancellor and all members of the university council were appointed by him, serving as recipients of political patronage and being offered an opportunity for private rent seeking.
Though this group so far has refrained from diverting university funds to their own pocket, they have done themselves and their relatives other favours.
Part 2 tomorrow – ‘PNGs odd racialised post-colonial morality’