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Bougainville's bold step to defend integrity

Ishmael-Toroama (ABG)
Ishmael Toroama - Proposal to give politicians greater control over public servants failed (ABG)

| DevPolicy Blog | Edited

BUKA - I have previously written about my concerns with proposals by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) to remove provisions in the Bougainville constitution which protect the independence of the public service.

In this article of March 2021 (‘Good governance in Bougainville is being undermined), I wrote of proposed amendments to give politicians control over the appointment, assessment and discipline of senior public servants, matters independent of political control.

Since I wrote this, the proposed amendments have been put to the Bougainville parliament, with the strong support of president Ishmael Toroama.

However they failed to garner the threshold required – a two-thirds absolute majority vote – and were not passed.

In many ways this was a remarkable outcome.

The Bougainville parliament does not have an opposition in the traditional Westminster sense, preferring instead to work on a principle of unity and consensus.

Rarely are government-sponsored bills defeated.

Yet in this case, the government failed to achieve the two-thirds vote required, demonstrating that a significant block of members chose to uphold the authority of the Constitution and the principles of good governance that underpinned its creation.

The last time a constitutional amendment was defeated in parliament was early in 2020, when former president John Momis pursued a change that would have allowed him to stand for a third term, despite the two-term limit in the Constitution.

Again, many members formed a bloc to oppose and defeat the amendment.

The most recent vote, firstly, demonstrates there are many members of the Bougainville parliament who choose to put due process and good governance ahead of politics.

Bougainville sits on a critical threshold. With the overwhelming 98% vote in favour of independence in the referendum of late 2019, Bougainville is on the cusp of becoming the newest member of the international community of states.

But independence and statehood are meaningless without the means to form and sustain an effective and democratic state.

The bedrock of forming and sustaining such a state must be good governance, effective institutions and the means, through an effective public service, to sustain services.

The vote also demonstrated that key Bougainville leaders support the protection of the public service from politicisation in the appointment, assessment and discipline of senior officials.

That protection, provided by merit-based processes that are independent of political leaders, is vital to efforts to safeguard Bougainville from corruption in government.

Bougainville public servants on a unity walk in February-(Autonomous Bougainville Government)
Bougainville public servants on a unity walk in February-(Autonomous Bougainville Government)

Furthermore, the successful defeat of the proposed amendments sent a very strong signal to the people of Bougainville and the international community that an independent public service is critical to this process.

Moving forward, Bougainville must ensure that these principles of good governance and due process become the norm rather than the exception.

Greater scrutiny of government decisions and proposed legislation are a necessary part of building strong structures of government, as is having an effective and capable public service.

Yet, as I have contended elsewhere, and experienced myself, for too long this has been lacking in Bougainville.

The Bougainville people have long aspired for Bougainville to be an independent country.

They have felt they are not part of the broader Papua New Guinea collective, and that their uniqueness is based on a rich cultural and linguistic history.

As a young boy growing up in 1970s Buin, south Bougainville, I was aware of that sense of distinct identity.

It has long existed, although it took the formation of the PNG state and later anger over the inequitable distribution of benefits from the Panguna mine, to evolve into formal calls for independence.

But the reality is that aspirations alone cannot sustain an independent state.

For Bougainville, the challenge is to migrate from a mindset of aspiration to one of implementation.

A sense of collective identity alone is simply not enough to bring about independence and change.

That is why, as chief secretary of the ABG from 2016 to 2019, my focus was on promoting good governance and public sector reform.

This reform agenda was echoed by then president John Momis, who regularly spoke of the need for integrity, transparency and accountability in government. It is today echoed by his successor, Ishmael Toroama.

But words are not enough.

We continue to see examples of corruption and fraud. Whether misappropriating of funds meant for disaster-related claims, manipulating the payroll system for personal gain or employing wantoks and friends without due process. There are many more examples.

The time has come for Bougainville to match its aspirations with genuine reform.

This requires accountability at the highest levels and consequences for those who continue to break the law.

This requires leadership, and leadership cannot consist only of empty rhetoric, it must include meaningful action.

Simply replicating the ‘Waigani’ model of governance within Bougainville will only lead to more of the same corruption and similar problems that are rampant in the PNG system.

With the opportunity that comes from forming a new independent state also comes the opportunity to do something different.

There is a chance to put in place the foundations that will enable the creation of a new independent Bougainville and the means through which Bougainville can truly develop, prosper and grow.

This is the challenge our leaders now face.

While as Bougainvilleans we must maintain our focus on the cause of independence and do everything possible to ensure the will of our people prevails, this cannot be at the expense of good governance.

Nor should those who speak out against policy initiatives and measures, such as I have discussed here, be subjected to attacks on the basis of being ‘anti-Bougainvillean’.

Joseph Nobetau

The time has come for Bougainville to mature, and to take the bold steps required to address corruption and embrace reform.

In doing so, all Bougainvilleans will benefit, allowing for a new and effective Bougainville state to be born.


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Alastair McIntosh

There are observations in this article that we in Scotland can learn from. Thank you.

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