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Tok stret ia: Is PNG thoroughly corrupt?

A MPs wait to receive a foreign leader. How many are corrupt
Members of Parliament wait to greet a foreign leader. How many are corrupt?

|Academia Nomad

It’s not just a few people doing the wrong thing. It’s most people doing the wrong thing

WAIGANI - The average turnover of Papua New Guinea’s elected politicians is 50%; at each national election about half of the incumbents lose their seats. 

This is one of the highest rates in the world and has been the case without exception since the first post-independence election in 1977.

In 2002, considered the worst election ever, more than 70% of MPs lost their seats and elections in six Southern Highlands seats were declared to have failed because of widespread polling irregularities.

The high turnover shows that Papua New Guineans have no problem replacing leaders they don’t like.

But, with a very few exceptions, the 50% of politicians voters choose to replace the 50% who lose their seats have proven to be no better than those voted out..

This begs the question of whether there are any good people left in PNG to choose from?

Why is it that, despite the high turnover, the next elected cohort turns out to be equally incapable of improving governance in the country?

Of the 180 countries in Transparency International’s annual corruption perception index, PNG is always in the bottom group.

The impression given is that PNG politicians are inherently corrupt.

If so, does this also imply that PNG society is inherently corrupt?

It’s hard to argue otherwise.

It seems that PNG leaders, selected by their own people from among their own people, are - with just a few exceptions - corrupt.

And the society itself must be corrupt for so many predominantly corrupt representatives to be elected.

We must face up to the uncomfortable possibility that our country is pervasively corrupt.

That being so, it is important for us to move the conversation beyond the soon to be elected 118 MPs and to start talking about corruption in everyday life.

As the late prime minister Mekere Morauta put it, corruption in PNG is systemic and systematic. This means that it is both pervasive and organised.

It’s not just a few people doing the wrong thing. It’s most people doing the wrong thing.

Maybe corruption starts with the little things.

Coming to work late and leaving early. Spewing betel nut juice along the corridors of the buildings. Using the office printer to print your team’s volleyball draw. Giving a job to your wantok over a more qualified candidate.

Contracting an in-law to mend the workplace fence. Buying more expensive stationary from your tribesman’s company when the shop down the road is cheaper.

These everyday corrupt or dishonest practices may breed the grand corruption that you speak about with concern.

So how is it possible for you to engage in petty corruption and expect to elect a good leader?

All Papua New Guineans have a responsibility to improve our lives.

We must become less corrupt. Only then will we stand a chance of choosing good leaders.

It’s the society, not the leaders, who are corrupt. And the leaders are selected from among the people.


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Lindsay F Bond

Culpability and stupidity seem to be related but not only in PNG.

Philip Fitzpatrick

In Australia we have a quaint political tradition called pork barrelling where politicians spend taxpayer money on their constituents primarily to garner their support, particularly in the run-up to elections.

It is not dissimilar to what happens in Papua New Guinea during elections where voters are encouraged to vote for particular candidates through financial or in-kind rewards.

The term dates back to the pre-Civil War era in America when slaves were encouraged to work harder in the hope of being given a barrel of salt pork as a reward.

Pork barrelling is not illegal in Australia but most people, including the politicians know that it is unethical and corrupt.

At the very least the practice entrenches inequity across the political spectrum. For every community that receives a pork barrel from a politician just as many miss out.

In Papua New Guinea, particularly in the highlands, pork barrelling has a different origin and can be traced back to big man culture where a leader established their bonafides based on their accumulation and then distribution of wealth.

In that sense pork barrelling in Papua New Guinea cannot be strictly classified as an unethical or corrupt practice.

A conundrum only occurs when there is a juxtaposition between cultural traditions and modern electoral laws.

A pork barrelling Australian politician may by definition be corrupt while his Papua New Guinean equivalent may just be a misguided traditionalist.

Similar arguments can be made about nepotism in both countries. If an Australian politician gives jobs to his mates he or she is regarded as corrupt but if a politician in Papua New Guinea gives jobs to his wantoks he (there is no she in PNG politics) is simply regarded as following an age old tradition.

Again, a conundrum occurs where there is a problematic juxtaposition between cultural tradition and modern law.

There have been many areas in Papua New Guinea where cultural traditions have conflicted with the law. Head hunting and cannibalism conflicted with the law and were stamped out. Nowadays there are moves afoot to stamp out sorcery related murders because they are not only abhorrent but against the law.

In the same way a choice has to be made about pork barrelling electioneering and wantok nepotism.

Papua New Guinea cannot continue to uphold the law and condone socially disruptive cultural traditions at the same time.

In accepting the rule of law the nation made a choice. It is now incumbent upon the nation to uphold those laws.

Paul Oates

I’m more inclined to accept Stephen’s conjecture about what corruption might or might not be in PNG.

My experience when working in rural PNG was slightly ambivalent as one hand, I had a duty to enforce the law, but on the other hand, I recognised some of the western laws we had imposed on PNG were not what they were used to in a traditional customary culture.

Therein lies the real source of the dilemma. What benchmark or yardstick do you use to measure if an action is corrupt or not?

Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.

The Oxford Dictionary defines corruption as; The use of bribery to influence the actions of a public official.

More generally, corruption refers to obtaining private gains from public office through bribes, extortion, and embezzlement of public funds.

Corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development and further exacerbates inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis.

Among the most common causes of corruption are the political and economic environment, professional ethics and morality and, of course, habits, customs, tradition and demography. Its effects on the economy (and also on the wider society) are well researched, yet still not completely presented.

How does corruption affect human rights?

Corruption can have a devastating impact on the availability, quality and accessibility of human rights-related goods and services. Moreover, it undermines the functioning and legitimacy of institutions and processes, the rule of law and ultimately the State itself.

As a professed Christian nation, what does the Christian Bible say about greed and corruption?

Unfettered greed is a slave master. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

If PNG accepts that originally sourced western law is the common law of the nation and has enshrined that aspect in its legal code, then the benchmark is logically set as Phil says.

If however, PNG voters accept that while to official law says one thing and the practise and culture says another, who determines what is or isn’t a corrupt act?

The easy answer in the Judiciary and a court of law. Yet it seems that in PNG there is now a disconnection between what the law says and what people seem prepared to accept as an expectation of what many politicians will do if they are able to be elected.

In fact, it almost seems like there is an unwritten law that says, if you don’t get caught, it’s OK.

The answer might be that PNG as a nation either makes sure that there is a common legal framework that must be followed or its anyone’s opportunity to make what you can out of an opportunity you are given and hope you don’t get found out or taken to court by someone who has the power to do so.

Even if you do get found out, the practice seems to be that if you know the right people or have enough money and influence, you won't end up going to jail.

This then goes back to what PNG voters expect when they vote every 5 years for a candidate. If what seems to have become the norm and an accepted practice, should it be then termed corruption if everyone knows what is taking place?

Maybe the laws of the land should be changed to recognise what it seems everyone knows goes on?

Look at other nations nearby for example. The ‘dash’ system that is apparently unofficially recognised in order to ensure something gets done or gets ignored.

Lindsay F Bond

Not to advocate, yet to encapsulate entitlement extending from aeons ago?

Our fare sign
yours to mine
our share deign
yours is mine

Stephen Charteris

I would like to offer a slightly different view. What people with a Western cultural background call corruption might look to people in PNG more like pragmatism.

It is not for good reason that PNG is described as the land of a thousand tribes. Maybe make that ten thousand tribes.

I recall visiting a hamlet 'haus lain' in the Southern Highlands in 1986 to assist the landowners grow vegetables for sale in Mendi and Lae.

The activities of the day included planting carrots which the landowners in this location were unfamiliar with. Their spokesman was concerned that a new crop might not grow well in that location.

I was aware of another grower about three kilometres along the road who had a vigorous crop of carrots and so I invited the men to jump onto the Department of Primary Industry vehicle to check out this crop. Just like you might do at a farmer’s field day in Australia or New Zealand.

This suggestion was met with a profound silence followed by the explanation, “sapos mi olgeta wokabot lo dispela hap mi dai pinis.” If we set foot on that person’s land, we will be killed.

Initially this struck me as odd because I was welcome at the other location whenever I chose. But upon reflection it was the wakeup call I needed and an introduction to the realities of life in rural PNG.

All these years later I would ask, has anything really changed? My honest assessment to that question is no, fundamentally nothing has.

And herein lies the issue. Who do members of parliament actually represent? All the people in a district as the constitution would have you believe. Or the 'haus lain' or 'komuniti' from which they come?

And if the answer is rather more of the latter than the former then it should be no surprise that successive parliaments have delivered people without an ability to tackle what those in the west might perceive as regionalism, nepotism and corruption.

It harks back to something I have long believed. Administrative governance, in the sense we perceive it, is really only possible when the right mix of local and neutral actors work in harmony towards common goals.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Corruption is a crime, no matter what form it takes.

Criminality particularly thrives in low socioeconomic environments where poverty is rife.

Poor people tend to prey on each other. People don't go breaking into rich peoples' houses, they break into their neighbours houses.

Alleviating poverty is a great way to combat crime.

Unfortunately politicians don't understand or don't want to understand this fact because they are corrupt and part of the criminal scene.

It's a vicious cycle that is almost impossible to break.

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