The trouble with Papua New Guinea
by: David Costello iPad exclusive From: The Courier-Mail June 01, 2012 12:00AM
Source: The Courier-Mail
OK, so our Federal Parliament on Wednesday descended into farce. The sight of Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott dashing from the chamber to avoid accepting the vote of pariah MP Craig Thomson was not a good look.
That said, we don't have the all-in brawls which are all too frequent in the legislatures of Ukraine, South Korea and Taiwan, where elected officials have been known to take off shoes to beat each other.
And we are are whole lot luckier than the citizens of Papua New Guinea where the Parliament has been a complete shambles for more than a year. The situation there is dire because PNG is sliding towards failed-state status while the ``big-man'' elite squabbles over the spoils of power.
For the record, Peter O'Neill, a former treasurer and a pretty decent politician, was sworn in on Wednesday as prime minister for the third time in 10 months.
This is but the latest chapter in his long-running power struggle with Sir Michael Somare, the nation's first prime minister who is recognised as the ``Grand Chief'' and the ultimate ``big man'' of PNG.
O'Neill was voted in as PM last August during the absence of the 76-year-old Somare who was recovering from heart surgery in Singapore.
This seemed fair enough Even Somare's family was saying the wily old politician was retiring.
The trouble started when Somare returned and demanded his job back. Things got very tricky in December when the Supreme Court, headed by Somare's mate, Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia, ruled that the Grand Chief had been illegally removed and that he and his minority government should be returned to power.
For a while there, PNG had two PMs, two chief justices, two governors-general and two police commissioners. O'Neill was confirmed as PM on December 12 but the matter rumbled on.
Last week, the Supreme Court again ruled that Somare was the legitimate prime minister. The O'Neill camp reacted swiftly, declaring a state of emergency and ordering the arrests of Chief Justice Injia and Justice Nicholas Kirriwom. Both men have been charged with sedition.
This mind-boggling series of events got even weirder this week when Deputy Speaker Francis Marus declared the prime ministership open yet again, saying Somare was the legitimate leader but could not take the job because he had missed too many sittings of parliament.
The upshot of all this was O'Neill was voted back in 56-0. The long-suffering citizens of PNG hope that general elections, scheduled for June 23, will bring an end to the power struggle. The same goes for the Australian Government which has being watching with concern as the chaos in Port Moresby has unfolded.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who earlier threatened sanctions against PNG if the elections were not held on time, expressed relief this week that the country was sticking with democracy and not following the Fijian path of coups and military rule.
The real tragedy of PNG, however, is that while MPs bicker over the spoils of power, the rest of the country is sliding into a deep black hole.
I came across a blog this week written by Andrew Anton Mako, a postgraduate economics student at the ANU Crawford School. You can find it on the Development Policy Centre website (devpolicy.org).
Mako describes how the rural areas of PNG, where 80 per cent of the population lives, are neglected and poverty stricken. He hails from a village deep in the Highlands where in the past 15 years, ``the single health centre, the primary school which I attended as a boy, the airstrip and agricultural extension services have all closed down. Shrubs are growing now on a new road which was built in the late 1990s to connect my village to the nearest town.''
Mako says even major towns are suffering with Madang becoming dirty and suffering a rise in crime.
He notes the oft-quoted markers which show the decline of PNG. The country is rated 153rd out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index, which is a measure of factors like life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living. That's below Burma, Bangladesh and the Solomon Islands.
Corruption also impedes development with PNG rated 154th out of 182 countries by Transparency International.
No one ever expected that governing PNG would be easy.
The place has wildly inhospitable terrain, a tribal structure, more than 700 languages and weak institutions.
But the fact remains that many politicians seek power because it is a sure-fire way to make money. Parties are based on patronage networks, not ideology
In this month's election, more than 4000 candidates from 46 political parties are scrambling for a place in the 109-seat House of Assembly.
It is a sad fact that state finances and resource rents from massive mining and gas developments are regarded as the spoils of power.
Funds that could have been used to build hospitals and schools have funnelled into real estate in Cairns and the Gold Coast.
Politicians and their business cronies fly to Brisbane for medical treatment.
The rural poor in PNG get little treatment at all.
Even in Port Moresby, life-saving drugs are stolen from hospitals and sold on black markets.
Andrew Anton Mako says the ``cargo cult'' mentality extends landholders in the areas where development in taking place. They are also attempting to cash in by demanding compensation and royalties.
Much of the money goes on 4WD vehicles and consumer goods. Mako says villagers around the Porgera gold mine are a good example of people getting fast money and blowing it even quicker.
The money on offer here is mind boggling. A consortium led by Exxon-Mobil is developing the $US15.7 billion PNG Liquefied Natural Gas project which is set to begin exports to Japan, China and Taiwan in 2014.
The consortium, which includes Aussie partner Oil Search, is set to expand the processing and export facility it is building near Port Moresby from two production units to three. Gas reserves in the Highlands are estimated at more than 9 trillion cubic feet.
In addition to this, China's Metallurgical Construction Corp is developing the $1.8 billion Ramu nickel project.
Peter O'Neill has gone on record as saying that PNG's infrastructure is a disgrace with roads, bridges wharves and airports in a disgraceful state. If he wins the June 23 polls his challenge will be divert at least some of he proceeds of the mining boom to providing basic services and infrastructure. If PNG botches the boom, it is well on the way to becoming the world's next failed state.
David Costello is the foreign editor of The Courier-Mail
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