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New Guinea Martyrs day observance

Martyrs Day and PNG 25th: 3rd September, 2000
Rowan Callick, journalist of the Australian Financial Review.

I have come from 50,000 years
So they think.
Others say I was born on 16 September, 1975.
Let my arrows fly another 50,000 years.

Thus wrote poet and Baptist pastor, and one-time colleague of mine, Kumalau Tawali.

Martyrs Day always comes just a few days before that other great occasion for placing Australia's closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, closer to our hearts: Independence Day. And this year is a very special anniversary. On this September 16, it will be 25 years since Gough Whitlam and Sir John Kerr handed PNG back to its inhabitants, in the forms of Prime Minister Michael Somare and Governor General Sir John Guise, the latter educated at St Paul's school for mixed race children at the great Anglican centre of Dogura.

This important anniversary in the life of Australia's only substantial colony will, sadly, be all but forgotten by Australians. For it comes on the day when the major global pagan event, the Olympic Games, opens in that great pagan city of Sydney. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Governor General can be in Port Moresby on September 16; fair enough. But neither can Gough Whitlam, also unavoidably detained at the Olympics; and so on down a long list, I gather.

Some of us in the media are doing our best to re-present PNG to the Australian people at this time. I hope that many of you were able to look at the two programmes produced by my mate Sean Dorney that ABC TV screened in recent weeks, in which he talked with Papua New Guineans about their predicaments, their plans and their hopes. I found the programmes both honest and uplifting in that most of the people Sean spoke to, appeared determined to make something of their lives and of their country, despite the grim state into which it has steadily plunged. The TV critic of The Age was the only writer who failed to admire Sean's programmes, which says more about that him than it does about Sean or about PNG. The critic called PNG "dull", a strange epithet for someone sitting in a 1960s building in Spencer Street.

I know that many of you have, like me, lived in PNG - some for much of your lives. And I'm sure they were times suffused with colour and warmth, however tough the road on which you travelled.

Now what of PNG's own road?

It was never, of course, much of a country in a unified sense. It comprised, until the 1860s, an aggregation of tribes living at the east end of the archipelago that began with Singapore and was carved up by Britain and Holland. Germany, belatedly expansionist under Prussian leadership, put its flag up over the northern part, New Guinea, and Britain - soon, gladly, ceding administration to Queensland briefly and then to Federated Australia - the south, Papua. After World War One, German New Guinea was entrusted by the League of Nations to Australia too. Most of the "development" before independence resulted from: the Pacific War occupations, when Australians discovered their subjects as "fuzzy wuzzy angels"; and from the churches, Roman, Lutheran, United, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist. Scant resources had come from Down South, as Australia is known there. Such little interest was paid that it was not until the late 1930s that outsiders - the Leahy Brothers and Jim Taylor - discovered, on a quest for gold, that the central Highlands, believed "empty", was teeming with people who had been using massive drains and other agricultural works for tens of thousands of years.

The winds of change that had blown through Africa in the 1950s, driving the ill-fated decolonisations then and in the 1960s, were also inevitably forcing the pace in PNG, the northern half of which remained subject to the League of Nations' successor, the United Nations. Echoing African independence movements, schoolteacher Michael Somare and a group of friends - including Australian kiaps or patrol officers Tony Voutas and Barry Holloway - formed the Papua and New Guinea Union, whose acronym was of course Pangu. They won power at the 1972 election, surprisingly persuading the leader of the Peoples Progress Party, Julius Chan, to quit his partnership with the planter-led United Party and form a Somare led government, which paved the way to independence.

This is what Michael Somare - who is Minister for Mining and also for Bouganville in the current Government of Sir Mekere Morauta - wrote in his autobiography, "Sana", published at the time of independence: "Despite what we used to be told in the past, PNG is a country of very rich and abundant resources. There is no shortage of firms and investors eager to develop this resources. Our problem at the moment is not that we have to go out and search for capital, is is rather that we must be able to control and restrict all the foreign capital that is being offered."

He continued: "One thing that gives me great hope for this country is that many of our educated young men and women are not seeking the highly paid jobs in Port Moresby but are returning home to their villages to organise their people at grassroots level.

"Despite the pressures on us, Papua New Guineans will succeed in the end in building a society in which decision making is a communal process - a society believing in the sharing of wealth rather than possessed by the mad spirit of competition characteristic of the Western world."

That was 25 years ago. Some of the seeds of PNG's tragic decline can be traced back to such well-meaning remarks. For the country began life in a defensive economic mode - the world is trying to do us out of our wealth - rather than by recognising that its resources - especially what is now recognised as the key to national survival and wealth, its educated workforce - were thin and required substantial nurture. Very few educated young men or women return to their villages except on festive occasions such as. Independence holidays; and politics has for two decades been seen as the best, fastest and probably only way to move ahead and gain access to wealth.

Many of the 4.7 million Papua New Guineans will be marking rather than celebrating on September 16. For most of these years have been remorselessly dispiriting. In many key indicators, the standard of living has actually fallen - a shocking betrayal of the hopes of 1975, when PNG under Somare appeared to be leading the way towards a new kind of society, between communism and capitalism. The tragic slide of the country from then, is illustrated by Noah Musingku. He is a Bougainvillean who founded a fraudulent pyramid scheme that garnered $A350 million from families, businesses, churches and other sources desperate to believe his cargo-cult claims of 100 per cent per month interest. When he was finally taken to court by a distressed "investor" - from Wanigela, an Anglican - who had lost half her savings, he rented the Sir John Guise Sports Stadium where he welcomed 600 investors from a podium with the announcement: "Welcome to the independent state of the Kingdom of Papala." The state, he claimed, provided U-Vistract with sovereign immunity from prosecution by PNG. "Today", he declared, "marks a very important day in the history of the U-Vistract system and of PNG, and indeed the universe as a whole". In a way he was right. It marked, I believe, the nadir in PNG's fortunes. From pioneering Papua New Guinea to pyramid-scheme Papala. There may have been a few tenders leaked and family sorties in a government car, but in PNG's first few years corruption was scarcely considered even worth discussing. By the mid-1980s, many people were talking about little else. Among the factors that helped it to ferment were the rapid extension of the political class, with the election of full-time, salaried politicians in all the 19 provinces and the growth of economic protection, with its attendant tariffs, monopolies, licences and special deals, all extending ministerial discretion and opening opportunities for graft. There were two other factors. First, following successive elections the educational qualifications of politicians kept rising. Many ministers no longer felt obliged to follow departmental advice, or were even interested in doing so. And public servants, especially after those at the top began to be put on contract, started to swim with the new tide, with its new motto: what the minister wants, the minister gets. This has been amply illustrated by the judicial inquiry into the Sandline mercenary affair and the ombudsman's inquiry into the public servants' pension funds purchasing of a building in Cairns from developer Warren Anderson for $18.72 million when he had bought it a fortnight before for $9.75 million; its book value not checked by the fund was estimated at just $5.5 million. During both events, top officials bent over backwards meeting late at night in ministers' houses, writing letters and making phone calls well beyond their proper remits to second-guess and provide what the political elite appeared to want, even though it was unconstitutional. Carpetbaggers from all over the world, and with Australians prominent, have played their part, too, in pushing PNG down the slippery slope, especially since it became a significant mining and oil player. They have included the exotic Princess Leila, who claimed to be related to the late Ethiopean Emperor Hailie Selassie but who operated from a store in Guam, and a Brisbane businessman who used as his PNG alias John Alexander de l'Instant Parade. The opening up of PNG's wonderful virgin tracts of rainforest to commercial exploitation from the mid-1980s accelerated this process, which was reinforced by Sir Paias Wingti's Look North campaign to reorient the country towards Asia, which involved taking hundreds of officials and businesspeople on flights with him, chiefly to Malaysia. In the end, the only significant investments that resulted were a monopoly cement plant granted to Korean conglomerate Halla, a monopoly on tinned mackerel PNG's favourite instant protein, brought frozen from Chile to a Malaysian firm, and the slaughter of the rainforests at the hands mostly of Malaysian companies who needed to fill contracts, substantially in Japan, for tropical hardwoods but who had been frozen out of most of Asia by new environmental restraints. And corruption continues, despite brave and diligent reporting by PNG journalists, the best efforts of the Ombudsman Commission and sustained popular revulsion. A then-PNG minister, wanted on a corruption charge, called to fellow shoppers for help when two Australian federal police officers, seconded to the Ombudsman, attempted to serve a warrant on him in a supermarket; the shoppers rushed to restrain the minister so the men could summons him. This year, inquiries have begun into not only the pyramid schemes but also the collapse of the National Provident Fund, into which private sector employers and employees have been placing 7 per cent and 5 per cent respectively of wages, with more than half of the savings vanished. Only on Friday, the central bank governor was forced to sack the board of the biggest bank in PNG, the state-owned PNG Banking Corp, because of the number of bad loans it had sanctioned.

Obviously, this all raises questions about the country's leadership.

And certainly huge, unreal expectations weigh on the shoulders of the men elected prime minister Papua New Guinea has only produced in 25 years a handful of women politicians. But memories or perceptions of failure also appear short-lived. The first three of these six big men have each been given two terms at the top. The country's founding father, Sir Michael Somare (still widely known as the Chief), remains the leader best known in Australia. Somare was a schoolteacher when he founded the Pangu Party. Somare came from the Sepik River region but had lived in various provinces as ateacher and as the son of a policeman, and for a decade unified and personified the nation. From his close friendship with towering Fijian leader Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who had taken his country through independence earlier, in 1970 Somare emerged wearing trademark sulu suits and articulating a Melanesian Way of consensus and of integral, egalitarian development that leant on Mara's Pacific Way philosophy.

But the rapid economic growth, easily achievable from PNG's desultory colonial base, and the overnight jobs localisation process that had satisfied the independence generation began to run out of steam. A new opposition leader brushed aside the gentlemanly but deferential Sir Tei Abal. He was also a Highlander, but younger and of a far hungrier disposition: Sir Iambakey Okuk. He shocked the country with his first motion of no confidence in the Chief. But gradually MPs began to come to terms with the prospect of a change of leader, and with the concomitant fresh prospects that presented for their own careers; the first inklings were beginning to emerge in the late seventies that politics could become profitable. From then, from the late '70s, the rot neverreally stopped until Sir Mekere Morauta was elected Prime Minister 14 months ago.

Papua New Guineans and especially their political elite had begun to expect an Asian-style rapid expansion in opportunities and wealth, an expectation verging on cargo cult, that was never and could never be fulfilled. Promises, however, had to be made, especially every five years at election time. The inevitable disappointment, the failure to provide everyone a place on PNG's gravy train, bred discontent and displaced at regular intervals the leaders, who have been virtually defenceless in the absence of party policies, loyalty or discipline. The two years under Bill Skate were widely viewed as the most corrupt, and the worst administered, in PNG's brief but increasingly sad history as a nation. The size of Morauta's victory over Skate 99, including, eccentrically, Skate himself, to five underlines the sense of shame that had set in. The former prime minister, who became Opposition Leader, is facing charges, including the suborning of witnesses. Somare has founded a dynasty; his son Arthur is also an MP, and is governor of East Sepik. Julius Chan is again making money but champing at the bit to return to politics. Rabbie Namaliu is an active backbencher. Wingti has become, through a trail of investments, the richest man in the South Pacific, and denies any desire to pull the strings of his People's Democratic Movement, which dominates Morauta's coalition. Morauta is guiding PNG back towards normalcy, quietly demonstrating to those who wrote him off as a bureaucrat that he does indeed possess the political flair to steer the leaky ship of state away from the rapids.

In late July, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Sir Mekere Morauta, announced that he had stepped in to halt negotiations between the Milne Bay provincial government, then led by Dame Josephine Abaijah and the Knights of Malta, Sovereign Order, Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, Foundation of Poland. This august-sounding body was about to gain from the provincial government a guarantee licensing it to raise $200 million. Morauta described it, with characteristic understatement, as a dubious financial institution. A day earlier he had said that his Government was planning to ban all gun ownership important, he said, for the continuing clamp-down on PNG's pandemic crime and in turn vital in attracting investment and tourists. That's how it has gone with Morauta in his first year in power: edge forward with reforms and make sure that you are not undermined by carpetbaggers and eager PNG fellow-travellers behind your back. Morauta, an exemplary top bureaucrat and banker in his earlier career, grew increasingly ironic in his private assessments of most of PNG's political elite as he developed a highly successful prawn-trawling venture, Delta Seafoods, mainly exporting to Japan, that he still owns but which is now chiefly run by his economist wife, Roslyn, who comes from Toowoomba in Queensland. Their teamwork is a significant element in the remarkable success of his prime ministership.

Morautas distress over the management of the country reached such a level in 1997, that he finally took the plunge himself, being elected from a highly competitive field for Moresby North-West. It took him two years to become prime minister, when he displaced Bill Skate by the extraordinary margin of 99-5 MPs. His arrival was widely applauded as offering the possibility of a measured, experienced administrative grip on a disintegrating country that set out 25 years ago with such promise, with Morauta himself one of Somare's inner circle of advisers.

But observers who had seen high expectations of successive fresh messiahs crushed warned that Morauta was too much the bureaucrat, that he too would be crushed by PNG's relentlessly self-interested politics. They have been confounded. He has driven through Parliament a succession of reforms and more are to come before it closes for the first half of 2001, which guarantee that Morauta cannot be unseated by disappointed rivals including former ministers he has sacked for disloyalty and those seeking one last ride on the gravy train before the next election is due in mid-2002. A second, full term would enable Morauta to bed down his reforms but, more importantly, to restore to PNG a culture of sound administration and to start to deliver again desperately needed services: schools, clinics, maintained roads.

What has been his strategy to date? In part, it has been to make government boring again. Papua New Guineans had grown sick of political excitement of being presented with a constantly changing stream of new ideas and projects never implemented and often looted, while the services they required and enjoyed, in many cases, at independence 25 years ago collapsed. For instance, Morauta with the bright, canny Bob Igara, his permanent secretary appointed one of the best women in the bureaucracy, Felicia Dobunaba, to establish an agency through which every Cabinet submission must be channelled. There would be no more hijacking of Cabinets, Morauta decided, by ad hoc proposals that sounded attractive, allegedly required immediate attention, and undermined both the Prime Minister and the Budget. Morauta frequently consults one of Australia's best-known economists, ANU Professor Ross Garnaut who is chairman of PNG gold mine Lihir and was a colleague in the PNG finance department back at independence. And he has recruited Ken Baxter, who helped as head of the Victorian and NSW Premier's Departments to reform the bureaucracies under Jeff Kennett and Bob Carr, as a consultant to set up effective systems in the PNG public service. Senior bureaucrats are being schooled in governance, and told to report ministers who urge them to act ultra-constitutionally. For familiar reasons to improve efficiency, to realise investments and to enable government to refocus on its core activity of delivering services and acting as a business regulator the PNG Government has embarked on a long-postponed privatisation process that began in the early 1990s with some botched corporatisations. This will require extraordinary determination, skill and luck to finesse without reopening the doors to corruption. Morauta has, however, demonstrated considerable cunning in the run-up to the privatisations, in his handling of political players he cannot quickly remove he governs through a typical PNG coalition that divvies up the spoils of government by handing out jobs.

He has steadily encircled people whose loyalty he suspects or whom he fears are corrupt by appointing others whom he trusts absolutely to positions immediately above and below them. And he, with Igara, reinforces this by requiring a return to routine accountability. For instance, he has brought in Sir Henry ToRobert, Central Bank governor for 20 years until replaced by Morauta himself, as managing director of the privatisation commission itself.

He has also begun to address the instability at the heart of PNG's political system. Politics has widely been viewed as the best even the only route to getting rich in PNG, and players have in the past shifted their loyalties constantly to ensure their own advancement. The casual structure of parties, initially based loosely on policy or on regional identity but are now merely temporary marriages of convenience (with wonderful symbolism, the United Party was the first to split between government and opposition benches; that has now become routine), is to be challenged by Morauta's Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Bill, which will require MPs who shift allegiance to seek a fresh mandate through a by-election. Morauta has also foreshadowed a shift to optional preferential voting from PNG's first-past-the-post system. This has led to vast numbers of candidates, enabling people to win seats with as little as 5 per cent support. Some MPs then focus on delivering services to ensure the loyalty of a mere section of a constituency probably their own wantoks, or clan which may prove sufficient to keep the seat.

One of the country's most notorious abuses has been the disbursement of $1 million per year in slush funds that goes to most MPs. Morauta demonstrated his political subtlety by declining to cancel the scheme, which might have cost him office overnight, but instead requiring considerably increased accountability. This has proven sufficient to win the good housekeeping seal of approval from the World Bank, required as a condition for a $150 million loan. Bill Skate, now the Opposition Leader, called the deal a sell-out of PNG's sovereignty, but Morauta brushed this aside as a lot of huff and puff. Such far-reaching reforms require the underpinning of a sound economy, which holds out the prospect of prosperity and thus electoral popularity. Its management is Morauta's forte.

For decades a familiar, and respected, figure in the key forums of the international community, Morauta has already bedded down a structural adjustment program with big new commitments from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank and friendly neighbours led by Australia with a $133 million loan. The Prime Minister has won virtually unanimous backing from PNG's business community, which has hung in through extraordinarily hard times and is usually, and understandably, highly sceptical about politicians though traces of concern remain in some business quarters about Morauta's capacity to neutralise the lurking shadow of Sir Paias Wingti, the founder of the People's Democratic Movement which dominates the coalition government. When Skate lost office, the kina was worth 49; in July it reached 70. On the anniversary of Morautas election, Standard & Poor's revised its outlook on PNG from negative to stable. Most Papua New Guineans will settle for that: they like the sound of stable. But Morauta is indicating that he might manage to go one better. PNG's early mantra, that of self-reliance in the face of apparently threatening alien ideologies, has proven tragically misbegotten. Our new world is one of interdependence, of getting wired up, of networks, of free trade. The current PNG leadership understands this well, and is well respected internationally. And in Australian terms the renewed closeness will be admirably symbolised by the 2,400 km gas pipeline planned from Hides in Southern Highlands down to south eastern Queensland, tying the two countries together again like an umbilical cord. It is only sad for us to note that our own Anglican Church in Australia has - through its effectively moribund board of missions - itself failed to read the times, and remains mired in an outmoded mindset, abandoning PNG to its own devices. Clearly the ball is in our own court to change that.

The road to reform remains like most in PNG rough. But in contrast with the next biggest Pacific nations, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, PNG is now making progress. It may, in the next 25 years, start to fulfil some of the high hopes with which it set out as a nation.

My own private hopes, include that young Australians will seek and discover thesame sense of excitement in PNG that I found when I arrived there at the same age as the young Tim Flannery, today one of Australia's most influential scientists and writers.

In his memoir Throwim Way Leg, he writes:

I was 26 when I first travelled overseas. I went to PNG. I can still feel the wonderment, tinged with excitement even fear which flared in my breast. The crisp, cool mountain air, the unfamiliar smells, sights and sounds all embedded themselves deep in my consciousness. Everything was new and strange.


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