Sydney Morning Herald 22/1/2011
POLITICIANS often count on the public having a short memory span, but a record was set this week by Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare.
The ''Grand Chief'', as the independence-transition leader is honoured, returned to office explaining he had been away on holiday to use up his accrued leave.
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This struck a lot of his countrymen as odd, because when he left work five weeks earlier, they distinctly remember him saying he was standing aside to face a tribunal that would decide if he had violated leadership rules.
Some unkind reporters dug out the press release from his office which said Somare said would ''now voluntarily step aside and allow the Deputy Prime Minister, Sam Abal, to assume full function and responsibility of the Office of the Prime Minister while he attends to clearing his name''.
Somare has been referred to a leadership tribunal to face charges that he didn't submit statements of his income and assets between 1994 and 1997 and that statements he put
in between 1998 and 2004 were filed late. This was the culmination of a long skirmish with PNG's official watchdog, the Ombudsman Commission.
His daughter and media officer, Betha Somare, eventually acknowledged the changed story. ''We issued a statement earlier that he had stepped aside but we have been advised by the lawyers that he could not step aside, he just took his leave," she told reporters. Her father would now step down once the chief justice set up a tribunal.
For now, the wily old man of Port Moresby politics seems to have wriggled out of trouble.
The opposition had hoped to mount a no-confidence motion against Somare in a rare meeting of Parliament late last week, following the defection of some senior figures from the government last year and Somare's dismissal of his former deputy, the powerful Highlands leader Don Polye.
The Parliament had been adjourned in November until May, precisely to stave off such a possibility. But it had to be recalled for one day after the Supreme Court deemed as invalid its vote last June to extend the term of the then governor-general Sir Paulias Matane. Last week the MPs voted in someone else, a controversial former forests minister and sitting MP, Michael Ogio. He will shortly fly off to London to get his appointment from Queen Elizabeth, and be made a Knight of the British Empire - the usual gong.
All of which could be amusing, except that the leadership antics of Somare and his family - his son Arthur holds the key public enterprises portfolio - are conducted against a declining public faith in the honesty of Papua New Guinea's government.
Transparency International, the respected monitor of these things, has just issued its latest ''Global Corruption Barometer'', which shows an almost universal feeling around the world that bribery and corruption are getting worse.
Some 91,500 people in 86 countries were asked whether the level of corruption had increased in their country over the last three years. The global financial crisis, and its revelations of deep-seated fraud and cover-ups, have taken a toll even in the most developed societies.
A majority of Australians (54 per cent) and Canadians (62 per cent) thought corruption had increased since 2006. In European countries it was in the high 60s and 70s. Bizarrely, 73 per cent of New Zealanders thought corruption was worse, even though their country is rated worldwide as one of the very cleanest, along with Singapore, Sweden and Denmark.
About one in four people worldwide said they had paid a bribe, rising to one in two in Africa, in the last year for services in nine areas, ranging from health to taxation but mostly to police. In a lot of Third World countries, fewer people said corruption had got worse, probably because it was bad to start with. Corruption hits the world's poor the worst.
Papua New Guinea almost took the prize for the plummeting faith in honest government - 85 per cent of those surveyed said corruption had got worse, a level beaten only in Venezuela (86 per cent), Romania (87 per cent) and the West African nation of Senegal (88 per cent).
That's quite a vote of no-confidence, whatever may happen when its Parliament is allowed to sit again.
It's important to Australia, because Papua New Guinea is about to enjoy a bonanza that corrupt politicians could easily squander. The liquefied natural gas project in the Southern Highlands and Gulf of Papua is coming on stream over the next three years, doubling gross domestic product and giving a huge lift to government revenues.
But inflation is rising, expected to increase to more than 8 per cent this year. The
6.7 million population is growing fast, likely to almost double by mid-century.
The government has more to spend, but in key social areas such as education it is still well below what it was more than a decade ago. ''Despite large funding increases, service delivery is still chronically inadequate for a large part of the population,'' writes a development economist, Aaron Batten, on the Australian National University's East Asia Forum website.
And corrupt, he might have added. Into this system, Canberra is trying to push $457 million in aid this financial year, just a shade below what we give to Indonesia, such is the priority we attach to stability and development in Papua New Guinea.
Michael Ahrens, the head of Transparency International for Australia, says curbing corruption is an urgent regional need. ''Every dollar misdirected by corruption is a dollar taken from some of the poorest people in the world that was earmarked for education, development, or better health systems,'' he said this week.
A leadership that shuts down its Parliament as much as it can, and has been officially pulled up for not declaring income, hardly inspires confidence it can spread the new petroleum wealth wisely and fairly.