Jo Chandler in the Saturday Age writes ...
WHEN Sir Michael Somare last stood before a crowd gathered in the highlands town of Tari, Papua New Guinea, locals in the notoriously hot-blooded constituency hurled stones at him. Councillor Jim Wake, who was standing alongside the then prime minister on the podium last July, recalls the missiles very nearly found their mark. ''They almost broke his head, but someone blocked it.'' A shaken prime minister was soon bundled off by his security entourage.
Tari is no place to be without friends. The wild west outpost - a clearing in the endless jungle, little more than a long airstrip surrounded by a cluster of thatch huts and ramshackle buildings without phone lines or power - is a place where wigmen warriors in grass skirts and running shoes brandish bows, arrows and, when things get lively, shotguns.
They are lively the day The Saturday Age arrives. A local man has just been beheaded with a machete in a tribal fight in a nearby village, a school burnt to the ground, women and children have fled and two foreign workers on ExxonMobil's new Komo air strip site have been attacked by locals with bush knives. The project workforce is locked down for security.
It might sound like the badlands, but Tari and the nearby mountains are the epicentre of PNG, crucible of economic hope and political strife. Down the road is buried treasure, the $US16 billion ($A14.9 billion) PNG liquefied natural gas project.
References to the LNG sound like a mantra across the nation. Many of PNG's dreams of future prosperity are pinned on the project, but in Tari the dream has already soured for many.
While some landowners have pocketed huge benefits payments, there's resentment that so far, despite all the frantic momentum of the project, for many it's delivered little more than dislocation from their gardens and markets, high inflation from the warped economy and dust thrown up from passing convoys.
Local alderman Wake was one of the signatories on the benefit-sharing arrangements, but ''I broke the agreement,'' he says, ''because the Somare government, they bulldozed every process.
''We want it [the LNG], but they don't come in a proper way.'' He says people want more talk, less action, until outstanding questions of land, jobs and compensation are sorted out. But the Port Moresby government is hungry for the revenue windfall and the companies for their profits. The bulldozer ploughs on.
Wake was unsurprised by the attack on Somare, though officials later played it down as the misbehaviour of a few disgruntled youths. After all, the Grand Chief had come to preside at the launch of the Hela Transitional Authority - a milestone recognising a decades-long, impassioned campaign by local clans spawned from the common ancestor Hela to create a new province that recognised their heritage, and with Tari at its heart.
But ask around Tari and surrounding villages and there's no shortage of people still throwing rocks at the now unceremoniously ousted Somare government - and at politicians of all stripes - venting frustrations that echo through the rural and remote communities that are home to 85 per cent of PNG's exploding population, now nudging 7 million. Around Tari exists a microcosm of the tensions that afflict much of the nation.
Many people are impoverished and marginalised, despite the ritual boast that PNG is an island of gold, floating in a sea of oil, surrounded by gas. A paper published by the Lowy Institute in 2009 estimated that about 1 million of its people live in extreme poverty, on less than $50 a year, with limited or no access to cash income, health and education services, markets, transport and food security. Many more endure insufficient or poor quality services.
Malnourished children die from preventable, treatable disease. The maternal death rate - which doubled over a decade to some 733 per 100,000 births (in Australia, the equivalent figure is about eight) - is among the highest in the world, causing widespread grief and devastating generational damage to families. Many communities are vulnerable to escalating crime and violence, but have little, if any, access to police or courts or formal justice.
Despite this despairing landscape, when invited to reflect on Somare's legacy, citizens often express personal regard and affection for his unifying endurance on the political scene, perhaps a reflection of Melanesian homage to ''Big Man'' leadership. Many also laud his political contributions in earlier years - elected in 1968, leading the country to independence in 1975, serving as PM until 1980, and again from '82 to '85, and from 2002 until last month.
But in the same breath they are unforgiving of his presiding over the failure and disintegration of basic services and a political system and bureaucratic culture made moribund by corruption - evident everywhere from the daily newspaper headlines cataloguing missing millions in a seemingly endless cycle of scandals, to the random city roadblocks where police routinely confect offences for cash fines and clear passage. Of Somare's rough reception, Wake shrugs. ''In Hela, it's always like this. We don't practise sorcery or magic. When we get angry, we fight.''
IN Port Moresby for the past month, the educated elite have argued the moral, political and constitutional aspects of the events on August 2, which saw Sir Michael Somare deposed; analysed the bewildering new parliamentary alliance of regarded elder statesmen such as Sir Mekere Morauta, Sir Julius Chan and Bart Philemon, impressive new generation leaders such as Sam Basil, and dubious players and profiteers with form too murky to catalogue; and ruminated on the character and capabilities of surprise new Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, who emphatically pledges no tolerance of corruption, but is silent on his own besmirched history.
But it is not forgotten. The Post-Courier website provides a prominent link to the 10-year-old commission of inquiry report that lists numerous findings against O'Neill, a highly successful businessman and the son of an Irish-Australian magistrate and his Southern Highlands wife, concluding that he had ''definitely benefited from the proceeds of the NPF [National Provident Fund] Tower Fraud''.
Despite this shadow, the chairman of Transparency International PNG, Lawrence Stephens, welcomes O'Neill's declarations to confront corruption. ''And he is clearly competent,'' he says of the new Prime Minister, though like many academics and legal commentators, Stephens is troubled by the events that delivered him power. After a couple of thwarted courtroom challenges, the legality of the move, which declared the position of prime minister vacant while Somare convalesced in a Singapore hospital after heart surgery, with the defection of 48 MPs and the succession of O'Neill with a resounding vote of 70 to 24, is now being considered by the PNG Supreme Court.
One of PNG's most regarded constitutional experts and a senior legal adviser to the government, Dr Eric Kwa, last week told a gathering at the Australian National University that in his view the process did not follow the rule of law and was therefore unconstitutional, a position echoed by many experts. In PNG the constitution, not the Parliament, was supreme, Kwa said.
He acknowledged a counter argument that the weight of numbers in the vote indicated that people did overwhelmingly want change, and that a new government was justified because the old one was viewed as corrupt. This might be morally correct, Kwa said, but ''the constitution says that if you want to change the PM, there are set rules that you need to follow. You don't just go about changing the PM because you want to do so.''
The sudden power shift has put the nation on tenterhooks. On the streets of Port Moresby for several days in the aftermath, rumours of a military coup were rife, mobile phones beating out updates like jungle drums. Street vendors quickly sold out of daily papers cataloguing the twists and turns. Community leaders counselled journalists to be professional and careful in their reporting of events, and not to throw a match into the tinder box.
But far away from the capital in Tari, Jim Wake just embraces the turn of the political tide. ''In Hela, this is the prayer they have been making. The heavenly father has answered their prayer.''
As The Saturday Age travelled from the highlands, down the Fly River to the south coast, and back to the Port Moresby settlements, similar sentiment was heard from mothers, fathers and community leaders. Village people seem less cynical than the intelligentsia. Unplugged from the information age, they invest earnest hope that a new government will find new momentum to overcome the crippling corruption, ineptitude and inertia.
''There is a perception down at the grassroots level … that the politicians, the big men, don't care about the people in terms of the delivery of basic services,'' says Dr Alphonse Gelu, a legal and political specialist from PNG's National Research Institute.
At the other end of the spectrum, many city commentators also welcome an end to what they regarded as an artificial and deeply dangerous semblance of political stability, despite the uncertainty of the political moment it has created.
At least it ended the disruptive power vacuum of recent months, in which a long list of critical legislative changes requiring urgent attention ahead of the 2012 election have been allowed to stagnate, says Paul Barker, head of PNG's Institute of National Affairs think tank. ''There are some quite good people in there who have been preaching good governance for some time, so one would hope that O'Neill would be looking to the longer term and wanting to demonstrate that he is able to put together a credible, accountable government.''
Stephens doesn't mourn the loss of perceived stability under Somare. ''The reality is that stability was imposed as a way of shutting people up and get on with doing whatever it is you feel like, with very little sign that there should be any accountability,'' he says.
It may have made the international community and investors happy, but it delivered little to Papua New Guineans.
''We're supposed to have a Parliament that meets occasionally, and that doesn't happen. We're supposed to have a Parliament that allows for public debate, and that's not encouraged, in fact its stifled.''
Gelu reflects that ''up to the 2007 election, Sir Michael was very assertive. He made decisions and stood by them. At the same time, he was prepared to listen to people - that's one thing about his quality of leadership.
''But then he started listening to everyone around him. This group, the 'kitchen cabinet' [all powerbrokers with ties to Somare's East Sepik constituency] were running the affairs of this country. These people were breaking all the rules. And Somare stood by.''
People could see the lawlessness that made many of their communities dangerous places reflected in political behaviour at the highest level. Gelu says that disregard for the law and the constitution has become entrenched in the PNG Parliament - with debate on critical issues routinely nobbled and standing orders abused. Last year it sat for just four weeks of a required minimum nine.
Gelu, like Kwa, argues that the mechanism for the recent power shift ''broke all the rules''.
On this, Somare himself heartily agrees, issuing a statement from Singapore late this week claiming that he would return to PNG this weekend to reclaim his seat and ''complete my term as the only legally elected prime minister of Papua New Guinea''.
Gelu says that if Somare does re-enter the fray, his ability as a campaigner should not be underestimated.
''He is very good when it comes to elections. But if Somare is not around, the politics in this country will be very different. In 2012 we might see some new emerging leaders who might replace him in terms of affecting votes and the grassroots.''
The forthcoming election is now the focus of great anticipation and apprehension.
The O'Neill team didn't waste time launching its campaign for re-election, announcing a bold, ambitious list of reforms - among them establishing an independent commission against corruption, free education for all students to year 10 in the next budget, reinvigoration of the police force and the sale of the government's luxury Falcon jet, with the proceeds to go to health and education.
While such initiatives were welcomed, if their viability questioned, a suggestion by mining minister Byron Chan that the government would also hand over full ownership of PNG's resources to customary landowners triggered alarm in resources circles before being played down.
''This is the crudest sort of populism,'' observed ANU's Dr Bill Standish, a veteran PNG observer who has written extensively on the damaging culture of big money politics in PNG. ''It would strip the government of all revenue and would certainly be a nightmare for the mining companies.''
Whatever the aspirations of the new government, he is cynical of the possibility of meaningful change and delivery of core services until sweeping reforms unshackle MPs from a dysfunctional political structure where revenue, most of it from resources, is held tight in the capital; responsibility for services shunted to cash-strapped provinces; and MPs try to rely on blatant vote buying from slush funds to win and hold their seats.
ANALYSTS fear long simmering tensions may explode during during next year's general election, an always fraught and frequently violent five-yearly exercise in democracy, not least in the highlands and especially in Hela, where the unfinished business of formally declaring the new province sits like a ticking bomb.
''No Hela, No LNG'' is a declaration that rings loudly across the district. Local MP James Marabe has suggested that unless his constituency gets essential services and a better cut of the deal, there could be a repeat of Bougainville, where tensions over benefits and the impacts of the project underwrote conflict and shut down one of the world's largest copper and gold mines. ''This should not be seen as an idle threat,'' warns Australia National University academic and PNG election specialist Dr Nicole Haley.
Professional observers and keen-eyed locals attest to the build-up of caches of arms and fake military and police uniforms. This could ''have the potential to shape and determine PNG's future in ways that perhaps have not been fully appreciated,'' Haley recently warned a political symposium.
A senior PNG political analyst, Dr Jim McPherson warned almost two years ago that the government was fast running out of time to sort out a whole raft of constitutional amendments, or risked a crisis akin to Fiji's deferred elections.
The pile of unfinished business before the Parliament in Waigani includes the two new provinces of Hela and Jiwaka, adjusting outdated electoral boundaries, failure to fix a legislative hole repealing the seats of provincial MPs and stymied progress on a widely supported bill to make PNG an inclusive democracy and create 22 reserved women's seats, one for each province.
The bill proposes a mechanism to push through the cultural and social constraints that have locked women out of PNG politics. There is one female representative - Queensland-born Dame Carol Kidu - who is retiring, and has devoted much of her last term to progress of her Women's Bill. PNG's rapid transition on the back of the resources boom is proving to be a dangerous and difficult time for voiceless rural women, says Dr Orovu Sepoe, an academic and activist for the bill, now with the ANU. As mothers and carers, they feel the lack of services most keenly and they disproportionately endure the violence of rupturing family and social systems. ''Male parliamentarians miss their perspectives,'' Sepoe says. ''Women who are empowered strongly see that women have a role to play in PNG. Until they are there, the wealth we are going to gain from resources will just go to waste.''
Lawrence Stephens is hopeful that women's voices will give priority back to core issues such as agriculture. ''Most of the population are rural. And yet we have an agriculture department that has forgotten about them. These are the tragedies. We get enthused and carried away with the dreams of other people to exploit this, that or the other, and lose sight of the basic things that should happen - services reaching communities, health and education.''
Despite the myriad problems, Stephens, who came to Port Moresby from Canberra in 1975 and found himself utterly engrossed with the place, says: ''I am not despairing. I am really impressed with people in this country, with their level of resilience and concern for each other.''
He still holds great hope for the future, particularly in the very vigorous grassroots democracy, which finds momentum even as parliamentary processes fail.
Last year, when there was an attempt in the capital to change legislation to curtail the powers of the Ombudsman, there were huge demonstrations on the streets of Port Moresby. Every year the annual walk against corruption brings out thousands of people across the nation.
Mobile phones and social media are galvanising popular activism in PNG as they have elsewhere, and a vigorous blogging culture treads where traditional media couldn't or wouldn't go.
Among the rising stars of the ''blogatariate'' is Martyn Namarong, a former medical student born in Gulf province who now sells beetle nut on the street and writes eloquently and powerfully on questions of youth disenfranchisement, ethnic identity, systemic failures of development aid, corruption and culture.
''I don't dream any more, I am grounded in reality,'' he writes. ''I grapple with the facts as they are. Perhaps there are too many visionaries and dreamers such that no one is there to deal with the reality of life in Papua New Guinea. Even a vast majority of people who are trapped like me do not wish to deal with reality. That is why fast-money schemes continue to thrive and voters are gullible towards politicians.''
On the new era of politics, he says: ''I have deliberately said nothing about what the government should do … [just] that it must implement all it has been planning to do.''