by Ross Howard (reviewer)News Weekly
Books: 'PAPUA NEW GUINEA: People Politics and History since 1975', by Sean Dorney
, September 23, 2000
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: People Politics and History since 1975
by Sean Dorney
Available from News Weekly Books for $29.95 (plus p&h)
Expert tour of PNG
Sean Dorney first won my admiration in Port Moresby playing half back for the Panthers, fearlessly tackling Jonah Lomu-like opponents. He went on to captain the PNG rugby league team. His journalistic career, largely as the ABC’s reporter in PNG, has been equally impressive.
His chapters on Bougainville and the Sandline inquiry are excellent, as are those on the failed experiment in provincial governments, PNG’s relationship with Indonesia, and the refugee problem from West Papua.
He outlines the problems of PNG politics. Allegiance is to one’s family and tribe so that politics are regionally and tribally-based. Traditionally leaders gave largess to their people so that, as one candidate put it, "if you don’t give them money they won’t support you." This has led to various "slush funds" and MPs now each get more than $1 million per annum to spend in their electorates. Many have been jailed for misappropriating these funds.
In PNG’s first-past-the-post system one candidate was elected with just 6.9 per cent of the vote, while 61 elected politicians got fewer than 20 per cent of the vote. There is rarely any ideology binding political parties, which are constantly being formed or dissolved on the floor of parliament. Endless consultation and wheeling-and-dealing are needed to hold a government together and prevent votes of no confidence. The result is politicians continually absorbed in the mechanics of politics rather than the needs of the nation.
Corruption is now endemic. The Barnett Inquiry into the forestry industry revealed that the country’s best forests had been plundered and the owners ripped off by, largely, Malaysian logging companies with the connivance of "Ministers, senior officers, inspectors and timber operators." PNG recovered about half the revenue the Philippines did for its logs and one-third what Malaysia did.
A $55 million construction contract given to a Malaysian company ignored the law according to the PNG Ombudsman. The proceedings of the Supply and Tenders Board was a "farce," no other company was given the opportunity of bidding, normal checks and balances were by-passed, the project was not properly costed, and the company did not have to pay taxes or duties.
The problem with legal prosecutions is that untrained police had to take on complicated cases. By the mid-1980s conviction rates had fallen to 50 per cent and cases struck out, including wilful murder and rape, leapt to 20 per cent. The surest way to avoid punishment was to plead not guilty and abscond. By 1984 there were fifteen thousand unexecuted warrants, and if a criminal was unlucky enough to be jailed, he had a good chance of breaking out. Judge Hinchcliffe told the ABC in 1995 there were prisons "where if you don’t want to stay, you don’t have to."
It is a dangerous situation when criminals can virtually act with impunity. Small wonder then that when four criminals were shot and killed in a bungled Port Moresby robbery, in the mid-1990s, senior police I spoke to were ecstatic. Increasingly police are shooting first and asking questions later.
One bright area is the media which is now more robust than before independence. An attempt to muzzle it was made in 1988 when the then Marxist Minister for Communications sought, with the assistance of the Australian media critic and lawyer Stuart Littlemore, to introduce legislation to license the media. The attempt failed when the Government was defeated. The country has many fine and courageous journalists.
This is an excellent book for anyone wanting to be appraised of the condition of our nearest neighbour.