September 15, 2004 | Jeff Wall

Papua New Guinea 29 years on – what does the future hold?

TOMORROW Papua New Guinea celebrates 29 years of Independence.
If you were to believe some commentators, and sections of the media, there is nothing to celebrate, and an even bleaker future lies ahead.
I don’t agree. Papua New Guinea has its problems, serious problems, but there are some indicators, and opportunities, that offer hope for the future of Australia’s closest, and, in my view, most strategically important, neighbour.
It has long been my view that Australia poorly prepared Papua New Guinea for Independence. One of the greatest obstacles to growth, and to human resource development in particular, is the atrocious state of the nation’s major roads.
But it has ever been thus. When I went to Papua New Guinea to work just two years after Independence I was appalled at the state of the nation’s roads, especially the Highlands Highway which was still a dirt road for all but the last 30kms or so leading into Lae.
The nation’s capital, Port Moresby, was not connected to any other major centre by road, and rural roads, so vital to agriculture, were in short supply.
Today the state of public infrastructure is very poor. That is no longer Australia’s fault but our legacy in a whole range of public sector areas was a very poor one.
Over the last 29 years, Australia has poured billions into PNG in the form of budget support, that ended five years ago, and project aid that continues to be vital to Papua New Guinea today.
With the Enhanced Co-operation Program (ECP) now in place, the dollar value of our aid commitment to PNG in the current financial year exceeds $450 million, or around K1 billion. It’s a substantial commitment – Australia is easily Papua New Guinea’s largest aid donor.
There is a debate in both countries on the effectiveness of these aid programs. It is a welcome and overdue one. I believe the ECP offers the right way forward, because it directly targets two of Papua New Guinea’s greatest needs – capacity building in the public sector and the alarming level of crime.
But let me talk about the positives for Papua New Guinea as our neighbour approaches three decades of nationhood.
Papua New Guinea remains a robust democracy, different, yes, but alive and well most certainly.
The last national elections were generally regarded as being fair. There were exceptions, and that will always be so in a developing country like Papua New Guinea. They were certainly participatory with almost seventy per cent of eligible voters actually casting their vote in what remains a voluntary voting system.
In the 2002 national elections about eighty per cent of sitting MP’s lost their seats. Ministers were not immune from the carnage, with most of the Morauta Cabinet being unceremoniously dumped by the electorate.
Political stability is not as strong as it needs to be, but the parliamentary system does work. The strengthening of political parties, vital to securing stability, is a “work in progress”…and like many things in Papua New Guinea it’s often a case of two steps forward and one and a half backwards.
The macro economic position has improved remarkably under the current Government. But there are serious fiscal problems that require constant attention, some of the solutions for which are politically difficult to agree on, and even harder to actually implement.
The public service is not in good shape – but the ECP, and several structural adjustment programs now being implemented, will improve the capacity of key agencies, such as the Treasury. Australia’s public service legacy to PNG was an inadequate one.
But Papua New Guinea has perhaps the world’s most robustly independent judiciary. Anyone who saw the magnificent “Australian Story” on Lady Carol Kidu on Monday night will have seen numerous references to the judiciary her late husband, Sir Buri Kidi, crafted after Independence.
The advantage of an independent judiciary that is responsible for upholding the constitution, as well as administering civil and criminal justice, is that it serves as a check on excessive government and the abuse of the parliamentary system, a protector of democracy and freedom of speech (something the National Constitution guarantees), and, ultimately, a bulwark against corruption in public office.
There is a debate in Queensland today about the appointment of Judges by politicians. That is the practice right around Australia and it is increasingly being brought into question.
Papua New Guinea’s judiciary is not appointed by the Government of the day. Judges are chosen by an independent commission, the members of which include a representative of the government, one from the opposition, the chief ombudsman (a constitutional office holder) and the Chief Justice (who was normally initially appointed to the bench through this same independent process).
So the Government does not appoint the judiciary, which interprets the Constitution, though it does appoint the Chief Justice.
The judiciary has diligently upheld the Constitution, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. It has made some impact on corruption in public office…though corruption remains a problem.
Another significant advantage Papua New Guinea has is an abundance of natural resources, such as gas, petroleum, and minerals such as gold copper and nickel. The development of these resources has been largely free of corruption at any level.
Perhaps the greatest potential of all is the nation’s vast gas resource. The Gas-to-Queensland Project would not only underpin national revenues, it would provide cheaper electricity and facilitate an LNG industry.
But the vast fisheries resource also has great potential to provide social and economic benefit that will be broadly shared.
Now Papua New Guinea has some critical problems beyond those I have already mentioned. The incidence of HIV/AIDS is an emerging social tragedy that will have wide ranging economic consequences. The delivery of basic services, such as health care, is poor – but there are signs the crisis in service delivery will finally be confronted with a re-structuring of the public sector, and a more stable fiscal position.
Papua New Guinea is not a failed state, or anywhere near it. It has serious problems…but there are opportunities good governance, and the help of its friends, including Australia, can convert into a better future for our five and a half million neighbours.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:25 am | Comments (2) |


  1. Good analysis. It made a lot of sense. For info, I linked to it over at my blog but for some reason the track back doesn’t seem to work. Cheers.

    Comment by Stan — September 16, 2004 @ 3:38 pm

  2. I’d agree with Jeff Walls inference that the successes of PNG are not well understood in Australia. These signifiacnt achievements certainly should be promoted. Many countries have not had democracy ‘imposed’ upon them and succeeded nearly as well as PNG has in its short democratic life.
    The media is in part to blame for these misunderstandings with their focus on sexy issues relating to raskols, headhunters and a bungling polity. Howard and Downer should also share some of this blame with their talk of an ‘arc of instability’ and ‘failed states’. Its expedient scare mongering that does little to assist Australians to undersand the comlexity of the problems.
    PNG is also a rich country in terms of minerals but the export led development model promoted by Wells (and the PNg and Australian Govt) poses difficult pitfalls. Primary sector based economies do not historically fare well from this modeal and this path should only be approached with a signifiacnt degree of caution.
    Export led development can work well in countries where there is a large services sector but this is certainly not the case in PNG.
    The democracy practiced in PNG is also ‘different’, as Wells asserts, and certainly this should be seen as a positive sign that PNG is making a system they received from us, their very own.
    The $14 Billion Australia has spent there in aid (since 1975) has had little positive impact for PNG but has proved a substantial boon for a select few Australian businesses (ACIL, SAGRIC and GRM chief among them).
    Aid being delivered in this boomerang manner will continue to undermine the PNG government and economy as it fails to regard PNG interests in favour of domestic Austrlian ones.
    The HIV/AIDS challenge has to this stage been largely funded by Australia – $60 m between 2000 – 2005 – and has largely been a disaster. Implemented by ACIL it is a clear example of AusAID not contracting out to the appropriate body. The ‘noken Koap’ advertsing slogan, highly offensive to many in PNG, a clear indication of the cultural gulf between the countries. HIV/AIDS could well prove to be the key challenge for PNG in the next two decades. More political will and effective education is needed very urgently.
    This raises the question of what sort of good governance Australia is attempting to impose upon PNG. Good governace that is appropriate for PNG or that is in Australia’s interests and can be implemented by our favoured aid deliverers?
    Should we be promoting ‘good governance’ the model that has worked for us, or should we be building upon the traditional governance which has seen many successful communities survive over many thousands of years.
    A PNG judge conferred to me recently ‘PNG is a very successful group of communities with a corrupt state grafted on’, hopefully the next 29 years will prove this suggestion wrong.

    Comment by tim — September 23, 2004 @ 3:36 pm

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