BY HAMISH McDONALD
SMH - POLITICIANS often count on the public having a short memory span, but a record was set this week by PNG’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.
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….
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.
PNG 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 PNG 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….
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 PNG.
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.
Hamish McDonald is the Sydney Morning Herald’s Asia Pacific Editor
Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January 2011. Spotter: Barbara Short