ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE THINGS about watching the Four Corners program about corruption in Papua New Guinea was Eremas Wartoto’s seeming lack of a good explanation about allegations he stole money destined for Kerevat High School.
Even when Mr Wartoto was presented with what appeared to be irrefutable evidence, he maintained he had no questions to answer.
Even more amazing was a comment in PNG Attitude a few days later that alleged he had used this money to set up an airline that serviced otherwise unserviced places in the Sepik.
The attitude that anything, no matter how despicable, is permissible in Papua New Guinea as long as you can get away with it is becoming increasingly pervasive.
In the business world, resource developers seem especially good at it. What amazed me about the damage done to the Fly River by the Ok Tedi mine is that it seemed of little consequence to BHP. All they seemed worried about was pulling off a ruse to walk away from it without fessing up or paying for it.
There is an attitude that no matter what sort of mess you cause and what sort of damage you do to innocent people it is permissible and acceptable to simply shrug your shoulders and walk away from the wreckage on your way to the next catastrophe.
At best someone in Papua New Guinea who stuffs up tends to go to ground and they only resurface when they think everyone has forgotten about what they have done. The sad thing is that this cowardly strategy usually works.
Part of this attitude comes from the difficulty of bringing public figures or companies in Papua New Guinea to account.
But it is more than simply the knowledge that you’re unlikely to be caught and even if you are you will be unlikely to be punished that colours this attitude. It is also a rank disregard for one’s actions.
Indeed, people who get away with a scam seem to be encouraged to invent bigger and even more adventurous scams. Lawyers seem to be really good at this.
In Australia corrupt politicians, public servants and business people squeal like stuck pigs when they are uncovered and they keep it up even when they are in the paddy wagon on their way to gaol.
In Papua New Guinea the ranks of parliament and the public service are swelled by people who have been caught up to no good and have either brazened their way out of it or served their paltry time in jail.
In the latter case the miscreants, far from being ashamed of their actions, are in the paddy wagon plotting how to bribe their warders and superintendents so as to make their incarceration as cushy as possible. And when they come out they wear their criminal record as a sort of badge of honour in the style of the Italian Mafiosi.
Believing that the means justifies the ends, no matter how despicable those means might be, and believing that self-gratification or profit supersedes all other considerations, especially those of other people, was not a traditional Melanesian trait.
Indeed, it is anathema to the whole ‘big man’ and ‘great man’ ethos. The power and prestige that came with their status was delivered to them by the people of the clan or tribe and could be easily taken away.
Public acceptance and perception was a big factor in their personal prestige and power. Not any more, especially in that way, it seems.
Nowadays ordinary people seem to admire the biggest crooks in the same way that they once admired the ‘big men’ and the ‘great men’. The subtle difference is that they lack the means to take away that prestige.
Not that they seem to want to. Rather, they seem to be simply envious of the brazen recklessness and unfeeling of these people in stealing the money that has made them rich.
The image of the grossly obese and grinning Eremas Wartoto on the Four Corners program brought this attitude chillingly into focus.
Apart from scratching one’s head all that can be done is wonder where on earth it came from and, more importantly, where it is all going.