IF PAPUA NEW GUINEA is to progress, and its significant potential for development harnessed, it needs to shift its leadership philosophy from tribalism to nationalism.
This is one of the most significant observations I have made in my first term as an elected official, a political leader in the ninth parliament of Papua New Guinea.
It is one of many concerns which, in due time, I intend to speak of. I like to think that concerned Papua New Guineans care what a leader thinks. Maybe I am kidding myself; maybe people do not care.
Last year was an interesting year in Papua New Guinea’s ninth parliament. There were good and bad outcomes but one particular lesson was most sobering for me.
I have noted with dismay how, save for a very small minority, many of my fellow elected leaders remain quiet about national issues; they are reluctant to voice concern and opinion about the many issues that affect the nation, its people and its interests.
Seasoned politicians went about with confidence and, in some instances, boredom; the newly elected struggled to find their feet, some replicating the template of politicking associated with accessing funds, others learning through trial and error.
As a leader, I was disappointed that many politicians who claimed to have entered parliament to address corruption and fight for PNG – some exceptionally passionately during the election period - shied away when presented with the opportunity to do so.
Last year there was certainly no shortage of opportunities to engage in either the fight for PNG or the fight against corruption.
Instead I witnessed many instances of apathy by my colleagues towards the national interest and even disdain for any effort to address corruption. I noted, however, that many members were passionate about voicing concern about issues affecting their electorates and this is of course commendable as well as necessary to prove to their electorate that they are active.
But I am of the opinion that Papua New Guinea’s elected leaders have a responsibility not only to their electorates but to their nation as well.
The handing down of the 2014 budget brought upon me the realisation why leaders remain quiet and behave according to the unwritten laws of politics in PNG. Speak up and you will pay the price; be a good boy (or girl) and gain an affectionate pat and a beef cracker.
For my efforts, I have been penalized by a very unfriendly budget for my province, receiving less than last year’s allocation and losing funding for major infrastructure projects.
In fact I had been warned by a particular Minister - yet I never dreamt that a people would be punished for their leader’s efforts to raise concerns about national issues.
That fact was realized, when scouring the books of the 2014 budget, not a single major project submitted by my Provincial Government had been funded although all the meetings had been attended and all the appropriate processes and procedures of costing and justification diligently followed.
What a bitter pill and a lesson in the murky politics, played with such inconsideration in Papua New Guinea; although no doubt similar to other economies where political survival takes precedence over the well-being of the people.
I understand the stance taken by my colleagues. I would like to say that I cannot blame them. But a part of me still believes that their behaviour ignores the collective expectations of the citizens of this great nation, with its vast potential and substantial resources.
But is it true that most Papua New Guineans are concerned? Or is it only a minority who are concerned about national issues and who are aware of what is going on.
Certainly many people in Oro Province have been vocal about my efforts, urging me to be silent and focus on the province and its needs and advising me to ignore the interests of the nation as a whole.
I understand their concern but I am a Papua New Guinean first and foremost and I would like to think that I speak for the many Papua New Guineans, whether or not they are aware and concerned about national issues, who would like some effort made by their leaders to address these issues.
It is a given that tribalism is necessary for the preservation of cultures, languages, unique identities and customs but it need not be embraced as the only method of leadership.
To allow this would be to suppress nationalism which in turn will ensure a status quo where political bullying of leaders allows inconsiderate decision making and corruption to prevail.
Papua New Guineans and their leaders need to take that step towards developing a big picture: the country first and the tribe second, rather than the other way round.
So yes, I have noted that many leaders would rather quietly go about their business then be starved of much needed funds for their electorates.
That much is now crystal clear and no doubt many would perhaps promote this strategy of political survival: surviving to see another term by dishing out gifts and projects even if these are suspicious and not in adherence to the Finance Management Act and other laws of transparent procurement and expenditure of public funds.
Politicians choosing to work with a perverted system rather than trying to correct it.
I guess that, in this regard, they are correct to remain silent and behave accordingly. They have been granted their rewards, even if they are short-sighted.
Well, I will speak out and speak up, even if it is at the cost of my next election. If I lose, I will at least be able to say that I did exactly what I intended to do: represent my people, not just those who voted for me and my electorate but those from all over this great nation that I cannot but help feel for.
These are the people in remote locations who cannot access basic services, who endure a harsh and oppressive taxation regime that promotes corporate interests and forces the ordinary to pay forgoing much needed income.
I will be indignant about sinister or dubious businesses that seek to exploit our resources and pay as little as possible, sometimes even forcing the people to pay.
I will voice outrage about inconsiderate profit-driven exploitation that threatens our environment and our future interests.
I will be vocal about land grabbing and the dishing out of illegal citizenship and refusal to prosecute those who pilfer and steal public funds through fraudulent tactics.
I may go down but I am satisfied that a group of Papua New Guineans who are increasingly aware and agitated will rise up and identify brave leaders who are not just brave at the ballot box but also in parliament and place them in parliament to make decisions that are not only in the interests of a tribe, a community or an electorate but for a nation.
It is a great nation that is so beautiful and so full of life, history, culture and great possibilities.
If social media is anything to go by, the stirrings are there. The concern is now a small seed but it is growing and growing fast.
In due time, leaders who can speak and act will come forward and take their rightful place and forge a path towards greater prosperity for all, improve health and education and transparent justice that is available to all and not just those who can afford it or have the right connections.
A pat on the head and a beef cracker will no longer be able to contain those future leaders; they will be brave and vocal and compassionate and not easily convinced to sanction the sale of their nation piece by piece.
This style of leadership, where national interest is foregone for the interests of a tribe and an electorate, will no longer be relevant. I believe that day is coming soon and I predict that these are just the teething pains that we see and feel now.
Apathy and shortsightedness in decision making, whether by direct effort or silent consent, and giving in to political bullying will be seen as unacceptable.
I am certain that greater good can come about when the people are no longer willing to be kept in the dark and begin to demand something better, not just as a tribe or an electorate, but as a people.
Gary Juffa is Governor of Oro Province and a member of the Papua New Guinea national parliament