BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
THE OLD GUARD in Papua New Guinean politics has had its day; it’s time for a new generation of younger, educated politicians to step up to the plate. How often have you read or heard this sentiment?
Trouble is, when you look around, there’s no one readily apparent who fits the bill or who isn’t already considerably tainted or shop worn.
In this sense, it might be useful to take a look over the near horizon for a role model - towards Vanuatu perhaps.
That lovely little chain of islands has many of the characteristics of Papua New Guinea. Its people are Melanesian and its people were lumbered with a similarly inappropriate system of government when it gained independence.
The parliament is made up of a government and opposition which are virtually indistinguishable and which spend their time doing deals and playing musical members. Vested interests reign supreme and corruption is rife. Sound familiar?
There is a shining light that stands out from the crowd however. His name is Ralph John Regenvanu.
Ralph will be 41 years old this September. He has an honours degree from the Australian National University, where he studied anthropology, archaeology and development studies.
He was director of the Vanuata Cultural Centre from 1995-2006 and director of the Vanuatu National Cultural Council from 1995 -2010. He became a Member of Parliament in 2008.
He was elected with a record high number of votes. Transparency International Vanuatu said he was elected by the “protest vote” – essentially people who were sick and tired of the same old politicians.
In January 2009 he announced that he would use part of his parliamentary salary to set up and finance scholarships for students undertaking foundation-level studies at the University of the South Pacific in the capital, Port Vila.
In the first year 12 students received scholarships; by the second year it was 19 because he had attracted other sponsors to the scheme.
In March 2009 he began to finance a Youth Solidarity Micro-Credit Scheme out of his parliamentary salary, providing loans to assist young people to set up small business projects.
In 2010 he donated one-tenth of his annual salary to a campaign to clean up litter in Port Vila. In the same year he donated money to promote youth groups.
He also started a radio program where people can ring in and ask him questions or express their views.
He is not afraid to expose corruption and mismanagement in the government and the public service. He is a critic of the constituency funds that are allocated to MPs and not monitored.
In 2010 he was instrumental in the tabling of a motion in parliament requesting that the United Nations look at the legality of the Act of Free Choice in West Papua. He publicly criticised PNG for being cowardly and having consistently opposed discussion of West Papua within the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
This year, as Minister for Lands, he started reforming land laws so that applications for registration of customary land leases would require the consent of entire clans and not just a few greedy individuals.
This upset the members of Parliament who had long been involved in shonky land deals and they forced a reshuffle and demanded control of his portfolio.
Ralph was given the Justice and Social Affairs portfolio in the reshuffle but he didn’t give up on his campaign and immediately announced that he would reform the Customary Lands Tribunal system along with a number of other legal matters that concerned him.
Less than two weeks after taking over the portfolio he called for the descendants of “black birding” victims living in Australia to be given Vanuatu citizenship.
He is battling on as you read this article. One day he will be prime minister of Vanuatu.
One wonders and hopes that there is a similar young firebrand waiting for his chance in PNG. If there is, now might be a good time to stand up and be recognised.