Emptying their frustrations on the shores
PNG holds first census in eleven years

Ask not what your country can do for you


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.


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Alex Harris

Good story Phil! I also like the idea of holding the clan to account - especially seeing as they are usually the election-time beneficiaries of ill-gotten largesse.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Its interesting that one man is making these things happen in Vanuatu. Prior to Ralph's emergence there was resistance to UNCAC in Vanuatu. He seems to be someone that PNG lacks - a hands-on, visionary leader.

The other interesting thing you mention in relation to corruption is the recovery of assets. You can trial and imprison as many people as you like for corruption and it doesn't seem to stop it.

If an effort was made to recover what was stolen people might think twice about doing it, particularly if the transgressor's clan was held to account (per the Melanesian Way).

Would a clan re-elect a corrupt politician who has plunged them into massive debt for his own benefit?

I was sitting in the airport in Port Vila a few years ago trying to get on a plane to Santo. After several hours it was announced that the single Dash 8 owned by Vanuatu had broken down again.

A young man who had also been waiting patiently got up and went to see the airport manager. A short while later we were all on board a battered old Twin Otter chugging north to Santo.

The young man who saw the problem and did something about it was Ralph Regenvanu.

Alex Harris

Further to PNG Attitude's discussion on Vanuatu

Subject: Press Release - UN Welcomes Vanuatu's Accession to UN Convention Against Corruption

29 July 2011, UNDP (Suva) – On 12 July 2011, Vanuatu acceded to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), becoming the fourth Pacific island country to become a State party to this ground-breaking international treaty.

“The ratification of the UNCAC by Vanuatu’s Parliament in 2010 is indicative of the strong support within the wider community to address and tackle corruption in the country.

"The Convention will be invaluable in providing guidance to the Government and other key stakeholders in our efforts to do this,” said the Hon Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s Minister for Justice.

UNCAC was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 31 October 2003. The Convention came into force on 14 December 2005, upon its thirtieth ratification.

With Vanuatu’s accession, UNCAC has now been ratified by 155 States, including PNG, Fiji, Palau and now Vanuatu in the Pacific.

“UNDP wishes to commend the Vanuatu Government for its leadership in acceding to the UN Convention against Corruption.

"Supporting Pacific Island countries to promote accountability and integrity in their governments and in their communities is a priority for UNDP,” announced Mr Knut Ostby, UN Resident Coorodinator Resident Representative of the UNDP Multi-Country Office in Fiji.

UNCAC is the first international legal instrument of its kind and is a clear demonstration of global consensus on what State parties should do to prevent and combat corruption, to improve international cooperation in fighting corruption, and to recover assets.

The Convention establishes a global framework that all countries can apply in order to strengthen their legal and regulatory regimes to fight corruption.

“Accession to the Convention though, is only the first step. In reality, the most important step is implementation – progressing the key reforms in Vanuatu that will ensure accountable, responsive and transparent leadership, by parliamentarians and officials themselves as well as the people of Vanuatu.

UNCAC recognizes that mechanisms to prevent corruption need to be put in place, and that these need to be complemented by strong laws and enforcement processes that ensure that corrupt people are punished for their efforts to undermine Vanuatu’s good governance,” remarked Mr Ostby.

UNDP works with countries through the Pacific region, as well as the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, which is the Secretariat to UNCAC, and regional agencies and community based organisations to promote accountability and transparency and support local efforts to tackle corruption.

Steve Gallagher Darong

We like these kind of leaders in PNG. The young generation today must be like Ralph.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I think the US national debt is $14 trillion plus of which much is held by the Chinese in the form of treasury bonds; Saudi Arabia might have a stash too.

If Barack Obama fails in his bid to extend US borrowing and they go to the wall they might drag the Chinese powerhouse with them. And as you say, places like Australia will be caught in the global vortex.

Since PNG can't seem to get its act together, the new world leader will be a toss up between Vanuatu and the Solomons I guess.

I've got a vegetable garden and I don't eat meat. As long as I've got a surplus to sell to buy a few bottles of SP I think I'll be okay.

Alex Harris

No question, Ralph is a true leader.

Truth of the statements with regard to the economy are evident. I was only thinking this morning when reading the forecasts of doom in the weekend Australian, globalisation is a failure.

With every developed nation so tied to the fortunes of each other, one need not have problems of their own to suffer the fate of others.

Germany is a case in point. Bailing everyone else out will drive its own prosperity down.

The Chinese economy, built on export of cheap manufactured goods will suffer as offshore markets dry up.

The resource economies of Brazil and Australia will slow, as Chinese demand for raw materials drops off.

But subsistent Vanuatu, under the leadership of Ralph and like-minded people, will power its own economy. Food for thought indeed.

Let's hope he achieves his goals, and serves as a role model for so many more countries in the neighbourhood.

Jeffrey Febi

Sam Basil seem like a good candidate at this point in time...But Powes Parkop is better.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Just for the record, Barbara Short put me on to what Ralph has been up to lately.

About 18 months ago I wrote something for PNG Attitude about Ralph's take on the Global Financial Crisis and subsistence agriculture.

At a conference in Brisbane he pointed out that PNG, the Solomons and Vanuatu avoided the worst of the GFC because about 80% of the people in those countries are not integrated into the cash economy.

While Australia dodged the GFC because it was digging up and selling much of its landscape to the Chinese, PNG avoided it because everyone was growing their own food and using their own resources to provide their everyday needs.

About Vanuatu he said: "The traditional economy constitutes the political, economic and social foundation of contemporary Vanuatu society and is the source of resilience for our populations, which has allowed them to weather the vagaries of the global economy over past decades".

If the situation is similar in PNG, it makes one wonder why it's so important to pursue "development" at all costs in the manner in which the government preaches.

Ralph says it is very important to maintain the traditional economy and emphasises that it is especially important that young people continue to participate in it.

He says, "to achieve this objective, it is essential that we transform the structure and syllabus of our basic education system to reflect and address the reality of the central role the traditional economy plays in providing livelihoods, security and sustainable development outcomes".

He goes on to say that "it is a sad fact that our basic education system is still largely premised on the colonial rationale of producing bureaucrats to run the state administration".

He further adds that "formal schooling at primary and secondary levels actively contributes to the loss of the knowledge and skills that allow an individual to function as a member of their own community and part of the traditional economy".

And sums up by saying "the ongoing loss of traditional knowledge and growing problems with marginalised youth are, I believe, a testament to the failure of our basic education system to provide a pathway to an appropriate and sustainable development which must have, at its base, a strong traditional economy".

Plenty of food for thought there.

Amazing what a man who has the welfare of his people at heart, a bright and enquiring mind and the ability to think outside the square can come up with, isn't it?

Colin Huggins

And to add to this on Ralph John Regenvanu. Tourism is booming in Vanuatu. Neighbours across the street from me, have just returned and had a wonderful time.

To make matters more in favour of Vanuatu, the plane was packed. Something good must be happening there.

Alex Harris

Good story, thanks Phil. What a breath of fresh air Ralph is, and what a difference independent ethical characters such as these would make to PNG's future.

Martyn Namorong

Wow! I could stop blogging and post a big sign that reads; Please Refer To Ralph John Regenvanu!

The guy is doing everything I talk about, and a lot more! Thanks Phil, thanks for the challenge

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