SIR MEKERE Morauta, our former prime minister, likened corruption to cancer, presumably the malignant type.
Sam Koim, former head of Task Force Sweep, described the rising tide of corruption using the boiling frog tale – descriptive but a parable nonetheless as it is scientifically incorrect.
But if we focus on the point being made, which is that unless we are alert to the slow and gradual threat of diminishing governance and the growing scale of corruption these can go unnoticed and become accepted as the new norm threatening democracy and our country’s development.
These concerns seem apt when we consider the performance of the last term of parliament and the executive government. The O’Neill government swept into power on a wave of optimism and promises that it would tackle the problem of corruption and restore good governance.
The Alotau Accord captured the commitments made by O’Neill’s government to the people of PNG of the initiatives it would undertake. There were pledges to “continuing the fight against corruption by proper funding and institutionalisation of the inter-agency committee against corruption in particularly Task Force Sweep.
Further, the government will introduce the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) Bill” (O’Neill failed to bring the bill to parliament).
There were also promises to “review the powers, roles and responsibilities of the Ombudsman Commission” as well as to abolish the Department of Personnel Management and to restructure the “Public Service Commission … [by giving it] the Constitutional powers and responsibility to oversee the efficiency of the public service.”
There was also to be a shakeup of sub-national governance with “the transfers of powers of appointment of Provincial Administrators to the Provincial Executive Council“. All these have not been done and indeed the O’Neill government has gone in the reverse direction.
Corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain. Corruption should not only be thought of wilful abuse but also if one is aware of it and does nothing to bring it to the attention of appropriate authorities then there is a crime of complicity.
It has been a sad trait that the more stakeholders like the private sector especially has not done more to play a more active and stronger coordinated collective role in demanding better public governance.
The manner in which O’Neill first took the office of the prime minister was not legitimate – one of the three arms of government. The judiciary declared this. This offence should not be forgotten. It is ironic to see that the chief perpetrators of this siege on executive government are now rattling their sabres on opposing sides in the national general elections.
There are three key points. The first is that the O’Neill government has not fulfilled the promises it made in relation to good governance. The second is that there has been a dismal performance in relation to compliance with rule of law and with legislation around financial governance. The third is that there has been a profound erosion in the quality of governance and performance of our public institutions.
Parliamentarians are elected representatives of people but they are not beyond reproach nor are they above the law. Indeed as public officials they are subject to greater scrutiny and accountability, this is embedded in our constitution through the leadership code. The application of the rule of law does not recognise position, only the person.
In financial governance, we have seen public debt ratio being wilfully breached and O’Neill and his party members boasting they will borrow more and indebt our nation more.
Such taunts are based on fanciful claims it will be for infrastructure spending but we see suggestive evidence that the cost of road infrastructure is excessive, that the scale of infrastructure itself is not in the national interest and the net returns from the investments may be less than other infrastructure investment opportunities outside the capital city.
Spending vast sums of money on contracts that raise doubts is hardly an euphemism for inclusive development and good governance.
The O’Neill government claims it has managed public finances well and made necessary adjustments to the budget in years of stress. However, these adjustments have been hidden from the parliament and our people until the end of the financial year. The release of regular reports on public finances have been delayed or avoided completely, despite requirements in our laws for this.
We have seen continued erosion in the quality of our public institutions. Our oversighting agencies continue to be deprived of required funding or legally disempowered and political patronage perhaps influences agency heads to flout their agency’s independence.
We have seen the O’Neill government make legislative changes that strip the Public Service Commission of its powers to ensure a merit-based appointment process and to transfer their powers to a committee of ministers. This politicisation of the civil service is already working to erode the quality of our government institutions.
For instance, the Bank of PNG an independent institution by law has breached its mandate by expanding the money supply by funding O’Neill’s budget by K1.8 billion in 2016 alone. Without this funding the government would have stopped functioning if it had failed to adjust the budget.
The Bank of PNG shockingly paid a dividend of K102 million in 2014 when it was technically bankrupt and this was done at the direction of O’Neill and his cabinet of ministers.
So what are pathways forward to combat the scourge of corruption? Let me share my good governance platform. The new parliament should act decisively to institute various measures to rebuild our public institutions that can guard against any abuse of executive power.
We need public institutions which are a bastion for integrity, professionalism and high standards of ethics so that fundamentally the country can rely on institutions to independently act to ensure good governance prevails.
The powers of the Public Service Commission must be restored. We need laws to protect whistler-blowers that step forward to expose corruption and for freedom of information to be enacted. The Police Force must be free from political influence and the Ombudsman Commission must be supported with adequate funding and additional legal powers as required.
ICAC should be established or its proposed functions and powers should be embedded within an existing body like the Ombudsman Commission, if this is sensible.
It is time to consider an Unexplained Wealth Legislation where people that have wealth that is at variance with their declared income are required to justify it or face confiscation of those assets and prosecution under other laws. The new government can demonstrate its commitment by allowing a phased introduction where this is applied to public leadership positions first.
Corporate governance of our public bodies needs to be strengthened. Requirements for directors of boards to satisfy strong fit and proper test must be satisfied and I want the removal of all legal provisions that allow cabinet to be shadow directors. Statutory agency heads should be accountable solely to boards of directors, which should have the power to hire and fire them.
Public procurement needs to be reformed. The removal of certain public officials, like the state solicitor, from the tenders’ board is necessary to avoid conflict of interests.
A probity auditor for procurement be established. This can be housed within another agency such as ICAC or as a new independent office. This function will ensure that disputes are promptly heard but also investigate any allegations of malfeasance or to simply verify costings are reasonable and robust.
I believe fiscal transparency must be strengthened by publishing key details of major project including estimated rates of return, estimated and final project costs, contractor and its gender impact.
We have seen too many reports of excessive legal costs and it is time to ensure that there is legal compliance of the engagement of lawyers for public purposes through a procurement process that results in panel selection of firms and ensures value for money.
The publicity given to parliamentarians on signage of public works or assets purchased with public funds, and the deception that parliamentarians alone deliver, must stop. It is time for anti-signage provisions in law. Finally, parliament must be strengthened to provide oversight of executive government.
The challenge of curtailing the corrosive culture of corruption and instilling good governance is the ultimate leadership challenge. In the Alotau Accord the O’Neill government promised that it would “be remembered … as the most decisive, action packed, transparent and accountable Government the nation has ever had”.
Sadly, it seems the O’Neill government will be remembered instead for the slow but devastating erosion in good governance and poor development outcomes.