29 Jun 2011

Legacy of PNG's charismatic Somare marred for some by last tenure as PM

7:46 pm on 29 June 2011

The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, will be remembered as a charismatic politician who could talk to everybody, but who failed to act when poor governance and corruption became increasingly prevalent.

Sir Michael has been retired from the post by his family because of his struggle to recover from heart surgery in a Singapore hospital.

Don Wiseman filed this report:

Sir Michael was the chief minister in the colonial government before independence in 1975.

He then became the first Prime Minister and held the post again from 1982 to 1985.

Sir Michael was back at the helm in 2002 and re-elected in 2007 to give him the longest tenure in the office in the country's history.

He's regarded as someone who's been a unifying force in a country with more than 800 ethnic groups.

Our correspondent Oseah Philemon says Sir Michael, the Grand Chief, is very charismatic.

"He speaks the language of grassroots when he's with grassroots and he's able to relate to them better than many other politicians. he brings himself down to level of the ordinary people and talks to them better than many other politicians would. And that is something special about him."

The Institute of National Affairs chief executive, Paul Barker, says Sir Michael was very much a cohesive figure in the early years.

Very much a populist, a charismatic person who tended to be able to get on with everyone, communicate with everyone and for much of that time had immense popularity across the country and out into the villages.

But Paul Barker says one of the major concerns for the country in the past ten years has been the decline of governance and worsening corruption.

And you can't say that Sir Michael took a very strong stand on that. He was more one for bringing the leadership together and there was a strong feeling over the last decade that there were other players that were the driving force and Sir Michael was in a way bullied by some of them. I mean he wanted to take a stand on issues but, really, they were taking the lead position.

A former prime minister, Sir Mekere Morauta, who lost office to Sir Michael in 2002, says his role in the country's early years is unquestioned.

He says Papua New Guinea began very well under Sir Michael's leadership.

But over the years some problems have developed, particularly in the governance area and in the last ten years the nation is suffering from the results of weak governance, systemic weaknesses, and lack of policy accountability in the public decision making.

Transparency International PNG has a similar view.

Its chair Lawrence Stephens says Sir Michael was one of those who set up the rules under which the country operates but the government he's headed for the past nine years has been ignoring many of those rules.

So on the one hand his legacy would be the rules that guide democracy that we have, and let's face it, part of that is the freedom for us all to speak, and the other side of it is being involved in a parliament and a government system which tends to have been simply ignoring the laws, of late, or finding ways to avoid following the rules that had been set way back then.

Sir Michael's resignation still needs to be formalised but the family's adamant he's not able to continue.

Lawrence Stephens says it's vital in the weeks ahead that there's a proper transition, with the rules being followed and seen to be followed by whoever replaces Sir Michael.