Mood for provincial autonomy grows in PNG

1:06 pm on 20 April 2015

The mood for more autonomy is growing among Papua New Guinea's provinces.

Coast east of Vanimo, Papua New Guinea.

Coast east of Vanimo, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

While the call for more devolution of powers from central government to the provinces is not new, PNG's continued development struggles mean more provinces are talking about autonomy.

And throwing a cat among the pigeons, PNG's opposition leader has now proposed the idea that PNG's four main regions could be given autonomy.

Risk of breaking up

The growing skyline of the capital Port Moresby reflects PNG's unprecedented economic growth of the past decade. It's been forged mainly through a boom in the mining, oil and gas sectors. But the majority of people in the country have seen few tangible benefits, and PNG is languishing near the bottom in the United Nations Human Development Index world rankings.

The governor of New Ireland province claimed that PNG risks breaking up if it continued with the inefficiency of central government machinery. Sir Julius Chan, who is a former Prime Minister, said Waigani takes 90% of provincial revenues yet had failed to adequately manage basic service delivery to provinces.

"Everything comes from Port Moresby and Port Moresby is the worst, most inefficient organisation in PNG today," he said. "If we continue to allow a very disorganised group or people running the rest of the country, it's sure to break up."

Former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and Governor of New Ireland province, Sir Julius Chan.

Former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and Governor of New Ireland province, Sir Julius Chan. Photo: The Entrepeneur

Sir Julius said the time is right for provinces to take on more powers of taxation, over natural resources, education, health and other sectors. This feeling was echoed at a recent summit of PNG's 22 provincial governors, many of whom were frustrated at the lack of control their administratrions have over development in their provinces.

Imbalance in provinces

An issue for all provinces was the lack of infrastructure and capacity to absorb a greater governance role. But the governor of West New Britain province Sansindran Muthuvel said the current system is unfair.

"West New Britain has not been developed for the last forty years, we do not even have proper roads and bridges and infrastructures," he said.

But Mr Muthuvel explained that because it has fewer districts than most provinces, allocated funds from government to West New Britain don't reflect the significant revenue the province generates for the country due to activities like oil palm development.

"A province like Manus or Bougainville or New Ireland continues to receive a major chunk of the budget every year - they receive almost forty to fifty million kina whereas we hardly receive any money directly to our infrastructures."

The governor was critical of amendments to PNG's organic law two years ago, curbing the ability of provinces to collect taxes. That change was initiated under the then Treasurer, Don Polye. Yet Mr Muthuvel found it slightly ironic that it was now Mr Polye, having left government and become PNG's opposition leader, who had proposed the idea of creating autonomous regional governments in order to help provinces capitalise on local economic developments.

Papua New Guinea Opposition Leader, Don Polye

Papua New Guinea Opposition Leader, Don Polye Photo: Supplied

Regional autonomy

Mr Polye suggested provinces within these regions could elect, legislate and regulate administrative and economic activities under regional governments. Governor Muthuvel for one said he was open to discussing the idea but that empowerment of provinces needed to be explored first.

A lawyer and former political candidate Camillus Narokobi says regional alignment has been tried before.

"We've had regional groupings before, and it didn't work," said Mr Narokobi. "So people are more interested in going on their own, to be individualistic, which means competitive.

"There's nothing wrong with one province competing with another province and outdoing another, so long as the basic needs of people are taken care of."

Papua New Guinea's parliament.

PNG's national parliament Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Sir Julius was also not sold on the regional government idea, worrying that it would create large, potentially unwieldy monsters for the nation state.

"You are talking about a big, big government that can be bigger than Port Moresby and I think it can be a little bit open to abuse. I think we could be creating a creature that is going to be very powerful. You put the Highlands region together and that is more powerful than Port Moresby."

The New Ireland governor felt that with so many tribes and languages, Papua New Guinea was ripe for trouble if provinces were continuously held back from being able to manage their own affairs. He said granting more autonomy to provinces would not cause the disintegration of PNG as a nation but instead help it stay intact.

"And I think by giving them more power you are enabling each province to feel they are running their own," said Sir Julius. "And if they can't, they are still part of the family. But those that feel that they should be on their own, if you suppress them, they'll probably go their own way. I mean, we got a lesson in Bougainville already.

West New Britain custom dancers in Port Moresby

West New Britain custom dancers in Port Moresby Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Bougainville approaches independence referendum

Meanwhile, the autonomous Bougainville government has started laying the groundwork for a referendum to be held on possible independence from PNG. As provided for in the peace agreement negotiated after the Bougainville civil war, that vote has to occur by 2020 at the latest. As the former president of the autonomous Bougainville government James Tanis explained, this lead-up was a key focus for the new parliament to be elected next month.

"The feeling that I am getting from the people is that, most of the people that I talk to, are in support of independence and people are also very careful on how we maneuver and how we get there."

"What is strong in terms of the people," said Mr Tanis, "is that people would not want the resumption of armed conflict, resumption of violence, whether that is related to referendum or whether that is related to elections. People have had enough and they want to move ahead successfully and steadily."

But Bougainville's economic viability as an independent nation state remains questionable. For many, that question hinges on the controversial possibility of the Panguna copper mine, which was central to the conflict in Bougainville, being reopened. Aside from mining, Bougainvlle's current president, John Momis admitted his people still had a lot of work to do.

"There are small signs of economic viability," he said, "but it is still difficult because as you know, one of the conditions that must be met before the outcome of the referendum can be positively considered and accepted. And our national government is pushing self reliance and we are no where near reaching that level.

President of the autonomous Bougainville government, John Momis.

President of the autonomous Bougainville government, John Momis. Photo: RNZI

To date, PNG's national government has shown little appetite for granting more autonomy to the provinces. However, increased discussion about the issue among the nation's leaders shows that momentum is gathering for change on this front.

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