The black hole where PNG's anti-graft efforts disappear

11:26 am on 21 August 2017

When a commission of inquiry is announced in Papua New Guinea, it's often a sign that little will be done about the problem or issue at the heart of it.

Anyone recall the commissions of inquiry into the Tumbi landslide disaster, misdealings within the Finance Department, the fraudulent Special Agricultural Business Leases or the Rabaul Queen ferry sinking? Some of these inquiries were convened and even made it to the final report stage, but typically they took a long time and few if any of their recommendations were ever acted on. Justice was rarely seen to be delivered.

Due to its proximity to Port Moresby, land in Central Province is in demand.

Due to its proximity to Port Moresby, land in Central Province is in demand. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Papua New Guineans tend to characterise an inquiry announcement as usually a way to make a problem or issue fade from public view, to disappear into a type of black hole. Despite this, PNG's prime minister Peter O'Neill is being urged to make good on his promise to hold an inquiry into a suspicious land deal involving two of his ministers.

The Manumanu Land Deal involved acquisition of land in Central Province for a naval base. PNG's former Minister for Defence Fabian Pok and Minister for State Enterprises William Duma were alleged to have conspired over the acquisition of the land prior to the sale. It emerged that the state paid a company closely linked with Mr Duma $US14million to purchase the land.

According to Lawrence Stephens of Transparency International PNG, the deal was suspicious.

"We have land in Central Province, a government lease, that was acquired by a company connected to ministers, connected to public officials and people from another region of Papua New Guinea, certainly not from Central Province. And the land is compulsorily acquired by the state. The very state that just gave the company the land now acquires that land from the company for a payment of something in the order of 43 million kina."

Mr Stephen said that even the prime minister appeared to have been horrified by that deal, "at least publicly". When the deal came to light in March, Peter O'Neill stood down the ministers and announced an inquiry.

Both MPs have now been re-appointed as ministers. But, according to Mr Stephens, no inquiry appeared to have taken place.

"And we're asking the prime minister to remember the promise, remember the people, remember that this has cost a huge amount of money and there are huge questions about it," he said.

He also urged Mr O'Neill to "think about the appropriateness of having people appointed to the ministry over whom hang such huge questions of their integrity".

Lawrence Stephens of Transparency International PNG.

Lawrence Stephens of Transparency International PNG. Photo: Loop PNG

Mr Stephens hoped law enforcement officers could investigate this deal. However the head of the police National Fraud and Anti-corruption Directorate, Matthew Damaru, said he had effectively been restricted from pursuing high profile fraud cases, after the Police Commissioner Gary Baki created a so-called vetting committee for such cases.

"We (the fraud squad) are practically suppressed. We can't do anything. It (the introduction of vetting) only made our work more difficult," said Mr Damaru.

"I am not sure whether a vetting committee exists, because we've got a number of cases and we've never got any response."

Mr Duma told parliament in March that there was nothing illegal about the Manumanu deal, and that it had been approved by the National Executive Council (cabinet).

While the cabinet was aware of a naval base relocation, Mr Duma's assertion appeared to be at odds with Mr O'Neill's take on it. The prime minister said that in addition to the main land deal under question was a series of related Defence Department land acquisitions that combined as a large transaction.

"The acquisition of this land has been done in clear violation of the government's decision, and resulted in 78.4 million Kina (US$24 million) being paid," Mr O'Neill said in March.

Bonding time: Powes Parkop (Leader of the Social Democratic Party), Peter O’Neill (Leader, of the People’s National Congress Party), Sir Julius Chan (of the People's Progress Party) and William Duma (Leader of the United Resources Party).

Peter O'Neill (second from left) has turned again to William Duma (far right) for his party's support in forming a coalition government. Photo: Peter O'Neill Media Office

Since then, PNG has had its general election and, as of this month, a new parliament is in place. Mr O'Neill and his People's National Congress party needed the support of Mr Duma and Mr Pok's United Resources Party to form a coalition government.

Mr Duma is back as Minister for State Enterprises. Mr Pok has his hands on the influential Ministry of Petroleum and Energy which Mr Duma stamped his mark on for several years. Meanwhile, questions over the Manumanu deal remain unresolved, at danger of disappearing into the inquiry black hole.

The hole also appears to encompass the reality of PNG government's promised commitment to fighting corruption. New compilation of data by Dev Policy shows a gap emerging over the last decade between government's budgeted allocations to anti-corruption agencies and the actual spending.

Mr O'Neill has announced he will table legislation to create an Independent Commission Against Corruption in this new parliament. As some PNG commentators have pointed out, the prime minister had ample opportunity to do this in the last five years but didn't.

The Post Courier office in Konedobu, Port Moresby.

The Post Courier office in Konedobu, Port Moresby. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Transparency International this week paid for newspaper advertisements urging Mr O'Neill to make good on his promise for the Manumanu inquiry, and to stand Mr Duma down again. The editor of the Post Courier, Todagia Kelola initially knocked back Transparency's submitted ad, because he said it read as if Mr Duma had been found guilty, when that was not the case.

"They amended it and it ran in today's paper on page 6," said Mr Kelola on Thursday.

"The advert stated 'ensure that the Manumanu land deal is fully investigated, keep your promise PM and follow the leadership code'. The entire ad ran except for 'revoke Duma until Manumanu land deal is fully investigated'. I took it off to protect the paper."

Lawrence Stephens indicated that Transparency wasn't much bothered about the newspaper matter. But he recognised that these days PNG media and social media practitioners increasingly found themselves under pressure as soon as they drew attention to anything hinting at dishonesty in public office.

"I know one blogger for example who was working for an accounting firm. The accounting firm got the word from the government that if that particular blogger kept blogging, then that particular accounting firm would no longer be getting government contracts," said Mr Stephens.

These are just some of the many ways that efforts to expose corruption disappear down the black hole.