Obituary: Mekere Morauta, PNG's great reformist

1:38 pm on 21 December 2020

Papua New Guinea is mourning the loss of former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta, a reformist who helped save the country from the brink of collapse at the turn of the century.

His time as prime minister was short, serving from 1999 to 2002, but his legacy in laying foundations for national development is deep and lasting.

Sir Mekere Morauta

Sir Mekere Morauta Photo: Post Courier

Born in 1946 in Kukipi Village of Gulf Province in PNG's southern region, Mekere Morauta went on to be the University of PNG's first economics graduate.

By the time he became MP for Moresby North-West in 1997, he had already filled major roles in the public service.

Morauta was Secretary for Finance when PNG gained independence in 1975, then head of the PNG Banking Corporation, and later governor of the central bank, before a stint as a successful businessman.

Within two years of entering parliament he became prime minister at a time when government institutions were on their knees, hollowed out by poor governance and misuse of finances, while PNG's currency, the Kina, was in freefall.

"He came in and instituted a series of reforms that changed the face of Papua New Guinea," said Mark Davis, long-time friend and media adviser of Morauta.

State institutions were strengthened, while reforms were introduced in the financial sector, particularly in banking and the superannuation sector, as well as to the operational structure of the public service.

Davis said Morauta's international renown helped PNG to draw on the help of friendly governments and multi-lateral institutions for his country.

Morauta's reform of PNG's superannuation funds addressed a typical set of problems, according to Nasfund CEO Ian Tarutia.

"If he hadn't intervened at the time, I think the Funds that were laden with problems with deficiencies, lack of governance, strong political interference, would have been in a different state today.

"The superannuation industry owes him a lot," Tarutia said, adding that today the industry is strong, with members and contributors benefitting significantly from the governance reforms.

Some of Morauta's reforms were unpopular or caused serious pushback, such as the planned retrenchment of PNG's military and the privatisation of State Owned Enterprises as recommended by the likes of the World Bank and the IMF.

But fervent protests against the privatisation drive reached a tragic crescendo in 2001 when three students were shot dead by police at a mobilisation in Port Moresby.

Morauta, who had lost his own son shortly after coming to power, was able to connect with the parents and show great compassion on a level that said much about him as a human.

Sir Mekere Morauta came out of retirement to stand successfully for the Moresby Northwest seat in parliament in 2017.

Sir Mekere Morauta came out of retirement to stand successfully for the Moresby Northwest seat in parliament in 2017. Photo: Loop PNG

Morauta lost control of government to Michael Somare following the 2002 election, but the economic reforms he introduced laid the foundation for economic growth that was enjoyed by the latter's government through the 2000s.

As well, his constitutional reforms stabilised PNG's notoriously fluid national political system, enabling the Somare government to hold power for an unprecedented nine-year run, followed by seven and a half years under Peter O'Neill.

Following O'Neill's election as prime minister in 2011, Morauta served as Minister for State Enterprises, continuing to seek to reform State Owned Enterprises.

It was to his frustration that some of the reforms Morauta had suggested when leading government, such as creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund to responsibly manage revenue from resource extraction projects in PNG, have still not materialised.

After bowing out of parliament in 2012, Morauta remained a vocal advocate of fiscal prudence and transparency in governance, repeatedly warning about the systemic and systematic corruption holding PNG back.

He emerged as a trenchant critic of O'Neill, against whom he squared off in a protracted legal clash over the assets of the PNG Sustainable Development Program, of which Morauta was the chairman.

The SDP was created when Morauta was prime minister as a compromise settlement over the destruction caused by the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in Western Province.

Morauta fought hard through international arbitration to protect the SDP's lucrative trust established to fund community development in PNG for decades after the mine's eventual closure.

"He always put the nation ahead of his own interests," Davis said.

Morauta was held in the highest regard across the region, and was appointed as the eminent person to lead a major review of the Pacific Islands Forum's benchmark Pacific Plan in 2013.

He had many friends around the Pacific who would be treated to fishing trips on Morauta's boat when visiting Morauta in Port Moresby.

The former prime minister was an avid sports fisherman, who would fish off the capital's waters in his cruiser, and if people were lucky enough, cook them delicious traditional crab and fried fish dishes.

PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta at 2001 signing of Bougainville Peace Agreement in Arawa

PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta at 2001 signing of Bougainville Peace Agreement in Arawa Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

It was Morauta's opposition to O'Neill's leadership that convinced him to come out of retirement and stand for parliament again in 2017.

Having re-entered parliament, Morauta was part of the rising tide of MPs that eventually brought an end to O'Neill's rule in 2019, when the incumbent, James Marape, was elected as prime minister.

According to Davis, right up until the day he fell sick earlier this year, Sir Mekere was contributing policy advice to the Marape government.

The policy visionary whose reforms had an enduring influence on national development died at the weekend in Brisbane, aged 74.

Sir Mekere Morauta is survived by his wife, Lady Roslyn and their son James.